Analysis for Synthesis

Last night I was speaking with an accomplished writer friend who teaches in a well-known low residency MFA program. She is a close friend, and we always like to talk about our experiences in studying writing and teaching.  I attended a low residency MFA program, Warren Wilson, where half (or more than half) of our work consisted of analytical writing. I told my friend that, though there was so much of this that sometimes it took away from time for writing fiction, nothing teaches a writer about craft better than analyzing the great masters. I mentioned that I learn best by doing, by writing and getting feedback from others and “tearing apart” fiction to see how it works. She immediately agreed. Her experience was studying in traditional, residential MFA programs, and now that she is in a low residency program that asks students to submit analytical work with every packet, she really admires this exercise in analysis. My friend said that she thinks it is a good way to learn craft that one eventually applies to one’s work.

At Warren Wilson, we called the analytical exercises “annotations,” which is really just a fancy word for craft essays. We had the freedom to choose a topic on the text we had been reading and write an approximately three-page essay. This taught me how to read for craft, how to read like a writer. What things jumped out at me from a particular story or [passage in] a novel? What was this “secret code” I had to crack to understand a particular writer’s skill? It became like a game, and I grew to enjoy it very much.

Here are some of the things I learned from my annotations. (Please DO NOT plagiarize this material or use it without direct permission from the author!)

-From Flannery O’Connor, I learned how dialogue works. It can serve to advance something with the plot or indicate something about the characters’ personalities. For example, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I found that dialogue was deception. The characters were not saying what they meant, which was indicative of their dishonesty.

-Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift uses metaphors that anthropomorphize inanimate objects; this serves the key theme of the novel, which is that writing can bring to life that which is no longer living. Therefore, your craft and metaphors can affect the structure of your novel, the craft reflects the content.

-Shakespeare’s Othello shows how the careful choice of words (a.k.a. diction) spoken by Iago eventually linguistically poisons the title character, as Othello begins to repeat his words and believe the negative lies. We can find passages of dialogue repeated word for word. This is how Iago gains control over the situation, as we can see that he physically does very little (i.e., does not commit murder, stage a coup, etc.) So, a story or piece of fiction can be quite active even with very few actions taken. Shakespeare is always known for beautiful language, as is Toni Morrison, a modern master of diction.

-A “hologram” chapter. When I had to write a long paper discussing omniscience in two works (Pride and Prejudice and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye), I noticed that both novels had something in common: a chapter that seemed to summarize all the key themes and events that would unfold in the novel, with key characters present. This chapter laid the groundwork for the whole book, setting up a reader’s expectations. When I discovered this, I thought it a brilliant structural device and was surprised at how these two very disparate authors were doing the same thing.

-Metafiction is more than a quirky, clever literary genre. If we look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, it is a story within a story, about a director who has suffered a situation similar to the protagonist of The Tempest is putting on the play at a prison. It is self-referential, it calls attention to itself in a very enjoyable, even comic way. However, in doing this, we better understand the masterwork by Shakespeare, what sorts of choices a director needs to make when putting all the work, what the play is really about, and (in a retelling as this) what choices the author needs to make in terms of retaining elements from the original.

Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” is a masterpiece of metafiction. On the surface, it is incredibly funny, a “theme-and-variations” gem that shows us how a woman and a man fall in love and how their story can play out comically, tragically, or something in between. But if we look deeper, Atwood is teaching us about plot points, what happens with the same cast of characters when put in different situations and environments. How do we get from point A to point B? How do we create a plot? She asks us at the end, as readers and writers, to “Now try How and Why.” This is one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, and it accomplishes so much in a short space.

These are just a scant few of the things I learned in analyzing fiction. One thing my MFA program taught me was how to be a better reader, and this helps with my own work as well as when I read the work of others. I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is for any writer, this process of deeply investigating how a well-established author is crafting their work. Give it a try, even if it seems daunting, and you might find that you have learned way more than you expected.

Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2019/12/16/in-defense-of-the-novel-in-stories-cathers-death-comes-for-the-archbishop/). The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!