Sometimes your brain gets in a right old muddle. Do you ever get that feeling? When everything you do seems like your walking through a sludgy river and you’re hardly moving at all. Well this past week I’ve been editing my second novel and that is how it has been – walking through sludge. It’s not been all bad. I’ve had a great time procrastinating watching back to back episodes of 24 on Love Film.com, and I’m getting exceptionally skilled at making a pot of coffee in less than three minutes. I haven’t timed myself or anything. No, no…
Anyhoo, twas during one of my more productive days – namely one where I was writing my column and not editing my book – that I wandered into Stroud library on my way home. There upon I stumbled upon (just picked up) a book that, quite frankly, has cleared my waters, as it were, to the point where I can finally see my boots (stay with me). The book is called Aspects of the Novel, and its author is the late, great E.M.Forster. The book is a transcript of a series of lectures he gave back in 1927 to Cambridge University about, as you may have guessed, the novel. In the lectures, he breaks down and analyses what it is that makes a great novel – and as a writer it is the best thing I have ever read. Forster was ahead of his time. Describing stories, plots, he is witty but grounded, informative yet inquisitive. Basically, he knows his stuff. There are six main areas he covers:
- The Story
- People (two lectures)
- The Plot
- Pattern and Rhythm
Right now, I’m immersed in The Plot lecture, but I have learnt so much. Forster’s lectures have given me my confidence back a little – and if I’m honest with you, I’ve been lacking this for the last few weeks. Take the story. Forster says the novel must tell a story. We all know this, you may think. And you’d be right. But then he goes on to talk about the story aspect of a novel. He says the story is essential, without which, novels cannot exist. It’s like a huge dose of reminders all in one go. Reminders like: story is different to plot. Story is: ‘The wife died and then the husband died.’ Whereas Plot is: ‘The wife died and then the husband died of grief.’ See? Also, in a story, the reader says, ‘and then?’; in a plot the reader says, ‘why?’. Handy reminder, right? It’s things like this I already knew, but, when clouded by an edit of a book I am close to, they are aspects I sometimes forget. And forget them at my peril, because without them, basically, my novel would suck. Not E.M Forster’s words, but I think he would wholeheartedly agree.
His ‘People’ lecture is another aspect that has helped. Forster talks about round characters and flat characters. Dickens used flat characters. Flats are one that are, effectively, like a forest stream, predictable. Stereotypical, if you will. Yet rounded characters – as used by Jane Austen – like the sea, surprise us. They do unexpected acts, thoughts. This in particular was an eye opener to me. Forster discusses having both types in a novel. The reason Dickens uses just flat characters is because he bounces the reader from one aspect to the next so you do not mind the shiftings in viewpoint, the shape of the characters. So if you’re as good as Dickens, go for it, flat your characters right out. But which ever way you roll, the most important point is this: make your characters convincing.
Well now, get me and my pep talk on novel-writing. There is so much more Forster dishes out that I could talk about but I don’t want to drone on so I will sush. What I will say is that if you are writing a novel, then get your hands on his book. Mine is only a library copy, so the important points I would like to pencil I have had to instead post-it note. The book now resembles a ticker-tape parade. I shall be buying my own copy very soon.
So, that’s been my week. I am now gradually walking faster through the sludge and at some point hope to make it to clear water (how far can I push this analogy?) Editing a book is great and rubbish all in one go. But at least now I have Forster on my side. Him and more episodes of 24. May your waters be clear….
**Out tomorrow “Thursday Thoughts” where I post my latest Gazette newspaper column to my blog. This week it’s all about the endangered school playing field…**