Tag Archives: Harper Lee

Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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The Arc of the Story

Read any popular novel and you are likely to find similarities in story structure. The classic story arc adheres to this structure:

  • The main character is introduced in her normal world. The author describes the character’s attributes, goals, needs and dreams.
  • The story takes shape through a disruptive event or inciting incident that stands in the way of the character achieving her dream or goal.
  • This leads to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character, growing more serious in nature. This is referred to as “rising action.”
  • Tension is a key element in moving a story along. The tension will rise and fall in intensity as the story progresses.
  • The main character faces a series of increasingly difficult choices as the tension builds.
  • The story’s climax is the point where the main character faces her most serious challenge.
  • The final elements are the denouement and resolution, where the main character meets her challenges, overcomes her fears and obstacles, and achieves her goal.

There are numerous variations on this arc. The thing to keep in mind is that, whatever structure you choose, the story must move the character forward. The character must emerge as a transformed or changed individual. She must discover some truths about herself and act on them. Otherwise, why bother?

Let’s look at the story arc of a classic novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is about to enter the first grade when the story begins. She is a true innocent who thirsts for knowledge. She will discover some hard truths during this story. At first the tension level is low. Scout teams with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, to engage in some harmless pranks. They make several futile attempts to draw out Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor, with comical results.

The story takes a serious turn when a judge assigns Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, to defend a black man who is accused of raping a young white woman in Alabama during the early years of the Great Depression. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and Scout unwittingly deters
an angry mob that descends upon Atticus Finch as he sits outside the cell where Tom Robinson is held. The children later slip into the courthouse to witness Tom Robinson’s trial and their father’s heroic, but unsuccessful, defense of him. The story culminates in a shocking incident resulting in the death of Bob Ewell and the end of the children’s innocence forever.

The arc of the story described above is popular because it is a reliable and logical way to structure a story. However, it’s not the only way to tell a story. Let’s take a look at Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan breaks all the rules of story structure. There is no main character. There is no central story. The novel progresses as a series of short stories with different characters, some of whom show up in later sections of the book. The glue that holds it together is the characters’ interest and involvement in rock and roll music. The novel explores the ideals of rock and roll music (and youth itself) and how the passage of time erodes the passion and dreams of youth. The novel divided critics, but it was such a brilliant piece of writing that it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

As Egan’s novel proves, there are no rules for story structure. What counts is to choose a structure that not only you as a writer can work with, but one that engages the reader.

What story structure works best for you?

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