08 November 2006

Notes on Writing a Novel - Essay by Elizabeth Bowen

I don't think you'll be able to access the essay I originally hot linked to narrative. They're removing the hot link.

The following were (obviously) comments concerning the now inaccessible essay.

What do you inventive novelists think of this essay, with its LAWS about novel writing? Pro's & con's?


Debra Di Blasi said...

Ah, yes, the fascism of literary guidelines! (I know you plugged this in to get a rise out of folks like me. -grin-)

There's no one way to write a novel any more than there's one species of tree in the world. Those who write organically will naturally-select their writing according to whatever emotional, intellectual, cultural and physical environment whence they hail.

Having just yesterday given a lecture to students regarding their role as readers in the 21st century -- of literature, advertising, news & internet media, and various other propaganda -- it's important to re-emphasize the actively creative role of the reader in literature, that a reader who is unaware of how s/he's reading what s/he's reading is really just watching language TV. Effective reading takes as much practice as effective writing. And a reader who follows guidelines such as Bowen's will soon enough be goose-stepping along with all the other "ingelligent design" adherents.

Besides, Elizabeth Bowen is quite dead.


Carol Novack said...

Aha, Deb. You got me! Though maybe not every single thing about this essay should be dismissed. I'd love to hear what Federman would say about Bowen's pronouncements concerning "relevance." Ha. And here I was thinking that "digression" is more important than plot, and plot should be going around in circles, squares, rhomboids, and triangles (etc.), in harmony and counter-harmony with voices of the author.

So much talk of "truth" when our lives rarely offer resolutions other than death (not to mention epiphanies).

But this is the kind of essay most writers will cherish as a guide to novel writing.

Do we have our own anti-guides? If not, we should!

the real Jirí Cêch said...

My guidelines (recently revised):

1. Provoke.
2. And then die.
3. Without regrets.
4. With opiates flooding your bloodstream.

(One might intelligently argue that writing guidelines are indeed provocative, ano?)


Jirí Cêch

Lance Olsen said...

At the risk of taking up a minority flag, I'm a little suspicious of those writers who advocate somehow doing away with the "laws" of fiction-writing.

Or, rather, I want to ask them: what would a piece of fiction look like that abided by no "laws"?

I've never seen one, but I'm guessing it would be unreadable, uninterpretable, and pretty boring in a hunchbacked, misshapen sort of way.

In other words, isn't it more appropriate and helpful to talk about "conventions" rather than "laws," and to place the former on a continuum rather than in a fairly facile either/or scale?

Ted Pelton said...

Conventions, yes, like the provisions in the Bill of Rights, should be living, reinterpretable, subject to amendment.

In the Land of Art, there are Outlaws, but this is not punishable by hanging, firing squad, etc.

Games to play with the dead: One of my favorite is Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Prop up the dead person as if s/he were any other player, with tail affixed to hand. Then, as if it is corpse's "turn," release. Watch corpse pitch forward with a weight and abandon that cannot be approached by the living. You won't be able to stop laughing. May require extensive clean-up, but oh is it worth it, and worth trotting out all those old, stupid things they used to say.

Carol Novack said...

Yo Lance. I used the word "LAWS" because of the words Bowen employs consistently: e.g., in particular, MUST & SHOULD & MUST NOT & SHOULD NOT. Whack whack, you naughty child! Get thee to your room without fish.

I'd risk losing one or even three of the hairs on my left eyebrow to wager that most instructors in MFA programs and courses offered by Gotham, et al., would never use the word "conventions" How unconventional of you to do so!

As I said, not everything about Bowen's essay should be dismissed. There are useful guidelines, emphasis on GUIDElines. Obviously, eg, it's generally preferable to show rather than tell, but I, personally, interpret that "guide" to mean: to show by means of strong, visceral, surprising, and/or evocative images. Guidelines are like roads; who knows what's going to happen when one deviates from a road? (sorry -- trite metaphor). What adventure lies in store, like a ravenous homo-carnivore?

