Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2010
I know this has nothing to do with reading, but it’s to do with writing: it’s late afternoon and I’ve just ‘finished’ writing a scene which I started this morning. This morning I was feeling horrible, but now, after reading this scene over I realise that today I created something which didn’t exist in the world yesterday. It is a strange and wonderful feeling, which has little to do with the quality of the writing, but more with the fact that I spent the day making something out of thin air. In my fictional world, a new day exists and things have happened which will change everything which happens hereafter. Wow.
The idea of gaining access to a great writer’s earlier drafts was what got me onto F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last and incomplete novel, The Last Tycoon, which includes detailed notes by the author about the draft and the writing process. I started reading it without looking to the end notes (I had promised myself I would reach the end and then look at the notes), but after a while I couldn’t resist, and found myself reading each chapter with the notes Fitzgerald had made and trying to make sense of his intentions and his feelings about his own work. According to the foreword, the six chapters are in the form of a draft which has undergone ‘considerable re-writing’, but it’s not a finished version. This stage of almost-right but not quite there is really interesting to me, because I think that I am a close reader and believe that the smallest things matter, so it is a thrill to be able to see what small things were of concern to such a great writer. One of the most interesting notes, for me, and the one which I often feel the urge to apply to my own work, comes after the first chapter, in which we meet the main characters, Cecelia and Stahr.
At the top of the last draft of the first chapter, Fitzgerald writes:
Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look at [previous draft]. Rewrite from mood.
Immediately, this made me think of my own first chapter, which I feel has become stilted from re-writing. After the first workshop, in which I got many MANY helpful tips both in class, but also on the page, I tried to incorporate some of the feedback for the first chapter to hand it in again for the second workshop. This took me ages and I was disappointed with the finished chapter. The sentences didn’t flow, the rhythms were lost and I had removed things which some people had liked, but some people did not, and kept things which some people liked and others disliked. I was trying to please most people, but found that the result was that I was least pleased of everybody. If I have time, I feel I should re-write the chapter, as Fitzgerald suggests, from mood.
Another thing which interested me about Fitzgerald’s notes was that the focus is as much on ideas and feelings as it is on plot and character. For example, after chapter four, he writes: ‘What is missing in Ridingwood scene is passion and imagination, etc.’ I was taken aback to read this, because that chapter had felt so alive to me. I re-read it, and still couldn’t think how it would be changed.
In another note, following a certain sentence in chapter five, he writes for his own guidance: ‘(Now the idea about young and generous).’
I like reading notes like this, because I often find myself writing those kind of idea notes to myself, but feel I also sometimes need to remind myself that this is supposed to be a novel and not an essay. Damien has warned us all about pushing the ‘theme’ button, but I still feel driven to write about ideas. The best way, I guess, is to use action to convey the ideas, and perhaps this is what Fitzgerald (and Damien?) is suggesting, that through some action or dramatised scene, the idea will come into the novel at this point. This reminded me of reading Holloway Road by Samara Mc Dowell at the beginning of the year before the course started. I had wanted to get an idea of the kind of writing going on at the IIML, having never really written much fiction and with no idea of the expectations of the course. I remember loving this story, but being really annoyed by the theme button being pushed all the time, and I wrote a note to myself while I read it that I want to avoid writing something out of which a reader will be able to pick the ideas. I love reading things which leave me with a feeling or an idea, but only when I can’t pin down exactly which sentence or image created it in my mind. When my novel is done (or time is up!) my plan is to read it and ruthlessly purge it of anything which feels like theme. Maybe I could group that stuff in an essay no one would ever want to read, but hopefully I will be left with an interesting story about people.
I enjoyed reading Fitzgerald’s notes on character, especially the attention paid to the moments in which characters are introduced for the first time. In his letter to his publisher and the editor of a magazine he hoped would published the novel in instalments, he described his idea for his first person narrator, Cecelia as ‘A pretty, modern girl, neither good nor bad, tremendously human’. Her father, he describes as ‘A shrewd man, a gentile, and a scoundrel of the lowest variety.’ I enjoyed reading these quick summations of characters who were at this stage still in Fitzgerald’s mind, and it is interesting to see exactly how he goes about building these characters on the page so that the reader’s impression matches the his original conception of the characters. I have often wondered, while writing this year, whether the characters in my own mind are the same as (or even similar to) the characters which emerge in the minds of the readers. I remember Sylvie saying in my second workshop that the adult characters in my work (excluding Johnson and X) were non-descript, and didn’t have anything distinct by which they could be told apart from one another. i.e. she didn’t know the difference between the dads or the mums; they were just a group of parents to her. Others in the class echoed this comment, saying that these characters were quite cartoonish and thinly sketched. I think these comments were very valid, and reading these brief character summations of Fitzgerald’s made me think that perhaps I should work on being able to briefly sum up exactly who my characters are to me. If I know them really well, maybe I will be able to sharpen them on the page. This fits with James Wood’s notes on character in How Fiction Works, where he praises writers who have the ability to briefly yet vividly sketch a character so that he is immediately memorable. Of course, Fitzgerald did in-depth character analyses too ― these were really interesting to read, especially because much of the character information detailed in the notes do not appear in the novel, and yet the details which are left out still fit with the characters as we come to know them. Some back story passages go back to childhood. E.g. Writing about Stahr, Fitzgerald says:
However, this is not really thinking out Stahr from the beginning. I must go back to his childhood and remember that remark of his mother: ‘We always knew that Monroe would be all right.’ … Remember also that he was a fighter even though he was a small man―certainly not more than 5’6 ½, weighing very little (which is one reason he always liked to see people sitting down), and remember when the man tried to get fresh with his wife in Venice how he lost his temper and got into a fight… He must have been a scrapper from early boyhood, probably a neighbourhood scrapper.
