Monday, May 30, 2011

Pieces of the Whole

Part of this new novel I’m writing – and more to the point, the whole thrust of a new technique I want to explore – is to create a series of shorts in which each “chapter” stands alone as if it was a short story, but when you combine the experiences all together, they form a much larger, deeper story.

It’s not a new technique. Many better and more well known writers than I have done this. Yet, I’m blogging about it now, because over the past year I’ve realized this style is where my true talents lie. If nothing else, I have mastered the concept of packing short fiction with multi-layers. That’s what I’m good at.

Or, on a slightly different angle, what I really suck at is continuity.

In the past, my novels had a handful of great scenes, barely held together by expanses of dialogue or events that were meant to show a flow to the characters’ lives. Not that I had to write about every minute of every day, but I felt the need to account for those “in-between moments.” So, the end result was good part, good part, long boring part, good part, long boring part, good part, etc.

This problem really hit home a few years ago when I was trying to finalize my Memphis novel. This novel is about uncovering a family secret decades after the event, and I experimented focusing on a single week of the main character’s life, but ended each chapter with loosely connected childhood memories. The plot itself is good (or so I think) and the characters seem real. But the methodical trudging along to get from one clue to the next (to uncover this secret) was killing me.

Just when I was about to trash the whole damn thing, I suddenly thought (another one of those subconscious wake-up calls!): What if I cut it all up into just memories. No continuity at all. Just a jumble of events of the immediate past and long dormant childhood memories. Each chapter is a unique, independent flashback, nonsequential, seemingly nonrelated, but at the end, when the reader is done, suddenly a picture of the main character’s life has formed. And the dark secret is revealed. Ta-dah!

Like I said, it’s been done before, but the concept was like a surge of energy to me. In fact, that idea is the main reason why suddenly after all those years, I’m back to writing again. I love the thought of creating a literary anagram. It may not make sense in the beginning – at least not in the traditional sense of a novel. However, by the end, you’ll have all the pieces to the puzzle.

The image of a reader suddenly going “Oooooooh…..” and seeing how all those separate short pieces fit into one? Wow. That would be something.


  1. At least you stop yourself from trashing the whole thing. It seems that the closer I get to a deadline, the more dissatisfied I am with my writing and I DO end up trashing it. I just can't seem to sustain my own interest in what I have to say -- how is that going to translate to others?!

  2. My Ph.D. supervisor recently said to me, you already know what you're trying to say, now just say it. Basically he was telling me to write with my conclusions already in mind. I know it is totally different for fiction, but that advice saved me and made my thesis seem so much less daunting! Now I write each chapter as a whole piece that can almost stand alone, but I am also hyper-aware of how it fits into the big picture. I can't tell you how much time and energy that has saved me and will inevitably save me again when it comes to editing the whole work.