I've said elsewhere that I was frightened of poetry. After having finished writing two novels, I was ready to go back to the basics: language and imagI've said elsewhere that I was frightened of poetry. After having finished writing two novels, I was ready to go back to the basics: language and imagery. I could not have stumbled upon a better book to get my head out of the windy tomes of long-form fiction, and learn that poetry is friendly. While the book treats the craft at a beginner's level that was sometimes skim-inducing, I found it pleasurable to relearn all the old lessons in the light of a new form.
The book is slender, elegant, and helpful, and offers excellent reading recommendations....more
If there is one book I cite more than Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, it is Lajos Egri's relatively obscure gem. I happened upon itIf there is one book I cite more than Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, it is Lajos Egri's relatively obscure gem. I happened upon it thanks to a writer-friend of a writer-friend who took one of James Frey's (no, not that James Frey, may his plagiarizing soul fly to a million little pieces) master classes in fiction. And yes, Egri will help you write a damn good novel.
The key is unity. Out of necessity, teachers of writing split the art of fiction writing into about five elements: character, plot, voice, setting, and theme (a.k.a. premise, in Egri's vocabulary). Yet any writer who has been learning the craft for more than a few years will begin to intuit the problem with this approach. The problem is the same one you have if you go to your kitchen, say, and set a stick of butter, a bag of chocolate chips, an egg, a cup of sugar, and a cup of flour next to one another. They don't turn into a tray of chocolate chip cookies. Likewise, writers must consider the elements of the novel in relation to one another, because the decisions we make about any one element has important ripples in all the others.
If this insight happens to strike for the first time while you're revising a complete manuscript, you will probably feel like you're wrestling with a ball of tar. Any positive change in one direction undermines some part of the story somewhere else. For example, say you realize that you're a natural at writing in first person. So you change the manuscript to first person. But the problem is that your protagonist is an aloof computer genius for the CIA. Her POV doesn't sound right in first person, so... Congratulations. You've just discovered the unified nature of fiction.
Lajos Egri has a solution. The trick is to plan first, write second. He divides the story-building process into three parts: (1) premise (a.k.a. theme), (2) character, (3) conflict. That is, first, decide on your theme: the meaningful emotional arc that organizes the story. Second, pick the very best character to embody that arc. Third, pick the very best conflicts to throw at that character, to allow him to naturally enact the theme. Egri provides many, many examples drawn from theater (the book is written for playwrights) that soon make this process seem intuitive.
This book was recommended to me by a well-traveled, foreign-policy-savvy author friend of mine, and I found it to be one of my favorite books this yeaThis book was recommended to me by a well-traveled, foreign-policy-savvy author friend of mine, and I found it to be one of my favorite books this year. It's a smart, wry, vivid, take on the hero's journey, where the hero is a fair-skinned Indian who seeks to pass as an Englishman during the Raj era.
The way the narrator follows the nameless (or rather, many-named) protagonist reminded me of Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, in that he's somewhat of a tabula rasa, an observer of society who writes its customs on himself. Yet this narrator allows itself humorous detours into the secondary characters' POVs, sampling opinions and needling egos, gradually constructing an emotional portrait of what colonialism feels like if you're the colonized.
Kunzru loves irony, and without spoiling the ending, I'll add that it is one of the "be careful what you wish for" variety. In a way, that's how I felt about this book, too, and why I didn't give it five stars--the story flowed into a tragically logical climax, and allowed us to see some vengeance on the characters we loved to hate. Yet when I closed the book, those satisfying choices--Kunzru's characters, sensibility, and deft plotting--all added up to a slightly empty ending. It may have been the point, but part of me longed for the unapologetic beauty I found in the last pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, another big book about colonialism.
I was excited to discover Hari Kunzru, and if I find myself staring at another of his novels in the bookstore, I'll probably pick it up....more