Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.