Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

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Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the formidable choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She treated me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher who, though an expert, was more drill sergeant than dove.

What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made  me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold,  ‘the mirror up to nature’.* 

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life thinking she was despised by the One who moves the tides.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’  At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk,  Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary:  ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín. 

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours.  When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo  and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here 

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Writing and resilience: how can we keep creating (and enjoy it)?

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A pulse of migrating birds is sewing the sky. The day is fresh and clear, trees moving conversationally. I know I should be writing but there are other things to do. Besides, I’m stuck. The last chapter I wrote left no way of moving forward. Can’t I just clean the oven?

For a seated activity, writing carries a lot of challenges. First off there is not writing.

It’s all well and good to say, ‘I’m not inspired, I’ll take a break for an hour or five,’ before you realise you have an imagination with nothing to tether itself to, crowds of words backed up in the brain like traffic on the Sultan Qaboos Road. And, as we know, the thing will not write itself.

But doing the writing is risky too.

You could offend a friend. Or reach for the truth and hit a cliché. Or the time you think up something so spot on, you even make yourself cry. Writing is a risk because it asks you to go inside and take a look around.

The perils of writing were far from my mind at a dance/exercise class I attended a few days ago. The music was loud and Latin, my companions Omani, Zanzibari women in their twenties, all plugged in to the often complicated moves.

But something was different this week. New faces? A different soundtrack? Actually a seven year old girl in the front row, following the routines along with the rest of us. She wore wraparound specs, sneakers she was clearly growing into and her face was a butterfly of unbridled joy. Undaunted by turning up to a class of adult women and joining in, the girl did more than follow the routines. She danced.

What made the class, for her, so simple? And how might it help with my writing challenges?

I could see the activity mattered more to her than the mirror of her peers. She was enjoying the sequences more than she feared any kind of ‘failure’ or embarrassment. Passion as artistic fuel becomes a pot of gold inside, where doing the thing itself is the ultimate reward.

The writer and entrepreneur Joanna Penn describes the early days of her writing as a time when she would frequently ‘self-censor.’ It’s easy to get caught up in worries about words which might offend, but what is lost when we remove the liveliness of our tone? Pairing down our writing to please an invisible critic is like trying to wear someone else’s clothes. I thought of the girl in the exercise class who moved so freely,  was so un-self-conscious. What if as adults we applied this attitude to our creative work?

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art he calls the unwillingness to engage with our own writing, Resistance. That feeling of ‘Do I have to?’ can be hard to overcome. Questions I ask myself when I’d suddenly rather be cleaning the oven:

  • What am I avoiding? Is it a difficult scene? Is there a skill I need to learn/information to research before I go back to it? Could I begin somewhere else?
  • How can I support my attention span when I find myself drifting onto Facebook or that holiday website? Rather than telling myself off (which will likely send my creativity into a corner), could I work with the Internet?

A trick that may sound strange but worked for me a few weeks back was: 10 minutes writing, 10 minutes online. Repeat ad infinitum. You’d be surprised how many words you’ll produce when time is limited. And how quickly 10 minutes writing becomes an hour once the idea has taken hold.

  • When I was working on Draft 1 of my novel I used to start the day by reading everything I had written so far before I continued. When your words have reached the thousands it can become quite time consuming so I stopped!

But these days I still look back at the work from the day before. This gets me into the world of the story.I become interested in the place. Care about what’s happening, the characters, their plans and before I know it, I want to add to it. It’s a kind of conscious seduction. The more we see a person, thing or place, the more invested we become. If I can get myself involved in the story’s world, I know the fire will ignite to light the fuel of my commitment.

‘How can I fall in love with what I’m doing?’ is probably the most important question I ask myself each day. It’s the easiest way to ensure I walk to my desk every morning, open the document and stay there till the work is done.

Writers how do you keep yourself writing regularly? Your comments, as always, are welcome below. 

‘Take your broken heart…’ What happens when tears fuel art

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The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:

‘What’s it about?’

So I say:

A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.

‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.

Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.

‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.

Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.

‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’

Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.

But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:

It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past. 

Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.

The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.

Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.

During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.

His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.

What did Bach do?

He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.

The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912

Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.

But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.

Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.

When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment  of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.

At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :

‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’

Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and it’s product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.

 

How are you nurturing your creative mind?

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Some months ago, after the holiday of Eid, my brother-in-law went away on a trip and my mother-in-law (who shares the building with him) stayed home. Omani culture likes to swathe ageing parents with visits and chat, and so my husband and I moved into her house for two nights.

I awoke on the first day feeling like it was a holiday. Sunlight poured through an unfamiliar curtain. The smells of morning were fresh paint, cleaning products, Eid desserts on a trolley.

A break from life’s routines.

People talk and write of ‘beginner’s mind,’. Something like this it felt. As though I had stepped out of habit and into a fresh reality to learn.

I don’t know what happens to brain cells when they are shown new places but it can feel, I think, like the opening of a parachute. The plodding walk of everyday takes flight, as though the mind has had to lift to learn what’s new and taken the whole self with it.

