Maybe you like to read. Maybe you reward yourself occasionally with a good book. Let’s talk about novels. Maybe you’ve marveled over a favorite, its language, ideas, and plot coming together to catch you up and turn the fictitious strangers that walk through its pages into your dear friends.
For me, that novel is Pride and Prejudice. My husband marvels, too, each time I finish a book I’m reading and wander to our bookcases to find something else to read before bed. More often than not, I’ll come back with an Austen novel. At that time of day, it has to be something comforting and also familiar, because I might get ten minutes in before I nod off. I have to be able to pick it up again, the following night, without re-reading. For me, Jane Austen fits the bill.
Maybe you’ve wondered at the apparent ease of the books you love. They seem so effortless, as if they fell fully formed out of Heaven. I used to believe it—that the story simply flowed into the writer’s mind, perfectly, seamlessly. I believed it until I was ruined, until I lost the simple joy of receiving, and being awash in, a story.
The first sign that something perilous was afoot came one day during an undergraduate literature class. I was an English major—the class, one on the work of Henry James. A lot of readers can’t abide James’s unending, convoluted sentences, but I took a number of classes on his work because the psychological depth of it astounded me. Reading the story of the wise, sad little girl in What Maisie Knew had turned me upside down. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to hit emotional chords like that.
So there I was, worshiping at the altar of brilliance—and my teacher and classmates were dissecting at length the fact that a female character had red hair. I sat there aghast, incredulous. “Really?” I thought. “They think a writer cares about the color of a character’s hair? They think that’s how writers work?”
What I didn’t know about writing!
Being an English major ruined me in the end, and the ruin was complete when I went to grad school in writing. Don’t misunderstand. I see myself as blessed to have studied literature and writing. I learned to analyze and make reasoned judgments. But there was a cost. I can’t read just to enjoy anymore. I’m always reading backwards and underneath, noticing what the writer is doing.
Now, I still believe a writer’s inspiration can fall fully formed from somewhere mysterious, but I’ve long since learned that writing is a difficult craft, in many ways haphazard. Writers do, in fact, care about details like the color of hair. They think symbolically, metaphorically, and they think about impact through presentation.
I spent my career in college classrooms, and when I’d talk to my students about structure and narrative arc, I’d use Pride and Prejudice as an example. Jane Austen, whose novel, when I’d first read it, had seemed so organic and natural, put the most climactic moment—Mr. Darcy’s proposal—into the middle of the book, with rising and falling action on either side. You wouldn’t know it, though, unless you looked for it. Writers are manipulators: how to create suspense, to surprise, to hint and reveal gradually. They try this and then that, the ideas coming piecemeal and half-formed.
Those who have followed my blog know that I spent twenty-two years, off and on, working on my novel, A Notion of Pelicans. The book, which was published in September, began as four long, undivided chapters, then quickly became four and a prologue. I eventually split the long chapters into sections, and, eighteen years in, short chapters from the perspective of a circling pelican were added. In the last months before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher, I learned from editors on a writers’ conference panel that readers won’t read a prologue anymore, so the prologue became the first chapter.
It wasn’t only the structure that changed. Somewhere in the middle of working on the book, I was hit by an idle thought that reshaped the characters. The thought sprang into my head as I was looking at the end of the first chapter/prologue, where the pelicans that inspired the founding of Pelican Church are described:
“ . . . They were part of her now, the pelicans—heavenly messengers, raspy of voice, with eyes that flitted and turned, inside and above her head.
Eyes that were free, and intense.
Eyes obliging, wild, joyful.”
Those last two lines, with their five adjectives, had been in the manuscript since the prologue was added. The day of the idle thought, it struck me that it would be an intriguing challenge to arc those adjectives to the five major female characters—to make each trait part of the paired character’s personality and story. During that revision, the characters’ personalities shifted, their stories moved in some new directions. The last piece of my self-assigned challenge was to link the adjectives to the characters in order, both the order of the adjectives in the text, and the order of the characters’ chapters.
Thus, in Lavinia’s chapter, as a result of her experience with the pelicans, she is “cut free from the earth and lifted up into a living web.” Rena notes in her chapter that her mother can get a bit intense, a trait she guesses she inherited. Lucy speaks of living under a code of obligation—and her friend Claire affirms that if you know Lucy, you’re always feeling there’s something you should be doing. Claire says about herself that she turned wild after losing her innocence on a bathroom floor, and she struggles with wildly out-of-control emotions. Toni discovers joy at the end of what she calls an unpredictable day. It surprises her.
My novel finally came into itself—the characters blossomed, the plotlines made new links—on the day that haphazard thought arose, and my pleasure in working on the book increased many-fold. It was like working a puzzle, a magical one where the pieces could suddenly change shape. I still don’t much care about the color of my characters’ hair. But I don’t doubt that in other books it matters, and I no longer see wondering about it as an abomination.