September 1, 2013

Endings – and empathy

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:00 am by Susan

When John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out in 1969 with its alternative endings, his publishers received angry letters from readers assuming there had been a printing error. In my new novel Given the Choice, I started with a female character who is complicated. She’s intelligent, creative and capable of generosity, but she also resorts to lying when the going gets tough.

My original ending for my character Marion involved her in only minimal development. She gains a modicum of self-knowledge, but significant blind spots remain and we are left to ponder the problems these may cause her and those she is close to in the future. I liked the idea of a messy, inconclusive, ‘real-life’ ending where people don’t necessarily learn the lessons they should – but the readers I showed my first draft to wanted more of an ‘outcome’ at the close of the book.

I thought about Charles Dickens and how he reworked the ending to Great Expectations when fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton complained it was too sad. Dickens liked his original ending precisely because it went against the usual novelistic convention of the couple marrying and living happily ever after. In it, Pip briefly encounters the newly remarried Estella and, while it is clear she has changed, there is no hint that the pair will meet again. Dickens’s second ending is more romantically satisfying. It takes place in the grounds of Miss Havisham’s house (where as a young boy Pip was encouraged to fall in love with Estella who was trained to resist him) and the final words – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – offer the hope that the pair will be united.

Literary critic Frank Kermode has a theory about why readers crave certain types of ending. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, he argues that we are born and die ‘in the middle of things’, and that stories with their start and stop points give us fictive ‘concords’ we can adopt when thinking about ourselves. What is important about the end of a story, Kermode suggests, is that we see the whole trajectory – a thing we cannot do with our own lives.

Given the Choice is set in the contemporary art and classical music worlds and one of my characters is a French painter, Jean-Claude. He is working on a sequence of paintings in which the subject stays the same, but where the effect changes because a new element is introduced, or because one of the components is moved to a slightly different place.

I realised that if I used this as pretext I could show how what happens is often the result of contingency – an unexpected additional factor, a difference of timing, an alteration in mood. So Given the Choice now has three ‘outcomes’: my original muted ‘real-life’ version, an ending in which Marion gets her come-uppance, and one where things work out well (if unexpectedly!). It’s the reader who’s given the choice of which ending seems right.

Marion is a sassy businesswoman and runs an agency for artists. Damien Hirst makes a cameo appearance and I had fun inventing a whacky art installation. One of the things that intrigues me about contemporary art is the way the nature of fame has changed. An artist’s reputation used to depend on talent, training and building up a body of work that was sold through galleries to private collectors. Today, the art world is closer to fashion and advertising with the artist as a marketable brand. The most successful artists shock and their work is instantly recognisable. The debate about whether art should receive sponsorship or rely solely on sales has spread into music, literature, film, drama, dance.

The timeline for Given the Choice is the period leading up to the catastrophic crashes that occurred on the world financial markets in 2007-2008. This illusory wealth offered an interesting commentary on the art world’s commercialism. Bankers and city brokers are after all major consumers. Another important character in the novel is a young classical pianist from Estonia who brings with him very different ideas about how art should be funded and indeed what art is for. A further reason for giving Marion money is that it makes the choice she faces a straight one. Unlike most women in her position, she does not (at least initially) have to worry about its financial implications.

There’s a great deal of stress placed – by reviewers, by prize-giving juries – on how empathetic characters in books are. I have to admit, I’m suspicious of this. The notion of empathy in reading grew out of the German term Einfühlung (which literally means ‘feeling into’), and gave rise to a definition of empathy as a form of projection. Theodor Lipps, for instance (and his approach is typical), describes the process as follows: ‘we experience the other’s feelings as our own, because we project our own feelings onto the other.’ It’s always seemed to me a dangerous exchange.

Hélène Cixous warns us as readers to guard against our desire to turn others into comforting reflections of ourselves. Instead, she urges us to venture towards the other in literature in order to expand imaginatively what we know. She quotes Franz Kafka angrily retorting in a letter to a friend that he doesn’t want books that will make him happy. In a memorable phrase, he says he wants books to be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’. I agree with Franz Kafka. If we allow ourselves to become too wrapped up in the characters we read, we risk wanting things to turn out a certain way instead of letting the book jolt us into a different way of thinking.

Given the Choice is published this month by Cillian Press

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February 1, 2011

How to revise a novel

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , at 8:26 am by Susan

A  writer friend confessed recently she was enjoying revising her novel so much she really did not want the process to end. I know what she means. There’s something very satisfying about taking that hard-won first draft and making it better.

I thought my second novel (provisionally entitled Given the Choice and set in the London art world) was finished, until a publisher sent me a very long email in which it became clear I hadn’t framed the ending clearly enough. I’d already revised a fair bit in the light of different readers’ comments, but I’d done this hot on the heels of writing.

Going back into the novel after a gap of a few months was a different proposition. In theory, the distance should have given me greater critical insight, but what I found instead was the world of the novel and its characters were no longer alive in my head. Every piece of revision I tried to do sounded more like the novel I am currently working on, rather than this earlier one. If I wasn’t careful, instead of improving the book, I was in danger of disfiguring it.

One of my problems with Given the Choice is that I seem to have created a main character I find utterly absorbing, but whom it is hard to like. (I seem to remember Jane Austen had the same worry over Emma….).  I can see that this is a stumbling block. As readers we need to find the company of a character we are committed to spending time with if not congenial, then at least not repellent.

As I worked on the novel again, I could see several ways in which I might make my protagonist nicer – but was this what I should do? As a writer I’m fascinated by the way I don’t feel we choose the books we are driven to write – but on the contrary, how they seem to choose us. In Given the Choice I was fired by the idea of a successful businesswoman who organizes her life so that all her needs are met. The people around her have a choice about whether or not to comply with her requirements – and some of them refuse to do so. I was worried that if I began softening my protagonist (perhaps by making her realize the consequences of her actions), this would contort the truth of the character I was creating and the way I think life is.

Creative writing courses often teach that a novel must have some kind of climatic point – often a confrontation – which leads to change. This is a helpful structure to have in mind while writing and there’s no doubt it makes for a satisfying story. We all like closure and we all like things to end well.

The problem is I don’t think my central character would change. I see her as one of those people who take the knocks life deals as a signal to redouble their efforts. Lessons learned and a marriage à la Austen wouldn’t feel right to me. On the contrary, what intrigues me about this woman is the way that each time she meets a rebuttal she responds by redirecting her energy onto a fresh target.

So what is my recipe for revising a novel?

First, read the book you have written through carefully, from the beginning to the end. If you must have a pencil to hand (or mouse at the end of your fingers), only permit yourself to change small things like lazy language use or poor word order at this stage. Then, do something completely different (long walks work for me!).

In a new document, write up a resummé of your story (this can be in note form if you prefer). When you have finished, think carefully about any comments readers have given you. Make a note to yourself about how you plan to deal with each one. Do not be tempted to skip any –those that alarm/annoy or otherwise unnerve you will almost certainly prove to be the most helpful. Do not worry that your answers may feel somewhat provisional.

Now reread your book again, from the beginning. This time mark up how you are going to implement the planned changes. Where this requires writing a new section, have a go at drafting this out. Now that you are back inside the world of your book, it is fine to change your mind about your strategy for dealing with each comment. What is important is that it is the book you are writing which is directing your interventions.

Paste any new writing you have done into a separate document for redrafting, editing and final polishing. Then insert this back into the book and check to see that everything fits. (I find it useful to think of patching here. The new material must do its job, but it must do this in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself as a late add-on.).

Finally, give your book back to your readers and cross your fingers that someone, somewhere will want to follow that vision you have tried so hard to pursue.