I started writing poems when I was twelve. Messages to myself, which aided, in the end, with adolescence. I would never, I vowed, show a soul and no one asked about them because nobody knew.
At university I saw the scribbled comments of a teacher on a set of poems and felt a rush of hope. He didn’t understand what I wanted to say, he wrote, but they seemed to be ‘about something’.
I didn’t know, then, that the reader sits strapped in and the ‘something you want to say’ is their experience. That writers open up doors inside so the reader may step in and find themselves there too.
I didn’t get this until I met the novelist, Jennifer Clement in Mexico who wrote stories like paintings. Every scene was a frame of colour, of life and I wanted to move inside her book, to live there indefinitely.
I thought it was art. All of it. I thought it spilled out like blood from a wound, that a writer was opening up their soul and that the gold of their literature came directly from the fabric of their cells.
A decade later I don’t think it works like this. I found this out when I started writing a book of my own and saw the blood spilling, the canvass spoiled. For writing is a construction, closer to science or engineering than a kind of formless art.
It has, I think, as much in common with flight as artistic expression.
An aircraft is built to do a job, just as the plot of a novel is (usually) planned to allow a story to be told. The runway allows the machine to gain momentum, like plot points propelling a story forward.
When the airplane reaches cruising height, the story has taken flight and the readers or passengers are there for the long haul. If the thing has been built right it will keep itself propelled until the end. The landing is of course, the ending and readers, like passengers want a good one.
There are functional, physical facts which keep a plane flying. After coming to a standstill with my own novel and reading a lot of writing guides, I discovered that there is a system too in the building of a novel. Points in the plot when certain things should happen, like the flaps of an airplane moving to allow or suppress lift.
The parts a novel needs to fly can be numbered and maintained, that following these rules doesn’t guarantee a brilliant piece of work, just as keeping a plane in good condition will not make for a perfect flight, but it helps get it off the ground.
And in the end, beyond the engineering, a great novel has the elegance of flight, that grace which makes the reader wonder: How did that just happen? Part science part serendipity, something has taken place, something has moved.
What do you think makes a great novel? Writers, what helps you structure? Please feel free to comment below.