Monday, 14 April 2014

The (hard) craft of a first novel


         Hi everyone! Today I decided to give Carolina and Lisa the day off to go and explore...
                  Instead, I'd like to talk to you about my writing process. Or, in my case, a bit of a "lack of a process" when I write. 
             Here I write about the creative process of Carolina and (with some samples of other chapters!!!) 
          I guess some of you will identify yourselves, and others, more disciplined, will probably have a lot to teach me! Please leave  your comments...

                                        How I write - a critical reflection 
                                                          (MA dissertation in English and Creative Writing)

       Inspired by a year living in Naples, Italy, I decided to write a novel. I had never done a writing course before, except for writing classes in secondary school, where we were ‘trained’ to write 30-line essays in order to pass the exam to go to university. These essays had a set format and we were given set phrases to use at the beginning, to compare opinions, to conclude etc. Once you were ‘well trained’, you could write your essay on any topic they asked you to – unless you were a totally opinionless person or only liked to read comic books.
        When I decided to embark on the adventure of the MA course, I only had one thing in mind: ‘Now I’ll write that novel.’ Well, after nearly two years, I must confess that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I found out that my writing (or my way of doing it, I should say) would have to be dissected and thoroughly analysed. I found out that I would have to use countless theories to explain why I did this and/or how I did that, when all I wanted to do was just write. I am a storyteller, after all. I had never liked to read deep and complex things and discuss them, and the first time I ever tried to write a story thinking about techniques, I couldn’t go through half of it. For me, writing is experience, writing is feeling. It’s like dancing: you need to feel the music; just marking the time and doing rehearsed steps is not enough; unless you are writing a secondary school essay. Nevertheless, I just decided to learn everything I could, disagree with everyone I could and get on with it.
     Having said that, I wrote my dissertation in an attempt to recount my journey through the discovery and (re-)making of myself as a writer, as well as to critique different research methods and techniques learned through the course. I also claimed the right to call my main character a flâneuse – after all she goes through during the whole space of the novel, she’s not just a wanderer around the city streets anymore; she has absorbed the city.

The (hard) craft of a first novel

A thousand years ago we had about 30 000 [words], now English has 500 000 and the figure is rising daily. They belong to the nation, are listed in dictionaries and each one of us has a usable store or word-hord, as the Anglo-Saxons called vocabulary, of about 15 000. This is 3 per cent of the total in The Oxford English Dictionary and only half the number used by Shakespeare. (Singleton, J and Sutton, G, 2000, p.41)

