When I think about writing, I think in metaphors. Certain flashes of insight help me understand my own writing better, and they often come when I’ve been writing a manuscript critique or working with an author on their novel. This is one reason I love the teaching side of writing, because you’re never really teaching. You are always learning by doing, just like the writers you’re working with. You’re side by side, digging like miners in the same pit, rooting out muddy jewels and suddenly exclaiming: ‘Ah – the seam runs this way!’
I just had one of those flashes (I don’t make any claims of originality, by the way. I’m sure a thousand people have had exactly the same thought, but it helped me understand something about writing, and so it seems worth passing along). I was thinking about structure, and about the way a good novel can never be just the story it tells. A children’s novel in particular has to be simple, the basic story should be easy to grasp and yet the best children’s novels acknowledge complexity and ambiguity. Have you ever tried to sum up the plot of one of your favourite novels for someone who’s never read it? ‘It’s about a girl who steps into a wardrobe, and she finds a whole world in there, covered with snow because it’s under the spell of an evil witch, and she helps save it.’ It’s easy, and yet, as you think about it, you find yourself saying, realising, that it’s about so much more than that. ‘It’s about courage, and betrayal, and faith and love and hope. Oh and it’s really all about Christianity. And friendship. And beavers.’ And yet, it really is about a girl who steps into a wardrobe and saves a world from winter.
The metaphor that flashed into my mind was this: A novel is a house. It’s a whole, self-contained structure, as a reader, you can walk all around it, you can get the measure of it. You can step into it and out of it. You can describe it. ’It’s painted white. It has four steps up to the front door, the railings are made of iron, there are three floors, each with two tall, leaded windows facing the street.’ You know where the house ends and the rest of the world, the world outside the house, begins. It has a story, a structure. It’s about something that you can sum up in a sentence.
Yet at the same time there are windows that let light in and allow the reader to look out. There are doors that connect one room to another (maybe this is a good time to recall that stanza, not so far in function from chapter, means room). There is a central staircase and a front door. So though the novel needs to be understandable as a whole, it also needs to allow the reader to look out of the window and see the distant, shifting light on the hills.
So here’s something to try. If your story/ novel was a house, what sort of house would it be? What would it look like? Describe it – draw it – build it! (I suggest Lego rather than actually doing a Grand Designs). What does it look like inside? Where are the windows? What views do they offer the reader? If you were giving your reader a guided tour of this house, where would you start? What points of interest would you pause at? What would you want them to look at, what sort of atmosphere would you like them to feel in each room?