The Blank Page
Starting with a blank page, a novel is a daunting prospect, and having never attempted it before, where do you turn to get started? There are stacks of books out there claiming to pass on the essential skills of a ‘best-selling author’, but I’m never sure how many of those writers actually have 'best-selling' novels to their name...
How to read like a Writer
The first step on my own writing journey was to learn as much as I could about the ‘craft’ of writing. Reading novels one admires is, of course, the obvious starting point for any writer, but every day I was already reading the kinds of novels I dreamt of writing. I realised that the question I needed to answer was: how could I read like a writer? How could I read in such a way that I would learn how a brilliant story was put together and the importance of elements such as structure, pace and character development? If I was to learn how everything in a crime novel worked, it would mean unpicking the basics - from how to begin and end a chapter, through to developing two or three seemingly disparate storylines. How was I going to learn all this when, in an accomplished novel, it all seemed to be embedded within a mass of black text?
Analyse what other writers do
Reading as a writer means switching on an extra eye - an analytical one – not one sitting back and enjoying the ride, but one that is observing, tracking, taking notes. I wanted to explore good writing, take it apart to discover what made a story I admired hang together and gave it dramatic impact. How could I effectively and consistently do this with a number of different novels?
How Music helped me analyse Novels
Help came from an unexpected source. As a former music graduate and professional cellist, I’d studied the symphonies and concertos of great composers; taken them apart bar by bar. For my Master’s degree, for example, I analysed several works by Shostakovitch. This process involved peeling away all the layers in the music: exposing harmonic progression, the role of prominent instruments, density, speed, contrast, openings and endings, texture, counterpoint between themes – familiar elements I realised, that also provided the underpinning foundation in novels!
As a result, I turned to my music training to help me to learn how to write. I set about looking at a psychological suspense novel like a piece of music. It’s not hard to see instant parallels with writing. Anyone who has studied Schenker will know what I mean by background, foreground and middleground, but a writer will easily grasp these concepts too. It’s about structure, voice and which key points need to lodge in the mind of the audience for the finished product to make sense. It is also about texture, layering, knowing which strands to bring to the fore at any one point, which strands to keep simmering away in the background. In novels, I started looking for elements like the flow of sentences and punctuation. Sentences, the building blocks of writing, have their own rhythm – you can have clunky sentences and well-paced ones. The words can suddenly stop. Start again. They can draw attention to themselves, be deliberately clunky and rough around the edges or be smooth and flowing.
A standard ‘Classical’ music form, the Sonata Form, gave me additional tools for examination. Sonata form has been the stalwart structural form in music for centuries, from Mozart’s era right through to today, with composers such as Philip Glass still using variants of it.
Sonata Form normally presents in three sections, similar to a three-act play, but all in one movement. There is often a prelude (which correlates to the novel’s prologue), followed by the exposition - the statement of a principal theme, followed by a secondary theme (laying out separate strands of a narrative which often start off entirely unconnected). Next, there is a development section where there is a conflict of keys, the home-key fighting to survive. There is intensity in this section with fugues, counterpoint and themes struggling one against another, building towards the climax. There are strange twists in terms of harmony (Beethoven was a master at progressing into the least expected key), then a recapitulation (the final section), where all the themes are explored, often in the triumphant home key. The coda rounds things off (like the novel’s epilogue) – it was all there!
Using your Ear
Remarkably, I discovered that an ear attuned to the internal structure of music can also be aware of the same kind of process going on in prose - after all, stories were heard via spoken delivery long before they were ever written down. In this way, music helped show me how to write and I was able to put together my first novel, The Evil Beneath.
I hope this approach may help other writers to take a fresh look at the way novels are constructed. I also wonder if others have discovered useful parallels between writing and other fields, which have helped them grow and develop as writers. Or perhaps you have some other useful tools to share about how you learned to write fiction?
This article first appeared in the Crime Writers' Association Magazine, Red Herrings.
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