Well, after this quote, I see myself ready to give up writing; writing in English, I mean. English is not my first language, therefore I believe it is impossible for me to actually have a ‘usable store of about 15 000’ words. However, it is odd to notice that I find it more comfortable to write in English than in my mother-tongue, Portuguese. Sometimes, I feel like I lack Portuguese vocabulary for certain types of writing more than English vocabulary. Luckily, I tend to like to keep it simple.
I really enjoyed the way I gradually discovered the writing techniques I use to create my stories. I had always considered myself an 'intuitive, impulsive' writer. Obviously, I had no idea what happened 'backstage'. Based on the course bibliography, I started to shape my stories, shyly at first, but trying to use some of the ‘techniques’ mentioned in the readings and present in the short stories I was reading. For example, for my first short story of the MA course, ‘Deaf, mute, blind’ (now first chapter of the novel.) I started writing it hoping it one day could become a novel. Apparently, I used one of the ideas mentioned in Burroway’s Writing Fiction (2011) about revenge: ‘An injustice has been done, and you are powerless to do anything about it. But you’re not really, because you’re a writer. ... Cast the outcome to suit yourself. Punish whomever you choose.’ (Burroway, 2011, p.12). Another author who mentions this is Jane Wenham-Jones (2007), who says: ‘This can be therapeutic too and great fun. ‘Don’t get mad – get your pen out’.’ (Wenham-Jones, 2007, p.101)
Another characteristic present in my writing is experience. I usually write about things that happen to me and around me. Although Burroway (2011) says we have to be careful when using autobiography: ‘Probably all good fiction is ‘autobiographical’ in some way, but the awful or hilarious or tragic thing you went through may offer as many problems as possibilities when you start to turn it into fiction.’ (Burroway, 2011, p.8), I feel that it works for me most of the time.
Singleton (2000,) completes this thought when she unveils the meaning of writing about self. According to her, writers who use autobiography have to create dialogues, rearrange things and use a lot of different narrative strategies in the stories in order to ‘explain (away?), rationalise, excuse, justify and disguise the truth.’ (Singleton, 2000, p.100). For her, fictionalising a story about self is a way of being able to use one’s own life and experiences without censoring oneself. 
One example of this tactic used in my own writing explains the fact that the main character of the stories, Carolina, has a massive crush on a pizzaiolo while she’s living and working in Napoli.  Actually, it’s not just a crush, they fall in love. I lived in Napoli; there was a pizzaiolo; he always stared at me. The fact that I ‘transformed’ him in this handsome/mysterious/gentleman-like character was so I could give Carolina exactly what she needed after a horrible man having broken up with her. Actually, the horrible man and the breaking up did happen to the woman who inspired this story, therefore, the need for more tweaks to auto/biographic situations. Evans (2005) explains this in a perfect way: ‘Auto/biography is, in a sense, the most individual of literary genres; its very existence is premised on the belief in the particularity of the individual. (…) many authors of autobiography are motivated by nothing except self-justification, an emotion that may reveal itself in either greater of lesser simplicity.’ (Evans, 2005, p.34)
The part of the story that says:
‘Lisa never wanted to go get the pizzas, but Carolina thought the pizzas from that place were too good for her to argue, so she usually went to get them herself … He was in his late twenties, tall, had dark and messy hair, quite a big nose and beautiful lips. Something like an ‘Italian Heathcliff’. That’s how she used to call him. He had a deep voice and sometimes stared too much for her liking. But somehow he was kind of attractive, and that made her want to go get the pizzas.’
…could have been easily told like this:
‘Her husband never wanted to go get the pizzas, but Daniela though the pizzas from that place were too good for her to argue, so she usually went to get them herself… He was in his late twenties, tall, had dark and messy hair, quite a big nose and beautiful lips. Something like an ‘Italian Heathcliff’. That’s how she used to call him. He had a deep voice and sometimes stared too much for her liking. But somehow he was kind of attractive, and that made her want to go get the pizzas.’
