I just got back from teaching a workshop in the novel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference in Montpelier. I had six first-time novelists in the workshop, and I’d seen about twenty-five pages of each manuscript before we all arrived in Montpelier. Some people had complete drafts of their novels, and some were still working toward that end. Each book was compelling and glorious in its own way. What in the heck could I do in our five days together to make any difference for these six writers?
It’s been my experience that my own early efforts with the novel form are attempts to find the shape of the book and to fully understand what I’m trying to do with the material. My first drafts are very, very messy. When I teach a novel workshop at a conference, it’s my goal to send each writer away with a clearer idea of what they’re exploring and the structure they’re building that will best house that exploration.
So we talked about characterization, structure, detail, point of view, and language. I made suggestions for writing exercises, and I told my novelists that they should use any one of them that they preferred to either revise a troublesome section or to create something new that they sensed should be a part of the manuscript. They’d have their chance to share this work on our last day together.
Somewhere along the way, I got a crazy idea. We were looking at Stuart Dybek’s piece of flash fiction, “Sunday at the Zoo.” Many of you know I love using that story as a way of looking at narrative structure. The compressed form is like an X-ray. It makes the bones of the structure stand out more clearly. I found myself thinking, why not compress the novel by asking folks to use their material to imitate the Dybek story. A couple of my students did just that, to stunning effects. Their pieces of flash fiction required them to focus on what was really important in their novels. It asked them to make choices. It led them to aspects of the material they hadn’t considered. They more clearly defined the movement of their narratives. They found the right narrative voice. They wrote with more specificity and urgency. Listening to them read those pieces of flash fiction, I felt that they were much more intimate with the worlds of their novels. I felt their urgent need to tell their stories.
So what conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps writing in a short form can help us think about what really matters to us in the novels we’re drafting, or have drafted. Perhaps this compression can show us the way our novels want to move and can also make the shape of the book more clear. Take any piece of flash fiction that you’d like to use, as long as its aesthetic is in line with that of your novel. If your novel is heavily narrative, then the Dybek story will do nicely. If your novel is more contemplative and interested in exploring a character’s interior life, ala Mrs. Dalloway, then maybe a different story, maybe Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” might be a better choice. Use whatever story you choose as a model. Identify the artistic choices that the author has made in the construction of that story. Then fit the material of your novel to its form. See what that process has to teach you about the work you’re doing, or have already done. Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, and many other fine books, talks about how he has to find the cookie cutter for each of his novels—in other words, the form to which everything will stick. Perhaps this exercise with the shorter form is one way to help the novelist find that cookie cutter. If you’re working on a novel now and want to try this suggested exercise, I’d be very interested in hearing the results.