Five Master Novelists on Writing Fiction
When you start learning from the masters you find a lot of common ground. These five writers have won virtually every major prize for literature, including a Nobel and the Booker. Perhaps even more interesting is that they are not obscure. They have written major bestsellers that got there by simply being great storytelling.
“Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.”
Ishiguro is a Nobel Laureate and author of many novels including The Remains of the Day and others that have been made into highly regarded feature films. He does not fit into any one genre with his work ranging from fantasy to human drama and science fiction dystopia.
Writing what you know can be extremely limiting. First novels often have a autobiographical element but that is not sustainable for most writers trying to build a body of work. If you read through an author’s work in chronological order, you can see how they grow out into their own voice through innovation rather than repetition.
“I usually start with very little when I begin writing a novel, perhaps one image: a patient in a bed talking to a nurse, perhaps. I don’t know who the patient is; I don’t know who the nurse is; or a boy walking across a field eating a stalk of celery — something as simple as that. Then I have a time period, and I have this image, and that’s how my books begin.”
Ondaatje’s stories have a dreamlike quality, including the darkness and uncertainty that we find in dreams. His classic The English Patient is the ultimate example of a ‘pantser’ writing style where he starts with the nurse, the bandaged man, and the ending days of WWII and riffs from there. Despite writing from the seat of his pants, rather than outlining and plotting, the book is intricately plotted with many story layers beautifully intertwined.
“The only way to become a writer is to sit still and write. All writing counts, it’s cumulative. I became a professional by taking any assignment I could get, applying fervent devotion even if the subject was algae production in sewage plants. It’s good practice, to take an uninspiring subject and try to make it sing on the page.”
This is a great message for the writers here. We learn to write by writing. Period. I have become a far better writer by writing under the gun, sometimes for mundane things like advertising and how-to books. I learned about deadlines, commitments, the joy of getting paid, and how to structure a longer work.
Despite being a trained scientist, or more likely because of it, Kingsolver is intrigued by the underlying mystery of life. She weaves in climate change and other serious subjects without ever getting preachy or shrill. Instead she puts individuals into situations related to change and shows us the personal experience of it.
“My normal idea on stories is to try to know as little as possible at every step, because then you’re open to the actual energy that’s coming off the page. If you want the story to go left, but it really wants to go right, you’d better let it go right.”
Saunders, until 2016, was known as a short story writer. His stories are strange, dark, and humorous. But his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, breaks every convention imaginable with its story of a cemetery full of ghosts, basically lost souls, trying to help Lincoln’s young son get out of purgatory (the bardo, a Reference to the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and move on. It is beautiful, weird, and won the Booker prize.
He has recently written a great fiction writing guide, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it he dissects eight short stories from legendary Russian writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov. His teaching, and this is based on a course he teaches on short story writing, is humorous and filled with insights about what makes these simple stories so powerful.
“This is something that the novel does better than any other art form: reproducing the inner life and the inner experience of another person, particularly extreme forms of consciousness like grief, dreams, drunkenness, spiritual revelations, even insanity.”
Tartt (The Secret History, The Goldfinch) is a slow and deliberative writer who has a small but important body of work. These two books appeared well over twenty years apart. By my estimate, Ondaatje takes around seven years between novels. Some other writers, like the French detective novel writer Simonen, were extremely prolific, writing books in as few as thirty days.
The point is that while you may take a long time to get it done, you do have to call it at some point and move on. There is no perfect. Perfect, in my mind, is finished and out there in front of readers. Only then can you learn what works and what doesn’t.
Tartt’s quote addresses the notion that in fiction we share an inner life with the characters in a way that we cannot in real life. We have the ability to write from different points of view, to hear the inner voices that many do not share on the surface, but that may be the real drivers of their personality.
In my experience as a writer and a reader, I think this writer ‘superpower’ must be handled carefully, without drama or having this inner dialog dominate the character. In my second novel (unpublished) I examine a woman learning to rebuild her life after her husband’s suicide. This is done two ways. By writing in third person omniscient and observing both her outer life and the inner response she has and by giving two other characters the same point of view so we can see how she looks to friends who may not see her inner life at all. And how she reveals it through her actions and speech.
This was a balancing act. It finally was truly balanced by having a third section where her character years later intrudes into the story in own voice, giving the reader her perspective on this period of her life in the past. She breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. I did not see this coming at all, but came to love this woman’s voice and mind as I wrote it.
This is why I write.
I love learning from other artists. We have access to the inner thoughts of other creative people via the web. These process discussions are a great way to motivate yourself because they show us the uncertainty and creative struggles even the giants go through as artists.