A Novel Pace§
by Russell Dyer
published: may 12, 2006; revised: may 12, 2006; readers in past month: 108
As I’m now making tremendous progress in writing my first novel, I’m starting to realize that I now know how to write a novel. When I first started back at college about fifteen years ago, I couldn’t see to the end of a few-page essay. I didn’t understand how to construct an essay with a basic introductin and thesis, argue my one or two points (actually I would attempt to argue a dozen points poorly), and pull it altogether into a conclusion. Years later when I would consider longer pieces like an article, a short story, or anything of substance, it was equally incomprehensible to me at first. I couldn’t visualize and, more importantly, I couldn’t feel it.
My technical writing work has strengthened me in the area of writing longer pieces — articles and now reference books. However, until recently, I did not understand how to write a story in a longer format, to write a novel. This I could not comprehend on an intuitive level. I could not see a complete story and the many steps, especially the most minute ones in between. It is the minute steps that are the hardest. One can tell a long story, if one has only a few minutes. But, how to tell a story meticulously without being boring and to know when to tell parts in summary — in short, how to tell a story in two-hundred plus pages: that isn’t easy until you absord the sense of the technique.
In my Kafka novel, I have written scenes which whiz along, scenes in which insignificant moments are skipped or only highlighted; even dialog is paraphrashed. Here is an example in which of a dialog in which a character’s response is summarized:
“I heard that Ethan!” Steph yelled. Ethan smiled knowingly at Heather and then turned around and walked back towards the bar and began lecturing Steph along the way, saying that she should hear it, that she needed to hear the truth. Fortunately, this left Heather to me.
As you can see here, I only include the dialog of the Steph character yelling — she yells across the coffee shop where she and Ethan work. Her yell is dramatic and within Oliver’s scope and therefore it is included. Ethan’s response is not important to the focus of Oliver — spending time alone with Heather is — and therefore it fades out of Oliver’s scope. Ethan’s comments are described for entertainment value, but as they aren’t important per se, to give a drifting off effect, I only describe them rather than repeat them. Knowing when to summarize details is an essential skill in writing a novel, I’m learning.
In contrast to the curt, dialog summarization example above, take a look at this longer paragraph from my novel:
With this in mind, I bent down, pulled the chair back, and looked under my desk. On the floor against the wall was my cable modem, which connects my computer to the internet. I got down on my knees and crawled under the desk. Hovering over the modem, I inspected it casually without touching it. There was a light layer of dust on it that was disturbed along the back end, smeared by someone. My breathing was steady, but heavier now. I could hear my presence echoing off the wooden sides of my desk and the wall in front of me — or rather, I could hear the limits of sound caused by the constraints of the tight space in which I had embedded myself. I rested the front end of my body on my elbows and picked up the modem with both hands and twisted it around, pulling on the wires and straining them, so that I could see where the dust was disturbed the most. There was nothing unusual attached, but I could see small crease marks along the seam of the charcoal gray colored plastic housing, running along the center. It looked like someone had pried it open with a very small screwdriver. I set it down carefully and slid out from under the desk, still on my knees, and reached over to the back of my desktop and with two fingers I retracted a small screwdriver with a pearl colored handle with the name of IBM written across it in blue from my pencil cup. I crawled back under my desk and pried the modem housing apart. It opened easily since someone had already freed it earlier, probably with some frustration judging from the markings. There were a few dabs of airplane model glue on the edges. I could smell the fumes; they made my head spin ever so slightly. I touched them lightly with my pinky finger tip while still holding the IBM screwdriver. It was still tacky — someone had been under here recently. Although still calm, my heart beat increased by about ten beats per minute. I’ve never looked inside my modem before, so I didn’t know what it should look like. However, I found a small cube shaped gadget, about the size of one of those fat dice like they use in Las Vegas, pushed into a space between the circuit board and the edge of the housing. I pulled the gadget out carefully and examined it. It was heavy for its size; the exterior was metal, black, and rough. It had eight wires coming out of it, about four inches long with a moderate curl to them — all different colors or color patterns. The other end of each wire was soldered to the circuit board near where the network connector (the cable going to my computer) was attached, as well. As I examined the device further — not knowing what I expected to see or it to do — a twinkle in the carpet near where I was holding the modem in the dim light caught my eye. I modified my focus accordingly and found a very small drop of solder balled up within the strands of carpeting. Still holding the base of the modem in my left hand, but letting go of the device with my right so that it was hanging free, I picked up the ball of solder with my index finger and thumb and rolled the ball between my two fingers while clasping the screwdriver with my other fingers and my palm. I looked at the gadget again and said calmly and softly as I studied it, “Jiminy Cricket.” I heard Penelope ruffle her feathers behind me on her perch.
In this otherwise brief scene, I have dragged out the moment, elaborated on details that could all be summed up in just a few sentences. However, I wanted the reader to see and feel what Oliver was seeing and feeling. In this scene, he discovers that Homeland Security has installed a device on his internet modem in his home, a device which will monitor his activities on the internet, it will retransmit all of his emails, on-line chats, and web browsing activities back to Homeland Security’s office to be recorded and reviewed by government agents. They had figured him out and were now spying on him. Such a moment of discovery would not go quickly or be taken casually by anyone upon uncovering it. I want the reader to appreciate and feel this moment. This is why minute details about the pry marks, the glue smelling and being tacky, the ball of solder in the carpet are all mentioned. I want the reader there and in that moment.
Taking both of these examples and my commentary on each, I can use them to strengthen my earlier point: one of the tricks in writing a novel is knowing when to tell the story in summary — a natural tendency with a long story — and when to slow down and give minute details, when to show the reader, as they say. Developing a pace that is sustainable for over two-hundred pages, and knowing how to deviate from that pace within chapters, scenes, within moments, is a skill necessary to writing a story in novel-length form. The sense of that is what I think I have recently acquired. This skill or sense is not fully developed and refined yet, but I finally have it. It is this newfound ability that has transformed me into a novelist.