So you know I'm leading a workshop and using Rebel Yell as a guide. You offer many suggestions, but I don't think you ever say MUST or SHOULD. One of my "students" told me that she'd been told by another instructor NEVER to alter POV in the same piece, when I asked the students to write a narrative from more than one POV. Beginning writers are being taught, like school children, that there are set, rigid rules/laws that should never be broken. I think that's the seminal point. Laws are the convention.

marc lowe said...


These "rules" or "laws" or whatever are so ridiculously catholic as to make a mockery of themselves. Sure, there are certain intrinsic rules, unspoken rules, that govern the art of writing, but to lay such limitations as these upon the hapless green writer-artiste (*cough*) from the get-go is to strangle his/her creativity. "Ideas only permissible where they provide a key to the character who expresses them"? Tell that to a Borges, or a Beckett, or a Bernhard. This is simply poppycock, and we all know it.

I'm all for Oulipian constraints and other such techniques when applied in a manner that challenges the seasoned (or, in some cases, seasonal) writer who has risen to the task, but it is difficult for me to imagine that anyone would actually take this list of DO NOTS with more than a pinch of basalt.


Joe Amato said...

Like Debra, I always get antsy whenever anyone starts posting "rules." But reading through Bowen's piece, which I enjoyed at any rate (thanks Carol), it occurred to me that she could be understood today as issuing "marketplace" rules. And while the case may be that nobody here wants to so stipulate when it comes to the novel, having spent the last week or so in the midst of substantial screenplay revisions -- revising, that is, to suit the (conventional) screenplay marketplace/biz -- it occurred to me that Bowen's piece might prove useful pedagogically, in a classroom filled with budding screenwriters.

I can't be more specific at this point b/c I'm too swamped. But this was my immediate sense reading through, and I'm going to continue to ponder this.



Lance Olsen said...

I can imagine the birth of a great workshop discussion, Joe, by setting Bowen's piece next to, say, Brian Kitley's introduction to his creative-writing textbook, 3 AM Epiphany, in which he argues for a much less middle-of-the-road sense of what fiction might be, and inviting conversation.

As my above comment suggests, I also respond to your relativization of the very notion of "rules," or, I think closer to the point, "conventions."

At the risk of repeating myself, I can't get my mind around a text that doesn't use conventions. What on earth would it look like? Borges, Beckett, and Bernhard—to use by way of example the three authors you cite, Marc—all use stringent conventions, simply not mainstream ones.

In fact, for a text to function as a text at all, it seems to me some baseline sense of convention must be at play (how language works, what a sentence does, how words mean, what a comma does, etc.).

marc lowe said...


At the risk of repeating myself, I can't get my mind around a text that doesn't use conventions.

Although I'm sure that your comments here weren't necessarily aimed at my earlier statement[s], let me just clarify: I wasn't meaning to suggest that one ought to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, or that it was even possible to do so. As Harry Mathews once said (and I love this quote): "Syntax and vocabulary are overwhelming constraints, the rules that run us. Language is using us to talk – we think we’re using the language, but language is doing the thinking..."

I do agree that the language/syntax we use to create whatever sort of narrative it is we're creating -- however "unconventional" it may appear on the surface -- must and does intrinsically contain its own logic; however, to say that "ideas are only permissible when..." struck my as quite limited and limiting. Personally, I almost never start from structure/form, not even when writing longer, more "ambitious" pieces -- it nearly always follows from the language/context that springs forth from the subconscious. As mystical as this may sound, for me it generally isn't until after the process has got itself well underway that the "conventions" to which a given piece will (of necessity) follow reveal themselves to their author. "Ah, so here's the X trope resurfacing again! I hadn't realized that this was where it was going." Etcetera.

As far as "how the language works," doesn't this go back to Barthes and the post-structuralist questioning of what signifiers actually signify when we use them in different ways and in different contexts. (Am I misreading? If so, apologies...) Not everyone who reads Beckett, for instance, is likely to interpret his "message" the same way, despite whatever "conventions" he is or isn't employing to say something (or, more often with Beckett, to say nothing, repeatedly and forcefully, so that the reader cannot ignore the implied absence of what is or isn't being said or unsaid, and in so many ways...!).

