Sunday, 30 March 2008

Novels and memoirs

I've been spending quite a lot of time recently writing. Not to give the game away (I'm not superstitious about these things, but I don't want to hex what I'm doing), I'm currently in the middle of a first draft of a novel. I've been writing it since September, having been thinking about it for years.

What's surprised me about the process of novel writing is how different it is from writing a memoir. It's a much more structured process, in some ways. This may sound rather basic, but suddenly I've noticed that PLOT seems to matter. I've never thought much about PLOT before - a lot of my short stories are so short that the PLOT amounts to one small thing happening to one small character in one small place. The thing with a novel is that - in order for it to last 70,000 words - you need more than one thing to happen. You need a string of things to happen, one after the other. This is a new experience for me, writing events in order, cause, effect, cause, effect, etc.

In terms of the memoir, the structure was very different - things didn't happen in such a linear way. I had to find different ways to structure the memoir, threading together little quantums of story - little anecdotes - into complete, homogenous chapters. The "story" here was closer to essay-writing - each chapter was a kind of essay, in a very loose sense. So it was possible to connect together events which were distant in time; it was possible to jump from present to past to distant past to near-past, all within a few pages. Flow was, of course, of crucial importance, but the flow wasn't that of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened." The flow was in the writing, in the connecting up and threading together of distant events and anecdotes in terms of themes and shared images.

A novel, it turns out, is very different. You talk to and read all of these critics who say that PLOT is passe, that nineteenth-century novelists packed too much PLOT in their Wuthering-Middlemarch-Bleak-Eyres, but now novelists "know better" and PLOT isn't that much of a concern. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, writers are interested in something else.

Quite what that something else consists of is beyond me. With the possible exception of Wuthering Heights, I've never really understood the criticism of nineteenth-century novels as having "too much PLOT." It always sounds a bit like a jealous person criticising someone else for having "too much money." And, on trying to write my own novel, I'm now finding quite how crucial PLOT is. Things have to happen in a novel, and they have to matter to the people they happen to. And then other things have to happen after those first things. And then more things have to happen, and so on. There's no way round it, no way of avoiding it - or at least, no way I can see.

Even when novels pretend to be experimental and "non-linear," this normally just translates as "they've got some flashbacks in them" or "you know how it ends from the start" or something like that. None of this actually subverts the centrality of PLOT to the novel - and none of it really undermines the basic linearity of the novel form. A novel consists of a linear plot, by and large, even where that linearity is slightly confused or complicated by the narrative jumping backwards and forwards in time. "Backwards and forwards" - those very words imply a kind of linearity.

So, to my surprise, writing a novel is a linear process in which I have to learn to think in a linear way - which is a very different way of thinking and writing to the memoir. I am, for once, writing forwards rather than sideways, diagonally, or in complex hexagonal shapes.

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