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In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.
Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.
Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.
Upstate reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).
It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough. When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.
May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:
Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.
For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).
Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.
Make things happen.
There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.
Show it to friends who know about writing.
You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.
Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.
Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.
Encourage your editor to challenge you.
For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.
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