Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Passage by Connie Willis

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.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Getting the story down

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 NaNoWriMoI’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…