Au revoir 2015. Bonjour 2016.
Living in France sometimes has unexpected benefits. Like, for example, having the whole of January in which to express your New Year greetings. Yes, you can dally along, whistling, until January 30th then leap to the phone and cry: ‘Bonne Année! Bonne santé! Meilleurs voeux!’ to all those friends poised to cross you off their dinner invitation list.
So, in the time-honoured tradition of my adoptive country, and well within the deadline, let me begin this blog by wishing a very sincere Bonne Année to one and all. And another wish: may 2016 be a happier year than 2015. Foolishly optimistic? Perhaps. But looking out of the window on January 2nd this is what I saw:
There are other advantages to this tradition of month-long well-wishing. One is that it gives you a chance to get over the turkey fatigue, another is that by the time you’ve got to the last name on your Bonne Année list, one of the most depressing months of the year is drawing to a close. The garden may look bare and bleak, but there are invisible stirrings, you just know the worms and beetles are at it underground, Tolkien-like creatures tilling the soil and helping those elvishly ethereal snowdrops and crocuses to spring forth. No sign of green shoots as yet, but last week, a neighbour brought round a few sprigs of winter daphne, and the whole house was suddenly redolent of spring.
So, January, it’s not all bad. In fact it has often been surprisingly productive for me in terms of writing, character and plot-hatching, and so forth. Of course there could be other reasons for this surge of activity aside from an atavistic urge to emulate worms and snowdrops. In January you can’t loll on the patio sipping pina coladas and waiting for the steaks to grill. Not in the Tarn anyway, where a lot of time is spent sitting by the fire, staring into the flames and letting your thoughts wander. But whatever the reason, the nouvelle année has nudged me into trying something new.
I should have been writing up the notes for Book 3 in the “French Summer Novel” series. But something was holding me back (no, this is not a feeble excuse about bionic hips and stoic suffering). That ‘something’ had been tugging at the curtains of my mind since finishing “Hot Basque”, a sort of Hamlet’s ghost moaning plaintively off-stage. It definitely moaned louder after the September anaesthetic wore off and in November the phantom finally stepped forth from the wings holding a lantern. The face was familiar. The apparition grew brighter and started to wave and suddenly I recognised Alexandra, mother of Caroline and Annabel, despatched well before the beginning of Book 1 in a fatal car accident.
‘Remember me!’ she quavered. ‘Tell my story! Time those skeletons came out of the family cupboard!’
I pointed out that I was busy planning a wedding for Caroline and skeletons were inappropriate guests but sometimes characters have a mind of their own.
And so the idea of a backstory gradually emerged. The ideas kept coming, Alexandra kept quavering, and I kept waving my lucky rabbit’s foot in the air and invoking Divine Eureka, she of the inspirational hot flashes. ‘Please Your Divineness let the light-bulbs keep popping on the cakewalk of the imagination! Thanks to your mercy I am now 20,000 words into “When Your Heart’s On Fire”, my…my…’ My what?
The backstory was more of a sketch than a portrait. Was it a short story? No, too long. A novel then? No. Too short. Maybe a novella? Er…what exactly is a novella?
Here dear readers permit me a fascinating digression. When we settle down with a book we know straight off whether it’s a novel or a short story. “War and Peace” is a novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a short story. But what about those things in between, novellas/nouvelles/short novels/novelettes, that inhabit what Stephen King described as ‘a really terrible place, an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’?
If you look on the internet, you’ll discover an amazing amount of disagreement about what constitutes a novella, which is handy if you think you’ve written one and other people don’t. Artistic considerations aside (plot and character development, style, tone etc, a discussion which would run to several pages), one of the main problems concerns the length, particularly if you’re offering it to a publisher. Publishers measure in words, and publishers, writers and literary critics all have different ideas about how many words constitute a novella.
As I was musing on this in relation to Alexandra’s story the following link popped up:
This is a paper with suggestions about what might go into a high-school literature curriculum. The author, Ted Morrissey, looks at the length of various works, then, using definitions by writers and critics, establishes what he calls ‘some benchmarks’:
-short story: 500 to 15,000 words.
-novella: 30,000 to 50,000*
-novel: 50,000 words upwards.
So what does this mean in concrete terms? He lists some commonly taught novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (104,250 words), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (108,575 words), “Jane Eyre” (191,500); then two short stories: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (13,692 words), and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (6,710 words), finishing with two novellas: “Heart of Darkness” (37,746 words) and “Wide Sargasso Sea” (45,499 words).
But what about the following?
“Death in Venice”. I had always remembered this as a novel. In fact it’s 28,770 words. OK, well it felt as long as a novel. A long novel. Next: “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hmm. Difficult, long time since I read it. Was it one of Hemingway’s short stories? No. Longer. 24,191 words. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, easy, that’s the novel they turned into THAT film, with Audrey Hepburn. Wrong. Only 26,433 words. Mathematically-inclined readers will already have their hands up, having spotted the numerical gap. These three works, ‘odd-ducks’ Morrissey calls them, fall between the 15,000 word limit for short stories and the 30,000 kick off for a novella. They are denizens of a ‘literary no man’s land’.
But time to leave all those fascinating internet discussions and go back to the question that started everything off.
Will Alexandra’s story turn out to be a novella? According to the above criteria it needs at least another 10,000 words before becoming a citizen of King’s ‘anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’. Or will it be an odd-duck, waddling through the mud of a literary no-man’s land?
Something tells me I’m not really going to get a say in this. The final decision about when the story ends is going to be made by Alexandra’s ghost, shouting ‘Au diable with wordcounts, that’s it, curtain!’
And just how important are these literary labels anyway?
In a wonderful interview on the Southbank show (June 2015), George R.R. Martin talks about ‘genres’. For him, ‘a genre is a matter of furniture’ ; whether the setting is a castle with dragons or a spaceship in the future is not important; what really matters is the central notion of ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.
Better write that quote on a piece of paper and pin it up over the desk. Labels, schmabels. Time to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to writing. Except…
Alexandra is not the only one involved in the new project, is she? What about Divine Eureka? It’s like the plumber having to work with the electrician to get the new bathroom finished. What if the Goddess gets into an Olympian sulk and throws the switch on all the light-bulbs? What if the cakewalk is plunged into blackness?
Help, where did I put the rabbit’s foot? ‘Oh, your Divineness, I was just going to sacrifice a goat but all I can see in the garden are bluetits, maybe the neighbour can …’
Just a minute…what does it say at the end of Morrissey’s paper? Something about the publisher…there it is…No! Yes! Read it for yourselves…
‘This article first appeared in…. ‘Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction’… 😉
*Morrissey uses John Gardner’s definition, “The Art of Fiction, Notes on a craft for young writers” (Vintage 1991)
P.S. “Hot Basque”, in case you were wondering, is 104,700 words long, and all of them are FREE for download between 25 and 29 January! Talk about a pot of gold…
P.P.S. Trending! Trending! There’s a new picture relating to December’s blog! It’s a photo of the infamously famous Spot Bar, haunt of Dev Haskell, and was kindly contributed by one of the habitués of the neighbourhood in a rare moment of sobriety….