Thanks for furthering the discussion. Things are never either/or, of course, and no doubt there is plenty of useful (i.e. practical) advice in the above guidelines if one is writing for a particular audience/market. I just found the list, at first glance, to be quite a bland way to teach so-called creative writing. It used to be "Write what you know"; now it's "Write from outside [one's] own nationality." (I guess memoir is considered strictly "non-fiction," so it doesn't count?) At any rate, I prefer the way you put it in RY: Try writing what you don't know!


Debra Di Blasi said...

Is this a debate in semantics? I read "conventions" as related to "conventional," as in "conforming," as in what Borge, Bernhard, Beckett did/do not. Of course there are grammatical and linguistic conventions that one must (edict!) know if one wishes to break them. That's why my experimental writing course begins with a section on literary conventions.

But the guidelines referred to by Carol are about stylistic edicts. Marc uses, aptly, the term "constraints." I use "parameters." And anyone who's written with constraints or parameters will tell you that they provide an unexpected amount of freedom from conventions, allow or force choices you'd otherwise neglect. But again, constraints have less to do with apples than oranges -- apples being grammar, etc.; oranges being characters, plot, ad naseam.

And yes, Joe: Screenwriting is very structured, both in form and content: one page = one minute of film, story arc, e.g. Yet... Thank god for exceptions like Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Makovich"), who writes more like an innovative fiction writer than a "conventional" Hollywood screenwriter. Like in the "conventional" publi$hing indu$try, decision-makers in Hollywood must toe the [bottom] line. And, frankly, I've met some of those folk[ers]: They're not very educated, certainly not in the art form(s). I recall the head of Development at Columbia Pictures giving his little lecture at one of the film festivals: "I'm only interested in car chases and big explosions." His resumé? He was a stock broker in New York who decided he wanted to be in Hollywood. So he joined Columbia Pictures as an accountant. When the head of development quit (or was fired?), he applied for the job and got it. Thus: A stock broker in charge of Columbia's production list.

Even big-time lit editors now claim that, increasingly, the publishing industry people with the most power to say yea or nay are the marketing directors and the sales reps.

Oh, um... What were we talking about?

Right: "conventions." Perhaps the dis-ease is really a lack of imagination, a lack of foresight on the part of decision-makers. Rebel-director Spike Jonze had the imagination and insight to pick up Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich." (Note: Jonze is directing "Where The Wild Things Are," cowritten by Dave Eggers.) It's also a lack of desire to get canned if the decision you make does not produce a big $net$ for the company.

What I find important, and interesting, is that the more you learn about the conventions of language and form and music, the many more possibilities there are for you to veer from those conventions -- or adhere to some and toss away others. Knowledge is literary power, too.

Carol Novack said...

Posting on behalf of I'm Goddess Darthaletta: "I'm wondering what, if anything, the provocative and handsome avant-guardist Jiri Cech has to add to this discussion. Perhaps he'd like to advise us of the relevance (if any) of Czech conventions to the evolution and devolution of antepostmodernism, postmodernism, postpostmodernism and posthastemodernism, focusing perhaps on the effects of the ascendency and descendency of totalitarian forces in Czechaslovia, should he believe that governing ideologies and their possible impact on artistic freedom are remotely pertinent to any point raised by the bloggers heretofore herein (of course and indeed). Enquiring minds want to know."

the real Jirí Cêch said...

The only thing you need to know about me is that some (ok, many) people think I'm an asshole, including my manager. My pre-apocalyptic writing speaks/mumbles for itself.

Jirí Cêch, stoned in of his Czech mind

Joe Amato said...

Along the lines of what we're discussing here, Kass just alerted me to Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the 16 Oct. New Yorker, "The Formula," which poses the question, "What if you built a machine to predict hit movies?"

Interesting, and maybe a wee bit disturbing. See