Monday, 28 February 2011

The Bus Stop Test

Recently I've been doing a bit of travelling by public transport. It's been great - a chance to settle down with a book. However, there is always the niggling residual fear that I'll be so sucked into the fictional world that I miss the stop in the real one. It hasn't yet happened, partly because my book at the moment has been the magisterial Last Night in Twisted River by John Irvine.

Weighing at nearly 700 pages it was always going to be a long read, but I'm a reasonably fast reader - a book a week is standard, so I didn't expect Last Night in Twisted River to go beyond a couple of weeks. It's been over a month, and I've only just finished. Phew.

There are two main reasons why it has taken so long. Firstly, I kept dropping off to sleep. Secondly, even when reading I was easily distracted by what was going on around me. I was trying to pin-point why, exactly, I was making such heavy work of reading the book - it's undoubtedly well written, the sentences flow, the images are arresting, the characters distinct people, yes, there's flashback and I was often confused as to when exactly we were which meant going over some pages a second time but that wouldn't entirely explain my distraction - and then it struck me: it was the omniscient authorial voice.

At the end of the book John Irvine talks about the writing process (the novel is about a writer who uses autobiography for his writing) and says that the omniscient authorial voice is out of fashion, but he likes the style and is going to carry on using it. Fair enough.

But to me, that voice distanced me from the characters. I never truly engaged with them and could have put the book down without reading to the end almost every moment. There were only about 20 pages when I was in danger of missing the bus stop and, in a book of nearly 700 pages, that seems a poor ratio. I persisted with reading because I usually do read to the end regardless, because a friend had rated the novel and because John Irvine is a great author.

It may be that intimacy with characters is fashionable and fashions can, and do, change. You can choose to write in whatever style you wish, and if that's with the magisterial voice common in the C19th then fine. There are readers who love that style. But, you should also be aware that it's a distancing voice and the current fashion is for something more intimate. That way, hopefully, you'll pass my bus stop test.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

John Irving of course rewrote Until I Find You requesting it back from his publisher so he could change from first to third person. I, on the other hand, rewrote my last novel changing it from third to first. The reason Irving had opted for a first person narrative in the first place was because, he said ''I think the answer is that I so identified with Jack Burns, so much of my emotional and psychological baggage was into Jack Burns, and I couldn't disassociate myself from it,” and he felt he needed to distance himself from the character. I, on the other hand, needed to get inside my character, to see her work things out and the only way to do that was have her do the talking. I couldn’t bring myself to writing in the present tense though; I find that hard to sustain.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Jim - I couldn't remember which John Irvine novel it was that he went from first to third. I don't like writing in present tense either. Makes me feel jittery, like I'm mainlining espresso.

womagwriter said...

Jim, third person can be just as close as first person, though. Take Wolf Hall as an example of very close third person.

I agree, Sarah - I also need to feel close to the characters to really relate to them and to make the book unputdownable.

I'm all right on buses. Can't read on any kind of road transport or I feel sick. It's trains that do it for me, and long train journeys with a good book are a little piece of luxury - an excuse to do nothing but read.

Sarah Duncan said...

Train journeys are bliss if you've got a good book and a seat in the quiet carriage. I can write on trains too, so long as no one is sitting next to me - I get self conscious that they might be reading what I'm writing.