Monday, August 31, 2009


I haven't made a Wordle to commemorate it (though maybe I should), but I finished Chapter 17 yesterday.

It did not write itself.

It would not, as Admiral Croft said of Sir Walter Elliot, set the Thames on fire, yet potentially it contains some important elements that will prove useful later.

A larger point, though, is that this is the third time (in a row) that I finished a chapter in about two weeks. The sense of forward momentum seems more important right now than highly polished writing, at least I hope forward is the direction I am going. As opposed to say, sideways.

One thing I struggled with a lot in my first attempt to write a novel, a few years back, was keeping the whole thing in mind at one time. It seemed impossible. Actually, it is impossible, but some things I am doing differently this time around make it seem slightly less so.

Having chapter breaks is important. It provides a sense of accomplishment, however illusory (in many cases my chapter breaks are most arbitrary), to conclude a chapter, type it up and leave that half-page of white space at the bottom of the last page.

Writing fairly fast is also important, because the novel is kind of a living thing. It doesn't like to be left alone too long. It loses its urgency.

Having an outline is important. This was the single most valuable thing I took away from my time at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop (which is not to say I did not take away many other valuable things, because I did). It's not that I have followed the plan, precisely, because the story has turned out to be more interesting than the plan -- there was a key plot element that I did not even anticipate until it drove up. It's not even that I consult the plan very often. I don't really seem to need to. But it's there. I can go back and look at it whenever I want to. It, too, provides a sense of accomplishment that is illusory and yet important.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jane Austen, Secret Revolutionary

To readers in 2009 coming to her for the first time, Jane Austen's style of telling a story seems old-fashioned and quaint, lacking many elements that we expect in modern fiction, featuring characters whose situations seem strikingly unlike situations we would ever find ourselves in. But we need only read a few of Austen's contemporaries to see how innovative she actually was, how consistently she rejected many of the cliches of fiction in her own era, and even of some eras to follow. It's probably because I have just finished reading The Italian, with a plot as creaky and sputtery as an old Fiat, but I feel compelled to take a brief survey of what is conspicuous by its absence:

Coincidence as a plot element. True, chance encounters sometimes advance the action, but, as in Anne Elliot running into Wentworth at a pastry shop in Bath, they are never incidents that seem particularly unlikely.

Orphans of unknown parentage who turn out to be the children of someone significant to the plot. There is Harriet Smith, but wonderfully, we never learn whose child she is.

Garrulous, comic servants who slow the action down by telling long tales. Though I associate this with Cervantes, you will also find them in Fielding, Radcliffe and Edgeworth. Not to mention Dickens. The closest we get to a garrulous servant in Austen is the manservant of the Dashwoods, who shares with his employers his news of encountering Mr. Ferrars and his new wife, Lucy. It's worth reviewing what a masterpiece of economy that scene is, and admiring how effectively it keeps the suspense alive in a way that is tricky without actually being deceptive.

Fainting. "Run mad, if you chuse, but do not faint!" is the advice one heroine of the Juvenilia gives to another, and it is advice the authoress seems to have followed. Marianne Dashwood comes close to swooning, in her dreadful encounter with Willoughby in London. But doesn't. No one else I can think of ever faints, despite much provocation.

Bondage. Not a single character, with the exception of the unfortunate Eliza, lost love of Colonel Brandon's youth, is ever forced into an unwanted marriage, or forced into a carriage and carried off to a convent or a brothel. No one is ever even urged into an unwanted marriage, except perhaps Elizabeth Bennet, to Mr. Collins, by her mother, and that is played for laughs.

Supernatural elements. There really aren't any, except in Catharine Morland's imagination. No ghosts. No ominous portents, no shadows, no sinister monks, haunted houses or groans in the night.

Lost and found. No one loses a fortune and regains it, unless we count the widowed Mrs. Smith, who with Wentworth's help manages to regain control of her previously encumbered West Indian properties and thus raise herself from penury to a modest condition of self-sufficiency. No one's child or parent, thought to be dead, re-emerges at the end of the book, to great dramatic effect.

Her readers in 1813 might be just as baffled by Jane Austen as her readers in 2009, but in a different way. To them, perhaps, all these missing elements might make the novels seem strangely stark, passionless and dry. Certainly their lack annoyed the heck out of Charlotte Bronte.

Thus, although Jane Austen was in her personal conduct, and apparently in her political views, to the extent that we know them, conservative with a small c, it is fair to say she was wild at heart where literary conventions were concerned. I cannot help wondering how she would have turned out if she had been born into Fanny Burney's family. Or Mary Wollestonecraft's.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reading 'The Italian'

Ann Radcliffe's masterpiece and the inspiration for Northanger Abbey. So far, just as silly as promised.

Why Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication in 1803 and not published for another 15 years (Henry Austen finally bought the rights back and had it published elsewhere) has long been a source of mystery in the world of things Austen. The introduction to the edition I am reading (which combines The Italian and Northanger Abbey into one gloriously compact, 688-page Signet edition) suggests that the publisher, having invested in the success of a highly profitable work, The Italian, did not want to risk publishing a parody of it, to possibly offend the author or damage the brand, as we would say today.

Indeed, though the introduction does not suggest this, if you subscribe to this theory, it seems possible Crosby bought the manuscript expressly to prevent it from being published. Sinister indeed!

But it also true, as the introduction points out, that Northanger Abbey is less a parody of Gothic novels than a mockery of their too-credulous readers, personified by Catherine Morland. It is, indeed, a novel about novel-reading, and as such sometimes strikes an astonishingly metafictional note:

"I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their  contemptuous censure  the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest  epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read  by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is   sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas! If the  heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yay! Another Chapter!

Another Wordle!

Never mind that in my haste I mispelled "Project." Everyone needs an editor, another thing we like to say in the newspaper business.