Here, according to Evans (2005), self-justification is the main thing. It actually means: he was cute, but I (the writer, who has actually been in this situation) am too embarrassed to say that because I am a married woman and married women not supposed to have crushes on other men.
Evans (2005) also states that the second feature of the ‘method’ of auto/biography is ‘... the recognition of the boundaries of the work.’  She talks about the many ‘silences’ within auto/biography: ‘...what is not said, what cannot be said, and what we can say does show how authors of auto/biography can easily cast either themselves or their subjects into the rigid roles of hero/heroine and villain. Once these identities are set, it is difficult for individuals to escape them.’ (Evans, 2005, p.43)
I have to agree with her once again, since the roles of the hero/heroine and villain of my stories / novel were all based on myself and/or on real subjects, all known to me to some extent.
As one of the subjects I use when writing is my own life and/or experience, I couldn’t agree more with her statements.  My main motive to use my life as a ‘research method’ for my writing is not only to actually bring out (or self-justify?) some aspects of my personality in a way which I will not be so exposed (I do not need to show my writing to anyone if I do not want to), but also to find out about myself and to become a better person. Using auto/biography as a research method, one becomes a ‘detective’, searching deep inside oneself or others around him, as well as the environment, for clues and stories to write about.
Bearing in mind that I used some of my own experiences while living in Naples to write these stories (and the other novel chapters), Evans’ article is one of the one I’ve related to most of the time while writing. of the most important aspects of researching for an auto/biography is the establishment of the relationship between author, subject and culture. ... We are not simply observers of a society, or collectors of information about another person, we carry some of the values and the ideas of some parts of the society we inhabit. Once we recognise this, the author of auto/biography becomes the ‘hidden object’ of the study. (Evans, 2005, p.42)
            Just to conclude this part on the use of auto/biography in my writing process, I have to cite Carver (1990, p.17) when he says that 'the best art has its reference point in real life.' The idea of the stories / novel is to tell tales of Naples and its peculiar inhabitants and legends, seen through an outsider’s eyes, who is trying to find out who she really is and where she comes from. And once again, the writing process is continued with the use of the writer’s own experiences and personality traits – or of someone known to him/her.
          Another research method which interested me was ethnography. Before studying this method, I believed ethnography was a research method which meant ‘a qualitative research strategy that relies primarily on participant observation and concerns itself in its most general sense with the study and interpretation of cultural behaviour’. (van Maanem 1995, cited in Alsop, 2005, p.111) However, I was not totally correct on that, because I thought that one could use ethnography in any field, not only ‘... traditionally a distant land of whose people and way of life little was known...’(Hammersley and Atkinson 1983, cited in Alsop, 2005, p.111)
        I always thought that ethnography was the study of any people or community, therefore I have to agree that ‘The ethnographer is both storyteller and scientist.’ (Fetterman, 1998, cited in Alsop, 2005, p.112). This is one of the strengths I find in this method, and it is one of the two ways in which an ethnographer intervenes in the researched world: in conveying his research results in written narrative. Being an observer and a writer, the writing process is made even more real and not invented, since ‘... in all parts of the research process, the ethnographer is part of the research and not merely a neutral, impartial observer. (Fetterman, 1998, cited in Alsop, 2005, pp. 112-113)
      One example of how real it can become and how the research involves the researcher is in Janice Radway’s (1997) account of one of her ethnographic studies:
…this project became as much my story as it was theirs; I place myself within the tale as a character inhabiting the same world occupied by the people and institutions I was trying to understand. What I try to provide... is a sense of the process through which I came to recognize that the impingement of my own history on my present activity had everything to do with what I saw and could begin to say about it. (Radway, 1997, cited in Alsop, 2005, pp.113-114)