I really love the way Fitzgerald describes how he will introduce the character of an actress, because it reveals how deliberately not only the impressions but also the mood surrounding a character are created.
Actress―introduced so slowly, so close, so real that you believe in her. Somehow she’s first sitting next to you, not an actress bit with all the qualifications, loud and dissonant in your ear. Then she is one, but don’t let it drift away in detailed description of her career. Keep her close. Never just use her name. Always begin with a mannerism.
Throughout the novel, there was writing which I admired. I love the way Fitzgerald gets to the point and doesn’t get too lyrical, but when he does use metaphor it is with such sharp effect. E.g. ‘Tonight the one-way French windows were open and a big moon, rosy-gold with a haze around, was wedged helpless in one of them.’
Almost as good as Babel’s moon, which hung in the sky ‘like a cheap earring’.
And in another chapter, (of The Last Tycoon) the protagonist is asked a question, and ‘answered like a book’.
These are just two examples of places where Fitzgerald’s precise writing becomes momentarily ambiguous, which is an effect I really love, and which reminds me of moments in The Great Gatsby, the only other of his novels which I have read and my go-to book for reminding me why I like to write. I’ve had to go to it a few times this year because I have needed lots of reminding. Today I am on page eighty of my novel. Six weeks ago I was on page ninety-nine. So we beat on!
I spent a bit of time looking at Fitzgerald’s outline for the novel, which looks a bit like a spread sheet. It was enlightening to see the way in which he organises his work, which is in Acts (I-V), Chapters (A-I) and Episodes (1-30). So one episode will be: Act I (the plane), Chapter A (Introduce Celia, Stahr, White, Schwartz), episode 2 (Nashville). He even planned roughly how many words would be devoted to each act. Looking at it this way, it seems highly rigorous and structured, with clear intentions given for what will be established by each act, chapter, episode etc, including action, plot information, character reveal, atmosphere, ideas and mood. E.g. In chapter E, the author writes: ‘Three episodes. Atmosphere in 15 most important. Hint of Waste Land of the house too late.’
Reading the outline gave me a bit of a shock because I realised how casual I have been about planning. From the beginning (actually since a long bus trip about two years ago) I have had a rough idea of a plot I would like to use set in the Transkei based on real events and people. I defiantly did not have plans for each section, which I have come to realise is essential ― I don’t know so much whether I could plan the whole thing like this, but I think what I can take from this is that when I start writing a certain episode, I should know exactly what I want to achieve by the end of it, so that I don’t write pages and pages of memoir-ish prose, which is something Damien warned me of in one of my supervision meetings. He said: ‘You have to ask yourself, why are we reading this?’ Over the course of the year, I have thrown away so much writing, always because I realise that it’s irrelevant. It does nothing for the story, doesn’t develop any characters―self indulgent, imaginary travels through the place I love, mostly. I took what Damien said to heart, though, and I think that since then I have been more pragmatic about writing things that count, but reading Fitzgerald’s outline has been a good way for me to get an example of the kinds of things I need to consider about a scene or episode before setting down a word. I like his idea of using Acts ― like a wide arc over a number of chapters.
Chapter divisions is another thing which has challenged me this year. When I ask Damien, I get the same answer I get to all the other questions I ask of him which are of a similar nature―how long is a piece of string? I was arbitrarily ending chapters when it felt like they should end, or when the length of the chapter felt appropriate, but in my second workshop, someone in the class suggested that the chapter divisions weren’t working. Patrick. He said he felt like the opening sequence was one chapter, then everything up until the arrival of the families was another chapter, because that was the boys’ time. I think he’s right though, that those do feel like the natural divisions, but thinking about Fitzgerald’s structure, it feels to me like that whole first section where it’s just Simon and Felix is the first Act. Then the families arrive and things happen (hopefully?), which will be like another Act, and then I can try to bring things together in a final section. Fitzgerald has divided his into five Acts, of which, the second Act is proportionately the longest, according to the projected word count. At 21,000 words (planned), this Act, where the plot is devoted mainly to ‘Stahr and Kathleen’ is twice as long as the next longest Act, the third Act, entitled ‘The Struggle’ and almost five times as long as the final act, ‘Epilogue’. Though I know it’s probably a terrible idea to try and say how long my novel (piece of string) should be, it feels like I’m about half way through the plot. Measuring Fitzgerald’s sections in proportion to the entire whole, I would say that based on his idea of shape, in my new three Act structure, I should be getting quite close to my ‘struggle’ in terms of plot. Which is about where I am. Nearly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rayne Cockburn completed the MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters this year. Her manuscript, a novel set in South Africa, won her the 2010 Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing, which is awarded to the author of the best portfolio in the Writing for the Page stream.