The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Monday, November 15, 2010

NaNoWriMo Tip #13: A Novel?

A couple of posts ago, I took a little exception at the definition of a novel that's used in NaNoWriMo--and everywhere else--as being "50,000 words." Of course a novel is indeed 50,000 words, at a minimum...but 50,000 words aren't necessarily a novel. However, I know that if I were to've offered a counter definition of what a novel is, I probably would've gone straight to those things we all accept as being true about them without much thinking: they include a protagonist with an arc; they're delivered through narration, which is to say, through a voice and particular POV which allow us to understand what the protagonist wants and who he is; they build meaning for a reader by showing the protagonist come into conflict, and into contact with others; they're made up of scenes and chapters; and so on.

But I'd be remiss if I said a novel always had to follow these, or any other, proscriptive guidelines. I do think a novel is ultimately about achieving a particular effect on a reader, and traditional narrative forms can produce that effect very well, but depending on the effect you want to achieve, there are many approaches that can get you there. Take the epistolary form, for instance, where the novel is made up not just of chapters or scenes (or even paragraphs) but of documents of all kind: letters, usually, but also whatever else helps you tell the story, including newspaper clippings, interviews, surveys, memos, and even, in the case of Chris Bachelder's wonderful novel U.S.!, book reviews or transcripts from a 1-800 tip line. There's also the novel-in-stories, which is what it sounds like: connected short stories which form a larger, complete story arc. There's even the "erased" novel, creating a new work from reworking (partly redacting) an existing book--which Jonathan Saffron Foer has just done in Tree of Codes. (I'm going to hold off what I think of such an experiment until I actually read it.)

But occasionally you'll see a novel that's in a category of its own--or maybe that's creating a new category into which only it fits--such as Padgett Powell's remarkable The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, told entirely in questions. What's cool about the book, in addition to the fact that it's line-by-line gorgeous, is the degree to which Powell ends up forming many of those elements--notably charcater arc and theme--we'd expect a novel to have, though the book gets there in (to put it mildly) unorthodox ways. I taught it recently, and the question of whether it's really a novel--even the question what is a novel, anyway?--had students passionate and loud and engaged and occasionally enraged...great for a discussion that took place at 9:30 in the morning.

Regardless of how we answer that big question, the one posed right on the title page, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? serves as an excellent reminder that successful fiction ultimately comes down to what you can get away with.

Check out Powell's reading from his recent visit to Miami of Ohio, where I teach:

PS--The video comes to you courtesy of Oxford Magazine, the literary journal of Miami of Ohio, operated by graduate students in MU's creative writing program. Like them on Facebook and check out the blog and the journal to see what good work they're doing. The kids are alright.

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