While writing the stories / novel, another use of ethnography for me is related to travel writing. Travel writing is something I usually do and it has proven invaluable to the final product of the MA. People-watching and being in constant ‘participant observation’ (Radway, 1997, cited in Alsop, 2005, p.118), I embraced my life in Naples as an ‘utopian ethnographer’, and ‘greeted enthusiastically by the members of the community...’ I wished ‘... to observe and to be welcomed in the fold.’ (Radway, 1997, cited in Alsop, 2005, p.117).
 During that period, I started writing ‘seriously’ for the first time. The atmosphere of that city, the chaos and secrets that were behind those palaces walls needed to become a story. I began to build my characters based on people I met while living there (although I already had my heroine, who is based on my youngest sister), and started asking my students about things my characters were likely to do or say, or places they were likely to go in certain situations. The particular behaviour of a Neapolitan; the incomprehensible dialect that they make sure they use, especially when they don’t want you to understand what they are talking about; the mafia conspiracies that one can feel in the air of the Quartieri Spagnoli, where I lived… I also returned to Naples before finalising my dissertation. The need to refresh the memories and, again, wander around the city streets provided me with some more clues on how to improve my main character and inspired another chapter – The Bones Church. All these were part of my ethnographic study in Naples; one I wish to continue one day and use to finally complete my first novel.
Another author who inspired my work, Luciano De Crescenzo, with the simple, peculiar voice and anecdotes in his Thus Spake Bellavista (1989), has helped set the mood for Carolina’s adventures and stories, as well as given me more insight into the Napolitan people’s behaviour and supporting me in my characterisation.
As for the characters, the stories depict funny characters and their way of living life (the art of il dolce far niente, for instance, meaning the art of ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’) and dealing with everyday problems. Naples has been chosen for its chaos, as well as liveliness. The former is what Carolina's life is like now; the latter is what she is trying to recover. This specific aspect of the stories took shape during the Walking in the city module. She goes to Naples to ‘run away from home’ and ends up ‘finding home’. In the middle of the chaos she’s living, she’s able to find the spirit and energy she needs to carry on living her life the way she believes is right. Trying to use psychogeography, I have been using photos and maps along the chapters to give meaning to the characters’ feelings and conflicts.
 To improve my characters and the flow of the stories, I needed to improve my style, and Burroway's chapter on 'Characterization' (Burroway, 2011) was perfect to help me with my dialogues, since this was one particular thing  I never considered to be one of my strengths. I like to tell stories, but when it comes to letting the characters talk for themselves, I have always been insecure. So, I decided to refer back to the text and go through the punctuation marks, quotation marks, italics, etc. On her section on 'Format and Style' (Burroway, 2011, p.87) I learned about the 'invisibility' of punctuation and dialogue tags such as said, replied, thought, etc and how it can make the dialogue/text 'cleaner' of unnecessary words and how to place them in the correct place to create the effect I want on the reader.
When Carolina and Fabrizio have the first conversation at the pizzeria, I was a little more comfortable with the dialogue, trying to make it sound more natural. I ‘knew’ that Carolina really hated the fact that he was talking to her for various reasons (she was very shy, she couldn’t speak Italian very well, he used to stare at her all the time, which made her feel really uncomfortable). However, Carolina was also enjoying the fact that they were talking (she had a secret crush on him).
‘So, Carolina, what are you doing here in Napoli?’
‘I teach.’
‘You teach?’
‘What do you teach?’
‘I teach English.’
‘Inglese? Da vero? I can speak un po’ di inglese.’ He looked at her, as if thinking. ‘And I know a great story about an English teacher.’
‘Ah... Ok,’ she smiled. He was good, she thought.
‘Don’t you want to know it?’ he insisted.
‘Hummmm... ok.’ She was sure he'd tell her anyway.  She laughed in her head.
‘Well, once upon a time, there was this beautiful English teacher from Brasile.’
 ‘Yes... and?’
‘And she was like a principessa...’
However, when it came to their ‘first date’, I struggled with whether to add more dialogue to it or not. Reading Burroway’s section ‘Economy in Dialogue' (Burroway, 2011, p.75) I came across the 'tentative rule': ‘There is a tentative rule that pertains to all fiction dialogue. It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purpose of fiction. This may sound harsh, but I consider it an essential discipline.’ I'm not sure where my dialogues convey more than one thing at a time, so I tend to keep them short and simple. At Carolina and Fabrizio’s first date part in A Napolitan Kiss, this is exactly what happens. Their dialogue serves to inform the reader of some facts about Naples and that’s also how Carolina falls in love with Fabrizio.
Fabrizio loved to tell stories about his land and people.
‘Yes, isn’t it incredible? The land around the volcano is so fertile, and that’s what most of the people who live around there live off. The volcanic ashes soil is excellent for the production of wine grapes, vegetables, orange and lemon trees, herbs, flowers and the area has become a major tomato growing region. I don’t think they are afraid. Well, they might be, but the need to make a living is more important, I guess. Also, they feel safe, because tranquil times can last for around 2,000 years.’
‘So, it could definitely happen again, then?’
‘And why did you come to Napoli?’
‘Ok. Now, what about that story?’
‘Ok, ok. Dio mio, Carolina, como sei impatient.’ He put the beer bottle to the side. ‘Where was I?’
