The One Book to Have

The non-fiction book how novels work evolved from a series of weekly articles ‘Elements of Fiction’,  written by John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London and published in the Saturday Guardian. I had not come across such articles in a newspaper before and they ensured I bought the Guardian faithfully each week until the series concluded.

Each author’s book chosen received analysis over four weeks. Week One of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger discussed divided tenses; week two looked at divided viewpoints; for week three Penelope Lively talked about writing the novel and week four gave readers’ responses. The articles’ sub-heading included the title of the book and the name of the writer, leading to the idea that it was the book and author which were the important things here.

Whereas in the book how novels work, the Contents page lists the chapters by different aspects of the writing itself, eg 1. Beginning, 2.Narrating etc. To me the message is ‘Consider all of these things either before you begin to write or while you are writing.’ I write a first draft and then consider which aspects of the novel clearly aren’t working and can any of these chapters help?

In his introduction to how novel’s work, John Mullan writes, ‘Some books we read once, but some we go back to… Going back to a novel marks it out.’ The modern literature which will remain on my bookshelves for ever are Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson), Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner), Moon Tiger (Penelope Lively), Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguru), A Rather English Marriage (Angela Lambert), Last Orders (Graham Swift), and Saturday (Ian McEwan). Perhaps not so modern after all…

Perhaps I’ll tell you why they are still my most favourite novels to read in a later post…To get back to John Mullan… As I wrote above, the list of contents reads: Beginning, Narrating, People, Genre, Voices, Structure, Detail, Style, Devices, Literariness and Ending. The chapters I return to again and again are Narrating, Structure, Devices and Ending because these are the elements I argue with myself over and over and also, for me, they are the most interesting and challenging problems to be battling with as I write my WIP – a novel set in the 1950s, narrated mainly by a ten year old girl.

I’ve been writing since I was 13 years old. I’ve found more help, more ideas to think about and more encouragement with writing in this book how novels work than in all the how-to-do-it books on my shelves. 

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