Wednesday, December 24, 2014

One Hundred Novels and One Mosquito

The idea started buzzing around in your mind like a curious mosquito in a room filled with people, not sure if she was hungry, but interested in all those targets of opportunity.

In your case, there was the reverberating memory of all the times you'd told students and wannabe writers they needed to read at least one hundred novels before they considered writing one of their own.  If they wished to write in a specific genre, say mystery or romance or historical or science fiction, they should read at least a hundred in that specific genre, including among those hundred the grandparent narratives, those novels that set a particular genre off and running.

Like the mosquito in the room of targets of opportunity, you were abuzz over the notion of the hundred novels.  For a certainty, you've read well over a hundred novels, the possibility of having read over a thousand a feasible one.  You've edited well over a hundred novels, written close enough to fifty for you to say "close enough to fifty."

Next step:  Write the sort of one line focus sentence used by The New York Times in its copious Bestseller list each week in the Sunday Book Review magazine.  "A moody Danish prince is urged by the ghost of his father to seek revenge."  (Hamlet)

Straightforward enough.  Another of your favored examples:  "A young bipolar man who ships out on a whaling vessel whenever he feels a bout of depression coming on, realizes he's signed on a ship captained by a madman with a grudge."  (Moby-Dick)

So, what would you do for a work of nonfiction, built around the importance of reading one hundred novels?  "In order to write the long,fictional narrative known as a novel, the writer should read at least one hundred published works to get the sense of how storytelling techniques have evolved since the earliest days of printed fiction."  

A bit long, don't you think?  Yet, not so long as to ramble off course,  This sentence goes into a pocket-sized notebook for easy carrying.  Your goal is to shorten the sentence while at the same time injecting the buzzing awareness of the targets of opportunity to the mosquito cited above and to you, who are buzzing enough to have taken matters--note the plural there--to the next plateau.

You have already set out a notebook dedicated to the purpose of essaying this hundred-novel project, you have named a hundred novels, and you can explain on one sentence why those are the hundred novels you chose.  The mosquito continues to buzz.

Short version:  "Each of these hundred novels knocked me on my ass when I read them."

Slightly longer version:  "I have read each of these novels at least twice, stunned and intrigued by their means of freighting emotional impact."

Now, on to the long-winded version:  "These hundred novels influenced my yearning to write fiction, showed me how to do things I did not dream possible, and opened a floodgate of things I understood I would have to be able to do if I were to have any chance of telling a memorable story."

Were you to list the hundred novels according to their publication dates, you'd be a step or two beyond a laundry list, but not much.  If you gave a 500-word description of each, you'd be at the 50,000-word mark, leaving you about 10,000 words to do in effect a history of the way narrative and point of view work.

Part of this narrative would be a frank admission that these hundred novels are your choices, for the reasons cited.  For it to be of maximum effect, the reader would have to read and deconstruct his/her hundred novels.  Which leaves you with a mischievous plan.

Either as text or backmatter, you pick ten other novels, deconstructing the reasons why you didn't have them in your own list, why they lacked qualities that might well have knocked you on your ass.  You would in effect be choosing ten novels--nine if you include The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt--for which you'd do the equivalent of what Mark Twain did with the so-called Pathfinder Tales of James Fenimore Cooper in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," which is to say you would have to make sure your take-down was a satire rather than a mere hatchet job.

The intent of your book and your process would be to hope for better fiction to read, which you would hope to accomplish by demonstrating what to do, when to do it, how to do it, but as well, what not to do, and when not to do it the most.

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