Nelika McDonald is another friend from my writing school days who has given me endless support and inspiration as a writer. We first became friends when she showed her brand-new engagement ring off to me, because she “knew I would understand”. (I was never shy about my romantic soul.)
In our second and final year a couple of us were asked to show our writing to an editor at Pan Macmillan. Nelika was not only brave enough to actually do so – she sold her young adult novel on a couple of chapters. When you read her post you will begin to understand why her editor became addicted to her voice in such a short space of time.
The novel will be published next year.
When I read her most recent draft, I couldn’t help thinking of her writing like a cloth she had woven, detail by detail. This cloth is an exceptionally beautiful, rich thing, that perhaps needs to be trimmed a little here, taken in a little there, but is complete in itself. (This feels to me like quite a daggy, writerly description, but I can’t think of it any other way.)
She is, without hesitation, a writer to watch out for.
When I read, I want to feel like I am being given an access-all-areas pass to another world.
I want immersion, chin-deep. And for this to happen, I need to be able to believe in the world written on the pages. Not believe in the literal sense, but in the sense of buying into the world I am reading about. I want to have a teenage crush on the world I’m reading; I want to find every aspect of it fascinating. I want the worlds I read to be compositions for whole orchestras, with a scope and magnitude and richness and fullness that astound me. I’m talking about suspension of disbelief, but of that particular variety when the world you are reading about is based in your own, but is not your own. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about writing in general contemporary fiction and not writing that is intentionally set in a different world, time period or dimension. I think a whole other set of rules comes into play for world-building in genre fiction, and I don’t really feel like I have the qualifications to discuss that particular talent. However, if you want an example, read anything Anna has ever written. The lady is a pro. Probably some of what I’m going to talk about applies along the whole fiction spectrum, but I only really write and read contemporary fiction set in this ordinary world, so that’s my frame of reference.
I think this is about why we read what we do.
For me, (and I think this is a truly individual thing) reading is about trying to comprehend my world. In everything I read, I’m looking for some sort of lesson to take away about human behaviour, or the way the world works. Even if the story I am reading is set in a world vastly different from the one I inhabit, I am still looking for something that holds true across them both. I think this is usually subconscious. What I’m seeking is not an overt lesson, because I don’t want to be preached to or patronised, but I do want to learn something, and feel enriched somehow. But not enriched like that milk with extra calcium, where they write about it in bold caps on the label with exclamation marks. I want to not know what I’ve learnt until later, if at all. I also want to be entertained, and delight in the prose, and marvel at the construction of the story and be surprised and freaking awed at the same time, by the way. I’m pretty demanding. But, so I should be. Getting prosaic for a minute, books exist in a marketplace like anything else, and healthy competition can foster a higher standard of product, if the demand is there for it.
Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking about how it is that writers create believable worlds, worlds that are multi-dimensional, complex and layered, but still entirely ordinary, and not fantastical or farcical. What do they need to give us to make us buy into these worlds, and how much should they tell us to establish the parameters of it without dictating its every boundary? Are there specific tricks or techniques that they use to do this?
As a reader, I’m a voyeur. I want to look through a window and spy on something. But this is just a peep show- it’s more exciting if I can’t see it all. I told you I was demanding! So, say I’m looking into a room. It’s a good view, and I can see the whole room. But that isn’t enough. I want to believe that if I went through the doorway in that room, I would find myself in a hallway, from which other rooms branched off. I want to be able to imagine what’s in those rooms too. Maybe one has a door that you need to lift up as you open it, and inside there is a small bed made of pine with stickers all over the headboard, and in the wardrobe there is a green tin of treasures with a scarecrow on it. Behind the chest of drawers, a rock shaped like a crescent moon with a face drawn on it in crayon is gathering dust, a little coat of grey snowballed around it. Down the hall there is another room with another small bed, but this one is stripped bare, and the wardrobe stands empty, doors ajar. There is a coin and the lid of a pen on the bedside table. The only decoration is a homemade dream-catcher hanging from the windowsill, with a cobweb made of matchsticks and bits of foil and cut up plastic straws dangling down from it.