Beginner’s mind can be a tool for imagination.  Free from memory, there is the chance to test ideas, break rules, find untapped resource. So I have been asking myself how it might be used in the service of creativity:

  • go for a walk most days . But a walk with beginner’s mind awakened, as the M&S advert goes, is not just any walk. It’s headed somewhere new. With music, without sound, listening to the birds, taking a path up and off the normal track. Trying new things so the body and brain might enter a free space, to flick the switch which says experiment.
  • Travel can have the same effect. Finding new cafes, shops, spaces, meeting new people can also do the trick. Shaking the brain cells out of their collective habits. Sometimes really focusing on another person’s way of seeing the world can cultivate beginner’s mind for me. It too is a brand new place.
  • ‘Habit is the great deadener’ said Samuel Beckett. Certain routines are unavoidable, but I have found removing the ones which clutter the mind can create freedom. Habits which are relatively easy to quit and whose pay off I have found to be big in terms of mental space: Mindless phone/Twitter/Facebook scrolling, googling too much, saying Yes to things I don’t want to do. All of these can clog creative energy.
  • Taking photos brings in the here and now. A camera (or phone camera) can be a physical reminder to be present, to notice.
  • Trying new recipes has been for me one of the simplest ways to access beginner’s mind. The faith required to follow new instructions (or invent one’s own) can create tangible – often edible – results (!) and it’s a great break from writing.

We had barely driven for twenty minutes, stayed away 48 hours when I left my mother-in-law’s house with renewed purpose. Beginner’s mind is powerful, so open that ideas can’t help but wander in.

How do you nurture your mind to stay creative?

The treat of a broadsheet: how I became a fan and forgot about fiction

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Oman has a vibe so chilled, I sometimes have to ask myself if I’m awake or asleep. It’s strange because the media portrays the Middle East as a war zone (and of course some parts of it are) but this place is about as warlike as a flotation tank.

Driving home from the gym, I yearn to take a photo. In the time between 5 and 6.30 the sky turns yellow, then a deep red. At the time of day they call, in Arabic, Maghrib, the air stills, a sense of expectation hovers and then, very quickly, the sun is gone.

This said, like for all foreigners in another land, certain parts of living here are hard to swallow. These complaints are usually swapped, like wrapped boiled sweets, with a friend who feels the same. We confine our grumbles to a car journey and then invariably perk up.

In Muscat, it is easier, for example, to buy frankincense than an envelope.  Trying to send something to England last week I had, in the end, to put the letter in a jiffy bag. It was that or hijack a Hallmark Valentine’s card for it’s scarlet covering.

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As for anything bookish or or paper-based, forget it. The malls here sell sugar and abayas and scent. Sometimes they set up book fairs for kids beneath the shopping centre escalators and I want to simultaneously cheer and cry. The reading revolution in Oman will happen, I reckon, through its children, but not while the stalls are still screaming 1970.

So it was with surprise one day that I found my favourite weekend newspaper tucked away in an ex-pat part of town. It was still crisp, a familiar peachy-colour. There were only two copies which somehow made the drive worthwhile. I looked one way then the other, and grabbed it fast before Muscat’s two other FT fans could elbow me aside. I could barely wait to get it home.

I had been reading the FT weekend since I moved to London in my twenties. A glamorous friend leafing through it at my kitchen table, said: ‘If you like good writing, this is the thing.’ 

A weekend treat and ritual it became. Whatever troubled my working week could always be overcome with an FT on the horizon. Following the thread of every editorial, I bored my friends and family with its merits.

One particular column had grabbed my eyes. The columnist, Susie Boyt took every day normality and imbued it with intricate meaning. She wrote of cakes and show tunes and disappointment. She described the space between the way we’d like to be and who we really are.

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She had once upon a time written a book about Judy Garland where she revealed her lifelong love of the former child star. I realised then that I had become the fan of a fan. Like being at the end of a conga or an endless hall of mirrors. To invest such joy in a person you’ve never met holds a certain kind of light. So easy to admire a stranger, we see the best bits, of them, of ourselves, the soaring of their art.

Yesterday I found a slice of the FT Weekend from 2011 stuck into a scrapbook. The column was called ‘In the mood for medicocrity’. Susie Boyt wrote:

‘In a crisis, the second-rate has a great deal going for it. You need porridge, light grey clothes, repeats of comedy shows where you can say the lines along with the characters. When Jane Austen and the first blossom seem almost more visceral than you can take, caution is everything. People you quite like are possibly more use than people you are crazy about. When you need catharsis, reread Herzog, listen to Bach; but when it’s distraction that you want, something lower middle-brow (the back of a Cheerios box, even), can be comforting in the extreme. Read it slowly, memorise it even, but do try not to think too much, or you’ll be sunk.’

‘In the mood for medicocrity’ Susie Boyt, Financial Times, April 2/3 2011

Like the very best in literature, her column opened doors to places I thought that only I had seen. Reading her words each week, it became okay to not always feel okay. Her self deprecating one-liners snuck up on you until you couldn’t help but smile.

But when I got my copy home last week, and opened the Life and Arts section, the room went dark. For inside it said that Susie Boyt was packing up her FT pen. No longer would she grace the salmon pages. I would have to make do with her colleagues. Sure I liked their work. Of course I did. It just, well it wasn’t the same.

Fanhood is a fabulous thing. Projection of the most flattering kind. It’s easy to read the work of a person you have never met and think that you are truly privy to their life.

The same is true of a country you’ve only been to on holiday. ‘Live with someone to know them,’ my grandmother used to say. Before I moved to Oman, I visited for a week. Saw sunsets, moon-like mountains. I bought frankincense and bottles of Oud. We visited a village with a waterfall where a tree-frog yelped like a dog.

I didn’t try to buy an envelope.

I didn’t know that there are campaigns to encourage Omani children to read for fun, as well as at school. That it may take decades but slowly, this country is returning to its bookish roots.

I thought imagination was so close to truth that it might just make a steady substitute. But there’s nothing like the dust of life . No replacement for the grit and grind of everyday, its comforting refrain.

And heroes are sometimes best left where you saw them last, swerving on the football field, pirouetting on a stage. Framed by a column that in six years of weekly delight may well have inspired you to start to write.

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Susie Boyt’s next novel: Love & Fame will come out in the autumn.

Story-writing, science and the grace of flight

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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.