Thursday, October 18, 2007

NH: Felt Life

I’ve just finished reviewing another pile of fiction manuscripts. Sadly, I had to reject most of them. A few, though, made the first cut, which means I will re-read them more closely and may ask one of my trusted colleagues here at Harvest House to offer a second opinion.

Of the manuscripts I rejected, some are actually quite good—but just not appropriate for Harvest House. Others were not so good—but not so bad either. Ten years ago we might have published them; but nowadays with fiction so competitive, we really have to be more selective in what we publish. Readers are (well, I hope anyway) becoming a bit choosier about the quality of the fiction they buy.

And then there is the third category of rejected manuscripts: those that are just not good at all. And if I could find one common denominator among these manuscripts, I would have to say they simply have no life. They are plots, they are stories, they are pages of a would-be author’s typing, they are perhaps many things—but they are dead on the page. Even so, sometimes when I read one of these manuscripts, I see promise. On these occasions I wish I had one of those machines Dr. Frankenstein invented where he could put a lifeless body under the zapper, push a button, and jolts of electricity would somehow impart life to the corpus.

However, as any good writer knows, giving life to a manuscript is not easy. In fact, I wonder if any writer really understands the process of giving life to words on a page. I’m quite sure there’s no step-by-step process. As Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I do have a couple of hunches though. First, we know that different authors write their novels through a process that works for them and is often unique to them. Some outline their novel first, while others start with an idea and write their first draft in a stream of consciousness effort. Some authors rewrite as they go, others wait until they have a complete first draft, then go back and edit. Others can even skip around; working on chapter six one day and chapter sixteen the next. So I suspect that imparting life to a novel can be done in different ways too. I can well imagine the revise-as-you-go author requiring his or her muse to supply the necessary life as the writing occurs. The race-through-the-first-draft author may wait until the second or third go-round to call the muse into action.

A second hunch is that life in a novel comes more naturally to a character-driven novel. After all, “life” is in the characters, mostly. We say that a character leaps off the page, or is memorable long after the turn of the final page, or draws on our sympathy. We root for the character, because we believe he or she really exists in the way a character should exist in a novel.

The point that a character is sympathetic (mainly that we are sympathetic to the character’s plight) probably works best for me in defining what I mean by “life” in fiction. An author who simply has a good plot, but has no sympathetic character to carry out the plot is at a disadvantage, it seems to me. Creating a character with “life” surely comes about because the author has first known this character internally and felt the necessary sympathy long before the first word is typed on page one.

One of my recent novels to edit was The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka. This concluding book in the three-volume Trophy Chase Trilogy is just as full of “life” as the first two volumes. After his final look at the galleys, Bryan told me he once again broke down reading the climactic scene (as did I when I edited it). Fortunately, Bryan had the requisite tissues at hand. Bryan once said that he began this trilogy at least a decade ago. All those years of living with lead character, Packer Throme, in the back of his mind, no doubt added to the emotional impact he felt at this critical scene in the final volume. No doubt his feeling it first, enabled him to write it in such a way that I, too, would feel it—and ultimately every reader as well.

Another author I edit, Roxanne Henke, wrote her third novel, Becoming Olivia, about depression. The main character, Olivia Marsden, is a Christian. She’s a mom and a wife. She’s also very, very real to the reader (who, by the way, first met Olivia in Roxy’s first book, After Anne). When Olivia’s depression becomes apparent in Becoming Olivia, the reader feels it full force. Not surprisingly, Roxy wrote Olivia’s experience out of her own battle with depression. It rings true. It has life. And Roxy’s many fan letters from readers who identified with Olivia are a testament to the life Roxy imparted to her protagonist during the writing.

So I have one final hunch about this topic. It’s that sometimes the grist in the mill for a “sense of felt-life” (a term author Henry James used to describe this fictional necessity) in our novels is the pain God allows us to experience ourselves. What we feel intensely as human beings can, if we’re authors, be transmitted to others through our fiction—fiction that is full of life.
Aha. There it is. Dr. Frankenstein’s invention for imparting life to the lifeless does exist. It’s what we call pain….or joy….or sadness….or anger. For the writer, our life experience—especially our emotional life experience creates in us the mechanism through which we impart life to our fiction.

So Mr. Maugham, I offer as rule number one: A good novel should impart life. And this life is imparted as we allow our own emotional history to bleed full red onto the page before us (and then wisely edited by a trusted editor!).

One rule down. Two more to discover.

Nick Harrison acquires and edits first-rate fiction for Harvest House.


At 3:44 PM, Blogger W. Mark Whitlock said...

Thanks for the encouragement to keep life in the pages of my novel. As I write, I second guess myself. Those that review my book don't like my main character, but, they say, they know him. They keep reading about this gritty, angry, bitter, and confused young husband because they hope he changes. I hope he turns down the road he's supposed to. The briefcase he carries must get into the right hands or he'll never recover. I hope he can get home before his wife gives birth!

Thanks again for mentoring me from afar.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

I'm really enjoying these posts, Nick. Thanks for sharing.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Ernie W. said...

Hi Nick, Excellent article. Great insight and help to writers. I appreciate your time and wisdom you impart in these articles.

Ernie Wenk

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Myra Johnson said...

Nick, your post reminded me of when I first met you at Mount Hermon in 2001 and you invited me to submit my women's fiction ms. Your "encouraging" rejection included an extremely helpful article on characterization--"Creating a Character the Reader Has Never Met," by Shelby Hearon. That really hit home with me, and ever since, I've tried to make my characters at least a little bit less "ordinary."

At 3:56 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

Thanks for sharing. I think the early draft may not be technically sound but has more life than the later, more polished drafts, at least in my case, which have been santized, so to speak, in an effort to make them better. Something to work on.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

You have the marvelous gift of being able to reject a manuscript without making the author feel rejected. Thank you for your encouragement.

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Timothy Fish said...

Just the other day, I was trying to read a book that I would classify in the third category, but it had made it through the publication process. It was not a Harvest House book, but my bookmark is stuck in the middle. I may mount a rescue effort in the near future, but I doubt that the book will survive.

The problem that made that book lifeless was that it was too predictable and the conflict was not believable. There are some books were the reader ends up cheering for the antagonist because he dislikes the protagonist so much, but in this book I did not care for any of them. The characters might as well have been dead. So, I gave up.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Cindy Swanson said...

Great comments...and as an avid fiction reader, I can tell you, you're so right.

It's interesting, though, that many of the novels that get published don't have enough of that spark. I wonder how they got past the editors?

As a radio interviewer, I get lots of novels in the mail, and some of them just fail to capture me at all. Others, as you said, have characters that leap off the page and keep me invested in the story until the end...when I'm sorry that it's over and that I have to leave their world.

At 12:57 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

i really like how you mentioned Henry Jameson's term.


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