I never intended for this blog to be a place to review books, but every
now and then a book comes along that I feel compelled to mention.
Stunning cover. Tick.
Today this book is Passage by
Connie Willis.Published in 2001*, I have
seen it described as sci-fi, but in my opinion it’s speculative fiction. What
happens if... It covers a topic which will affect each and every one of us at
some point in our lives: dying. It’s not so much about dying, or about grief.
What it’s about is that time immediately before we die, and what happens in
that space of time. Near-death experiences. Or NDEs, which, apparently, are
remarkably similar the world over.The
feeling of being in a tunnel, of undertaking a journey, white light etc.
But what if you had the opportunity to experience more than
one NDE, and instead of hovering in the tunnel waiting to see what was going to
happen next, you went down that tunnel and stepped beyond the light?
The protagonist of Passage, Dr
Joanna Lander, a psychologist at Mercy General Hospital, does precisely that
and what she finds beyond the tunnel is... Well, you didn’t really think I was
going to tell you, did you? Let me just
say that the premise of Passage is compelling. I take my hat off to the writer because it’s an incredibly well-structured and
planned narrative. It abounds in metaphors and in literary quotations and references.
The characters are convincing and credible, and it’s very moving. Distressing,
in fact. I think I cried so much because
I was convinced that Joanna had discovered what happens when we die. I had to
remind myself that it was only fiction. Nobody knows. Nobody has returned from
the dead to tell us.
I have two criticisms, which is a shame because otherwise this novel
would be on my Top Ten List. One is that at 594 pages it was too long, and it
didn’t need to be. We could have lost 100 or so pages and it wouldn’t have
changed anything. The other is, who is Connie Willis? And why had I never heard of her before?That’s rectified now, but I thought it was
sad that I almost missed out on her work.
*How did I stumble upon this book so late in the piece?I was Googling another very famous writer, and I came across her list of Top Ten Reads,
and Passage was at number ten.I
could not put this book down, was what she said.
As writers we all
have different ways of getting the first draft of a story on to the page.Some believe in writing it down without worrying too much about grammar, punctuation and scenery, while others like
to fill in all the details - to get it almost perfect - before moving on. (Sometimes the latter can be confused with
procrastination, but as long as you can tell the
difference between the two that's okay.)
We are, at present,
in the month of NaNoWriMo. I’m going right off the topic here but bear with me, this has relevance. For those of you who don't know, NaNoWriMo challenges writers to get down 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. And at
least one writer I know (Go, Kerri!) is churning out thousands of words a day.This NaNoWriMo
phenomenon, coupled with the fact that I am busy revising and redrafting my completed
manuscript, have together given me cause to think about how the words are put onto the page.
When you type or
write the words on to the page for the first time – and I’m talking fiction
here, writing a novel or a short story – you create a scene that is fresh and
original.It hasn’t been seen or written
before. Let’s say, for instance, that
the scene contains two children, a boy and girl, at the beach. The house they’ve come from is up on a cliff. The beach is secluded and there’s no one else there.
The sea water sparkles and glimmers. The children squint into the sun. The tide is out and the sand glistens
with moisture. Waves,
edged by froth, push and pull at the shore’s edge. Occasionally the sand is decorated by a sea shell or a striated beach
pebble. The boy has a stick. He’s bent over, concentrating on drawing lines in
the hard wet sand. They’re going to run a race. The girl, her hands on her
hips, watches him. She thinks the boy will easily beat her, but then she sees
that he’s given her a head start, that she could actually win...and so on.
Now, if I were
churning out this story, racing to get the words onto the page – as I assume the writers
in NaNoWriMo are doing – I wouldn’t have all the detail I do. I would put the
children on the beach, get the boy to draw lines in the sand, let the girl
think she could win, which she does, and get them into the sea water, which is
my goal in this scene. Once they’re in the water I probably would include more
detail, because the boy nearly drowns and the girl has to rescue him. But then,
in an effort to get the words on to the page, to get the story down, I would move
on – to the next scene.And let’s assume
I wrote the whole narrative in this fashion, without thinking overly much about
the scenery or the setting or what either of the characters were thinking.
Fast forward to where
I’ve got the entire narrative down, and I’m revising. Editing,
redrafting, etc. I’ve gone back to this scene and I’m filling in the gaps – the
colour of the sky, the texture of the sand, what the children are wearing.But the scene is no longer fresh or original.
I’m not seeing it for the first time. I’ve been here already. And because of
this I can no longer see it adequately. It’s all a little dull. A little muted. And it’s really hard work to get myself back into
it, because the second time around I seem to be looking at it from an outsider’s
viewpoint, rather than actually being in it.
This is my experience
as a writer. And this is why NaNoWriMo wouldn’t work for me. As it is I have a
hard enough time slowing down and smelling both the roses and the weeds when I’m
creating a scene. But I am learning from my mistakes. I know now that the most
effective way for me to write is to
dawdle in a scene the first time round, and not try and race through it in an
effort to get the words onto the page.
I’d be interested to
hear what other writers think…