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Learning from Kate Walbert

July 15, 2010

Six months into writing my novel, it’s impossible to say what is and isn’t working in a global way. I will need to write the book to the end, put it away for as long as I can stand it, then attempt to read it as a reader and see how it affects me.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t think about it globally, now, predicting certain knots I’ll need to unravel, decisions I will need to make. Perhaps by thinking now I can also get more out of the first draft, do some subtle shifting, either as I write new pages, or in my obsessive tinkering.

If I measure my novel, what I’ve got so far and what I think will come, next to Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, I come out okay in a few areas.

My intuitive decision to tell the story of an uncle and a nephew seems like a really good one.I can now more consciously wind those stories together by having the two protagonists mention each other more, or mention other, more minor characters who are part of the family, creating the kind of cohesion that I found important when reading Walbert’s novel. I should also think about the idea of an originating story–Walbert’s first Dorothy’s suicide–and its potential effects on the protagonists. This is a bit harder since I have only two and my sense is that there is no single originating action. It’s worth giving some thought to, though, since it works to such beautiful, emotional effect in A Short History of Women. Whether it’s through an originating story or not, I definitely need to think about the emotional impact of the novel.

Another lucky choice was thematic. Both characters in my novel face death, though they face it in really different ways. Since I haven’t written those scenes yet, I don’t want to put my conscious mind too much at work on them, but at the moment I’m feeling it’s a good thing for cohesion and depth in the novel.

So far, my novel is told in close third throughout, alternating protagonists and points of view. Walbert divides her character changes (and narrator shifts) into chapters. I’m writing my first draft without chapters simply because it’s less to fret about, but with this novel in contrast to the previous one, it’s something I plan to investigate further–do I want chapters, or only sections? And if I want chapters, what kind of chapters do I want?

I did today put three stars at each point of view shift. It’s definitely not my intention to confuse the reader, to hide that a shift in point of view has occurred, and it seemed, suddenly, a good idea to make that shift more obvious. Up to now, I’ve tried to announce in the first sentence of each new part the name of the character I’m shifting to. Walbert doesn’t do this, but she does, in every chapter except one, title the chapter with the point of view character’s name. I’ll have to think further about the benefits of not announcing the point of view shift immediately in the actual prose of the chapter.

I’ve been playing with two other points of view, the women with whom the protagonists are in love. I’m more attached to one of them–she has very short, very emotional sections, where, basically, she feels and explores her grief. The second I only added in the second act of what is currently a three act structure. After reading Walbert’s novel, I’ve decided I’m going to stay with these other voices, at least to the end of the first draft.  Her novel has six protagonists, a couple of important minor characters, and she is able to create a cohesive, forward moving narrative out of all six without confusing the reader. In theory, I should be able to do that with two protagonists and two secondary characters. I don’t think I’m getting the timing quite right but again that’s probably something I need to think about when I read the book as a whole, after I’ve written it.

The other thing that really stands out for me about what I’ve learned from Walbert is that I need to continue to create high interest story lines, introduce surprising minor characters, and craft scenes that propel the reader forward with tension and conflict, humor, and feeling–all that good stuff. Just because I’m thinking about the novel as a whole, doesn’t mean I can’t pay attention to every sentence along the way.

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