I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to what goes into making a novel until about halfway into my time in San Francisco State University’s MFA Creative Writing program. In the fall of 2010, I had the good fortune to take a class on novel writing from Dodie Bellamy (The Letters of Mina Harker). At that point, I was writing short fiction almost exclusively, but one of the issues we spent a good deal of time on was “what makes a novel a novel.” At the beginning of the semester, Professor Bellamy brought in a quote from a 2008 conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Millet.
Jonathan Lethem: I was recently reading an essay by Mary McCarthy, a quite brilliant, free-ranging one that she first gave as a lecture in Europe, called “The Fact in Fiction.” At the outset, she defines the novel in quite exclusive terms, terms that of course made me very nervous: “…if you find birds and beasts talking in a book you are reading you can be sure it is not a novel.” Well, as the author of at least one and arguably two or three novels with talking animals in them, I felt disgruntled. McCarthy is one of those critics whose brilliance dedicates itself often to saying what artists shouldn’t do — like the equally celebrated and brilliant James Wood, with whom I disagree constantly. For me, the novel is by its nature impure, omnivorous, inconsistent, and paradoxical — it is most itself when it is doing impossible things, straddling modes, gobbling contradiction. But anyway, when I lived with McCarthy’s declaration for a while, I found myself replying, “But in the very best novels the animals want to talk, or the humans wish the animals could talk, or both.”
As Professor Bellamy also took great umbrage with the idea, all the great novels we read for the class – including Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Kirsten Bakis’s Lives of the Monster Dogs – prominently featured talking animals.
Although the seeds of Alex and Dog Go Hunting had not yet been planted, the idea that what makes a novel rests on external definitions of “what artists shouldn’t do” was thoroughly debunked for me.
Aside from technical definitions used by the industry (it must be so many words long to be a short story, so many words long to be a novella, so many words long to be a novel), what makes a story a novel?
Length plays a part. A short story or a novella must be more compressed, less detailed. Much more needs to be inferred. The novel form allows you to spread out and run with your ideas. I am personally fond of detailed worlds that are internally consistent. I don’t care what your rules are, as long as you follow them consistently. If you are writing a world where animals talk, fantastic! But make me believe it. The longer form of the novel allows for the development of detail and the inclusion of enough backstory to provide a good foundation for your world.
Another important aspect of what makes a novel is plot. A novel-length work allows you the space to develop a story, but story (and plot) depend on structure. How will the story fit together? Will it be chronological? This is a common structure, but not always suited to what you are trying to accomplish. For example, in Alex and Dog Go Hunting, I found that a strictly chronological telling became problematic — one of the most important characters in the story (Dog) doesn’t show up until late in the game. So rather than telling you the story in strict chronological order, I decided it would be better to intersperse Dog’s story with Alex’s story and tell both stories in slightly different order. I think, overall, that this makes the whole thing work better. I’m not a fan of withholding information from the reader as a cheat to generate tension. By not following strict chronology, I hope you, the reader, will get the information you need to understand what’s going on, when you need to understand it.
And as for talking animals — I honestly didn’t set out to write a story with a talking dog. In fact, the genesis of this story had nothing to do with talking animals, and it wasn’t even supposed to be a novel. It started with a found object, given to me by one of my professors, that evoked a location I’d never heard of. Dog started out as a totally normal dog that communicated in the completely conventional way in which we all communicate with our pets, the way you complete the dialog when talking to your puppy what a good boy he is or tell yourself what the cat’s thinking when she knocks a vase off the counter.
Gradually, as Alex’s story began to take shape, and the world she inhabits became fleshed out in my mind, I realized that Dog really was talking to her, and that she really was talking back to him. However, at this point in her development, Alex was also increasing untethered from reality, so her behavior seemed erratic and odd to the other characters in her world. It was left to me to figure out how this all worked and, hopefully, to convey it to the reader in a relatively believable (or at least coherent and internally consistent) way.
Because I tend to have a million ideas and a million projects, all at some range of 75-80% completion, hanging all these words and all these ideas on a structure — any kind of structure — is a real challenge. I hope what I’ve written makes sense. I have a “first reader” (my lovely wife, who as luck would have it is a freelance editor – (Ed. Note: Luck has nothing to do with it!) who helps me “get out the stupid,” structure my ideas in a mostly coherent way, and tells me when I’ve made incorrect assumptions about what I can expect someone who is not me to understand. Especially when things get weird and dogs start to talk.
Pick up a copy of Alex and Dog Go Hunting from here.
About Alex & Dog Go Hunting
Alex doesn’t have much to her name despite her knack for thieving and her passionate love of Veronica. When Alex is arrested and her relationship with Veronica shattered, she has only one way to clear her name and avoid life in prison.
Years later, and now an asset of the US government, Alex has been transformed into a Special Ops assassin, and she has the engineered genes to prove it. Fighting her way through every blacklisted mission possible, and loving every minute of it, it isn’t until she’s de-listed and on the streets that she meets David, a genetic whiz, who suspects there’s a flaw hidden in her new and improved DNA — a flaw that may prove fatal.
Forging an uncanny relationship with Dog, a canine with incredible abilities, Alex learns that there are more dark rooms filled with government conspiracies than even she knew existed. As they dodge a desperate military, Alex realizes she’ll have to face one of her worst battles yet: one of the heart.
Alex and Dog Go Hunting joins the ranks of such female-kicking-butt offerings as La Femme Nikita, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Wanted and adds a bit of Alias and Aeon Flux. It’s Christopher Charman’s debut novel.
About Christopher Charman:
When he isn’t selling houses as a real estate broker or playing jazz, Christopher Charman is writing. His undergraduate degree in Egyptian Archeology from UC Berkeley led inevitably to a 20+ year career in technical support and information technology, but Chris returned to a state of grace and sanity by completing his MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University in 2013. He has black belts in two Japanese martial arts and is a founding practitioner of Nanatokan Aikijujutsu. Chris lives in Santa Cruz with his partner, two sons and dog, who is extremely expressive but unfortunately does not use words. Alex and Dog Go Hunting is his first published novel.
Categories: Guest post