In the best writing I’ve read, the author hasn’t given too many details, but the ones they have given are important. They allowed me to extrapolate and fill in the blanks myself. For instance, maybe they told me that in one bedroom in this house, the mother’s room, there is a photo of a little girl with a candle beside it and some rosary beads. Then, having deduced that a little girl has died, I could decide what was in her room by myself. This is where writing a believable world intersects with writing a believable character. The details given about a character can inform the reader’s view of their world, and vice-versa. Maybe, from what I know of the mother, I can decide if she would keep her little girl’s room as a shrine, preserved exactly how it was on the day her daughter died, or pack it up and lock the door. That’s a whole other post, though. The important thing is that, as a reader, I think there are other rooms at all.
One way to talk about this idea of a believable written world is with the idea of verisimilitude. This is probably the fanciest word I know. And, in my bastardised, simplified comprehension of it, all it means is narrative authority. And that is how I prefer to think of it. For me, the word authority conveys an aspect that I think is important- confidence. I think the writer needs to feel like he or she has the ability to write the world that they do, but also that they are qualified to write it, maybe even have some sort of imperative to write it. And this confidence makes the reader believe in it. In the book I’m currently working on/being strangled by, the setting is a fictional town called Banville. Banville is loosely based on a mash-up of a few places I have visited, in a few different countries. But when I write Banville, I try and write it like I’ve lived there my whole life. Partly, this is because I can’t expect readers to believe in the plausibility of Banville if I don’t. But more so, it is because I want them to believe in my characters, as they exist in Banville, and be captivated by and invest in my whole plot and book, accordingly. I feel like these things are a long, linked chain, and if one link is broken the chain becomes weak. Really weak. Like, if it was holding up a swing, you would look at how rusty and fragile it seemed and decide to force your child to pretend to enjoy drawing in the dirt with a stick instead.
For an example of confidence in writing, I nominate Rose Tremain. I read The Road Home a little while ago, and there was something so incredibly assured about it that I got really depressed and complained to Anna that I felt like that sort of assurance can only come with writing for years and years and I would just have to slog on for another twenty years before I got there and even then there was no guarantee I could attain that level of masterful skill, so what was the point? And then we had excellent sandwiches and I felt better again.
Another way I have noticed a writer build a believable, ordinary world is by writing as though the reader is viewing this world at a certain point in time, but it has actually existed for much longer. This sounds obvious, but it was kind of a revelation to me. I think it was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, and I can’t remember the exact passage, but it was something about how someone had moved a shovel and it had been there for so long that there was a patch of dead grass underneath it. Or if we return to the house I talked about earlier, this might involve talking about the people who had lived there before the current characters. About how one old man who lived there painted the pantry such a vile acidic green that you can still see it on the skirting boards underneath the white that’s there now, if you look closely.
An extension of this technique is through language use. Once I thought about the passage in which the shovel was moved, I noticed that Barbara Kingsolver often used this technique, to great effect- a character’s coat was slung over the back of a chair instead of on a hook where it ‘usually’ hung, or she found a single earring that had been missing ‘for a long time’. For so long, in fact, that she had bought similar earrings to try and replace them, but they were ‘never’ quite the right size/shape/length. The use of terms like ‘used to’ or ‘usually’ imply that there is a before and after in this world. It has existed, and will continue to exist, beyond the point in time you are reading about.
Another technique she uses (still with Ms Kingsolver here, fangirl much?) is to anchor the world she writes about to biology. Barbara Kingsolver is a scientist, so it makes sense that this informs her work, but the way she applies science to her narratives are awesome. Sometimes science is central and sometimes more peripheral to the story, but she always reminds the reader that the world she writes is tethered to the universe by the laws of science- everything is in a cycle. Plants grow, blossom and die, seasons change, the weather is terrible or wonderful or strange. Animals and people grow, blossom and die, too. Her characters exist in and engage with the natural world, because the natural world exists in their world. They are just a microcosm. Like babushka dolls- her worlds are nestled inside greater ones.
There are so many other techniques that fit into this discussion, like self-referential writing and wanky postmodern stuff about breaking the fourth wall and so on, but I don’t want to sully Anna’s beautiful new blog with all of that, much as I secretly love it. So that will do for now. This has been a pretty great exercise in clarifying my thoughts and learning from the masters, and it’s an absolute honour to be featured alongside so many crazy-talented writers. Thanks Anna! x