Monday, December 23, 2013

PLOTTING THE NARRATIVE: Reindeer in the Dog House

(NOTE: Well, you see them folks all dressed so fine/Dancing, drinking champagne and wine/They’d pinch your pockets now if they could/’Cause they ain’t doing nothing but feelin’ good/Feelin’ good, feelin’ good/All the money in the world is spent on feelin’ good)

A certain publisher’s sales representative touted a new novel for fall by saying, “It’s plot-driven, better than slow narrative.” The rep and novel remain nameless out of professional courtesy, and not having enough obscenities to counter such a dumb statement. What makes a novel worth reading or writing is the narrative, the interior lives of the characters. Plot is important, the action that moves the novel forward, but the narrative stays with the reader long after the book is closed and shelved properly. Ever sit through a bad film adaptation of a favorite book? This is on account of being seduced by the original narrative. You wanted to see if the characters matched your imagination, and, well, at least the filmmakers tried.
The plot-driven novel is seen as a quick and easy sell, but those books rarely stay around after their first year of publication while the narrative joins literate culture, and with a little luck, enjoys a succession of reprints.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “The term ‘narrative’ is often confused with the term ‘plot,’ but they’re not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that’s not narrative; that’s plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that’s narrative.” Of the two, one sticks with the reader while the other slides down the slick walls of memory. The reader remembers Anna Karenina, not Anna Karenina; Humbert Humbert, not Lolita; Emma Bovary, not Madame Bovary; and Huckleberry Finn, not Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Narrative is about emotional connection and plot is not.

Winner of the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone now reaches for the plot-driven novel with Death of the Black-Haired Girl. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, his publisher says this makes him “more straightforward and accessible.” But at what cost? Narratives take longer to write, and, on occasion, Stone has stretched this to seventeen years between books. This is not how to make a living at the writer’s trade, yet the care and attention has given readers such works as Outerbridge Reach and Damascus Gate.

One reader of Stone’s novels since his first, A Hall of Mirrors, had a sales job that called for lots of highway driving. He stopped at a local bookstore en route to a meeting and purchased a copy of A Flag for Sunrise the day of its release. He canceled the meeting after reading the flap copy and rented a motel room. For two days, he stumbled along with anthropologist Frank Holliwell in the CIA-infested Central American country of Tecan. This is the power of narrative. He ate out of the candy machine next to the pool (Beer Nuts and Skittles mostly) and read, pausing only for a brief walk or watch the nightly news at 11 o’clock. He still regards those days as his best as a reader, even though he lost the job due to dereliction of duty or some such nonsense.

“Gosh darn, where can I learn about writing real good and how publishing works?” asks a single parent with too many children and not enough spousal support. The answer is same for everyone, regardless of age, religious affiliation, gender, or planet of origin: it’s the swinging and ringing and swaying The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). What a thrill to finally have your questions answered in such an accessible format, and less expensive than an online study course. Log on to for immediate assistance in finding the closest independent bookstore. If you already know where it is, go before the crowd takes the last copy and you have to drive across town in holiday traffic. A word to the wise is repetitious.

NEXT: Chewing Slippers for Success

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