Saturday, 13 March 2010

My Two Magna Cartas

Two years ago I wrote my first novel in thirty painful days, following Chris Baty's NaNoWriMo model. It was a dystopian story about a world in which a seemingly benign state deftly removes those of its citizens which it deems to be the unproductive – the disabled, the ill, and the elderly. It has all been done before, of course, but I like to think that my story added something new to the genre, a contemporary comment about ruling a society through fear and the way in which religion can be used to either keep people in check or stir them into action. I like to think that there is a germ of something really quite good hiding within that 50,000 words, and one day I'll go back and salvage what I can and build it into something great.

Baty's book, No Plot? No Problem: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, chivvies participants along with a combination of good-natured pep talks of the you-can-do-it variety and stern advice on overcoming 'writer's block' through the discipline of daily writing. One of the exercises I found most insightful was an examination of the books I like to read and those I am apt to dismiss.

In a chapter entitled 'The Two Magna Cartas', the reader/writer is encouraged to make a list of the qualities he enjoys in a novel. Baty calls this list the Magna Carta, and suggests that the qualities one appreciates as a reader will be the qualities one excels at, as a writer.

As a way of reminding myself where my priorities should be as I struggle with my second attempt at novel writing, here is my Magna Carta I.

These are the things I enjoy in novels:
  • Third-person, present tense narration;
  • Unreliable first-person narrators;
  • A distinct narrative voice;
  • Multiple viewpoints;
  • Non-linear plots;
  • Short chapters;
  • Playing with language;
  • Beautifully constructed sentences;
  • Psychological conflict;
  • A search for identity;
  • A big, unseen enemy;
  • Landscape;
  • Landscapes that mirror emotional conflicts;
  • Rural settings;
  • Character-driven stories;
  • Puzzles;
  • Protagonists who are on the outside;
  • Protagonists seeking forgiveness;
  • Characters on the edge of madness;
  • Characters struggling with religious/moral issues;
  • Protagonists racked with guilt;
  • Flawed characters;
  • Punchy dialogue;
  • Dream-like narratives;
  • Implausible events made real;
  • Finely crafted imagery;
  • Ambiguous endings;
  • Positive, life-affirming messages.
Baty describes Magna Carta II as the ‘Evil Twin’ – a list of all those things which I, as a reader, find unappealing in a novel. Here’s my list:
  • Protagonists I don’t connect with or don’t care about;
  • Nasty characters without redeemable qualities;
  • Two-dimensional characters who serve only one purpose in a story;
  • Gratuitous anything;
  • The writer’s pomposity showing through in the narration;
  • Preaching – messages which are too obvious or overworked;
  • Teenaged angst;
  • Middle-aged angst;
  • Endless descriptions that don’t serve a purpose within the plot;
  • Mute characters in particular, and lack of dialogue in general;
  • Anything with ninjas;
  • Simplistic plots of good vs evil;
  • Interesting strands of plot which are not fully explored or are simply dropped midway.


kate leader said...

I'm glad that month of horrors led to something! I haven't forgotten how difficult it was to keep up the pace. Kate

Loree said...

It was a tough month, wasn't it. Every word was wrenched out of me. But it taught me a lot about how I work. I know now that I work best after a long period of mulling over ideas, and with a fairly detailed outline.