Thursday, January 14, 2010

Murdoch & Harpers

Yesterday was a solid start, not great, but solid. I've been reading a book on writing by an ex-Green Beret called The Novel Writer's Tool Kit. He suggests that one of the main secrets of successful writers is constant reading and analysis of other novels. Though I'm not only interested in novel writing, it is something I'm working on so I say great! I love reading and I've spent the last decade lost in critical analysis, so here we go.

Today, I'm reading two wondrous tomes of literature: Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight and Harper's Magazine. Laymen may wonder why I hold Harper's in such esteem, well to put it bluntly, they are one of the few remaining American magazines that regularly pay for works of fiction. So their Reading section is one of the places I'm going to send my work (someday). I say aim high or don't bother bringing your gun to town, so it's important to size up the competition. Harper's won't be the only place I'll try, of course, but they're one of the big names that some regular people actually read.

My other favorite that I'm dishing about today, is Iris Murdoch:

Like me, Murdoch spent the greater part of her formative years at Oxford and met her husband there, as did I (Sylvia Plath did the same at Cambridge, but that's a story for another day). So, on New Year's Day I started reading The Green Knight for the first time and I'm blown away by the twists and turns in plot. More than anything, Murdoch demonstrates an amazing ability to juggle an unbelievably expansive cast of characters, popping them in and out of scenes with a mastery and complete understanding that I personally find impossible. At present (the point where my bookmark is currently seated), she has brought forth twelve main characters (including a collie), who all have interwoven backstories and complicated mannerisms. This does not even include all the minor characters that I am sure will be coming to the fore soon.
What I find most impressive is that none of these terribly complex individuals would be distinct without the use of impressions from the other characters. In short, it is not clear who the main character is or even which of the characters is the intended protagonist (for they are all so faulty that I don't really want to delve too far into any of them). Normally, this would make me want to stop reading, for surely there should always be at least one character that you side with, but the interactions are all so wonderfully interesting that I'm afraid I find it hard to put down.

In Tool Kit, Mayer writes that there is always one scene or image that was the origin of a story and as a writer you should try to track that key moment of inspiration down. I can only assume that Murdoch's first image was either of two boys playing a game affectionately referred to as 'Dogs' or of a small ugly man trying to beat a lovely looking man to death with a baseball bat. Either way, the story that evolves from these two incidents (both of which are only related either in passing or flash back) is heartbreaking and confusing, but entirely compelling. I take away from it a need to find a purpose for my writing; a message that is unexpected by the reader. Murdoch shows that it is not simply plot or characters that drive a story, but a skillful combination of the two. Otherwise, you are left with a shell of a novel and let's face it no one wants to read fluff all the time.

On another note, I finished 1,500 words today and have almost moved on to the editing phase of a short story I started over Christmas in England. I'm at a crossroads, however, in that too much of the story is taken from real life and I'm not sure the characterizations will be favorably received.
So what do you think? Should I do the smart thing and mask my characters a bit better or should I stick by the original idea? Maybe a bit of both? As always tips, feedback and suggestions are very welcome. J.A.

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