‘Once upon a time, there was this beautiful English teacher from Brasile, who was like a principessa...’
‘Ah, ok. I remember now. So, she was like a principessa. She really liked pizza margherita and she went to the pizzeria at least twice a week...’
Carolina looked at him, ready to start laughing.
Fabrizio made a stop sign with his hand and continued.
‘Then, one day she realized she was falling in love with the pizzaiolo...’
‘Nah! Aspeta,’ he put his hand in front of her. ‘, one day she realized she was falling in love with the pizzaiolo. She wanted to see him more and more. So she went to the pizzeria every day. In the end, she got as fat as a whale! Hahahaha.’
Carolina couldn't believe his cheek and slapped him on the arm.
‘Grosse!’ She made an angry face, pouted and crossed her arms in front of her chest. ‘Ok, I’ll never go to the pizzeria again. Ever.’
   What I tried to do with these dialogues, now that I started to use them much more and better was to give them autonomy to express themselves. Carolina and Fabrizio are the soul of this story, so the best thing to do was ‘not to race through it quickly with an end in mind.’ (Burroway, 2011, p.85)
The third topic of discussion in my dissertation was the depiction of the main character (Carolina) as a female flâneuse. Firstly, let me introduce some facts about the flâneur and the flâneuse.
Goethe was one of the founders of the concept of the flâneur, along with another philosopher, Rousseau. In his book An Italian Journey (1962) he describes Naples as a Paradise. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur simplistically as a gentleman who strolls the city streets, and therefore, participating in city life, but only as a spectator. According to Baudelaire ‘The flâneur was an idle stroller with an inquisitive mind and an aesthetic eye, a mixture of the watchful detective, the aesthetic dandy and the gaping consumer… a solitary character…read the city as a book… but in a distanced superior way.’ (van Godsendthoven, 2005, cited in van Nes et al, 2009, 122:1)
According to Friedberg (1993), ‘the department store may have been… the flâneur’s last coup, but it was the flâneuse’s first.’ (Friedberg, 1993, cited in van Nes et al, 2009, 122:2)
van Nes et al (2009) also mentions that the flâneuse is marked, if using Friedberg’s concept, as a consumer (a ‘badaud’). While the flâneuse has as characteristic a distance between her and the city, the ‘badaud’ experiences the city as a place to consume.
As the role of women changes in the society, the flâneuse starts to distinguish herself by becoming more independent. ‘At the beginning of the 20th century…’ she is no longer ‘…objectified by men and patriarchic institutes.’ (van Nes et all, 2009, 122:3)
Janet Wolf (985) claims that the flâneuse cannot exist, because she cannot wander aimlessly around town. I totally disagree and also with Deborah Parsons when she says that the flâneuse does exist, but in a different form than the flâneur.
A very strong theme present in the stories / novel is Carolina’s need for freedom, which is one of the features of the flâneuse. Carolina’s love for strolling around the city and feeling a part of it, feeling so comfortable to the point of considering it ‘home’, definitely classifies her as a flâneuse.  Carolina is a female flâneur and she doesn’t go around looking at shops. She walks around looking for life, for excitement, as a voyeur. She does it for herself. She wants to learn as much as she can. She wants to be part of the city.  Carolina is a wanderer and she uses the streets as corridors, not a destination. According to van Nes et al (2009), ‘for the flâneuse liveliness is one of the conditions to stroll around’.  Again, we have the use of auto/biography here. I  am in love with Naples. I, too, went back to Naples on my own for the second time and wandered around the city streets, trying to experience Carolina’s freedom. I am a flâneuse and what I tried to do with Carolina is to create her to allow me to have this freedom all the time.
Another point is the comparison between the female flâneur to the male flâneur in the sense that the female flâneur’s role, as well as the male’s, is one of understanding, participating and depicting the city and its people. They are both participants in the city life and objective spectators.
Carolina experiences the city through her stories, which come to life as a result of her wandering about the narrow and busy streets of Naples. As the stories are created, the reader can perceive that she starts to claim an active role, not only as a flâneur, but also in her life. She starts to get to know herself; she starts to develop/(re)discover her own personality. This is the role that the city and its people play in this flâneuse’s life; one of enlightment, of understanding the ‘macho’ mentality of the Italian men and with that understanding her own surroundings as she grows up.
It’s in the streets of Naples, with its tales of Camorra, and free violence that Carolina will find the freedom she once craved. It’s walking the dangerous streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli without fear (for being an outsider and not having a greater understanding of what really happens there or about so many people who have been killed there) that Carolina finds her freedom; and her home.
Finally, my aim with this (wannabe) novel is to entertain and educate, depicting a few good historical pieces of information about Naples, and also the people who live there. More importantly, it's been the process of a useless 'fight' against the compulsive writer in me and the discovery that I am also a flâneuse, even if it's my own concept of what a flâneuse is supposed to be. I strongly defend the position of the flâneuse as a woman in love with the freedom of walking around the streets of the city - any city, or even a village, or the countryside - in search of herself, and having in mind all important things in life, none of them related to shopping.
How about you??? What's your writing process like? Do you use any methods, fixed schedule...? 
P.S. If you'd like to see the bibliography used to write this, just let me know in a comment. :)


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