Genesis of a First Novel

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

If you want to write something, why not try a story for children? It must be about the easiest thing imaginable, especially for teachers and ex-teachers. They are in touch with children's literature to a greater or lesser degree for a large part of their lives. They read children's stories to themselves so that they can talk about them to their pupils. And they read stories to children for all the good reasons there are for reading to children.

If you have a sneaking suspicion that writing for children is easier than trying to follow the devious contours of adult minds in adult novels, suppress it. A novel for children has its own set of norms, and they are just as difficult to observe as are those of any other work of fiction. The best way of making this point may be to tell you of the genesis of my first attempt at the genre.

Once I had decided to try my hand, I felt I had to know what experts had to say about fiction for young people. Quite a bit has been written about it, so it was not difficult to find recipes and lists of what were called 'essentials' of stories for children. One such list gave the following:

  1. A strong and convincing plot with clear lines of development, and which relate to experience that children can recognise.
  2. Plenty of action.
  3. A clear and definite point.
  4. Credible relationships.
  5. Believable characters.
  6. Characters that children can identify with, especially ones who behave as they might like to rather than as they actually do.
  7. Some relevance to children's inner world of imagination and make-believe.
  8. Humour of a rather basic and earthy kind.
  9. Sometimes sadness and pathos.
  10. The story should be direct and exciting and relevant to children's interests.
  11. The story should be possible to interpret at a number of different levels, so that children can return to the book and find something new to enjoy.
  12. It must be well written, i.e. language vivid and original yet accessible and easy to read.

All of those, with the exception of (k), are fairly obvious, though they require careful attention and are difficult enough to achieve. They may be taken for granted.

The one marked (k) bore out something which had struck me forcibly when reading other essays. I had noticed that people who commented on children's literature hinted at a distinction between stories which had little to recommend them other than a lively anecdote, and stories that operated at deeper levels. Enid Blyton was a prime target for vilification. Writers who elaborated on the notion of deeper levels mentioned things like dealing with important issues, or making a serious point, or teasing out the complex relationships between the characters.

I wanted to be serious about writing for children, so I had to work out what kind of important issues or serious points or interactions between characters gave stories the greater depth that made them better stories.

I wondered if the criteria for children's stories were vastly different from those applied to adult fiction? Children’s stories are different of course, but if there is a basic aesthetic principle that should be applied to fiction, why should it not, making all due allowances, be applied to all genres of fiction -- novel, novella, short story, drama, film, or anything that involved a story of imaginary characters in an imaginary world acting out their roles in imaginary situations. If there were such a principle, could it not be applied in a suitable way to children's fiction too?

I recalled that Seán Ó Faoláin had addressed the basic question of theme in fiction in his book on the short story. I found two brief passages that I had underlined when I first read his book many years ago.

... we can read a story by a master like Chekhov or Henry James over and over again, where every turn is playing on the great instrument on which all stories worthy of the name, long or short, must play -- the instrument of human nature -- so various, so complex, so contradictory, so subtle, so amusing and so unexpected.

Fine words, but nothing too specific. The story must show something about human nature, never mind that human nature is various, complex and all the other things he said about it. The basic idea was that the stories must play on the instrument of human nature. Was that just a nice way of saying that the stories had to be about people? All stories with people in them deal, in one way or another, with human nature. But, of course, Ó Faoláin had something deeper than that in mind.

I had underlined another piece:

I think it is safe to say that unless a story makes this subtle comment on human nature, on the permanent relationships between people, their variety, their expectedness, and their unexpectedness, it is not a short story in any modern sense.

The word permanent in that excerpt gave me food for thought. Any story has a plot, I concluded, a resolution of some dilemma set up at the beginning. But stories which rely on plot alone are easily forgotten. In the best stories a deeper theme, hinting at something universal, permanent, and true about human affairs, is present. Often it is scarcely perceptible. Children who read such stories just for the excitement of being caught up in the tide of events will do so without being conscious of those deeper elements, but if those elements are present, the story may have that extra weight and gravity which could raise it above mere anecdote, and make it linger in the memory.

There was nothing remarkable about my line of thinking of course, no great road-to-Damascus light blinding me. Many people who take children's literature seriously have known that for aeons.

But I was certain then that I knew what was required in a novel for children. All that remained to do was to sit down and write it. That turned out to be the hard part. It was more than hard. I found it impossible. Several abortive attempts were consigned to the waste-paper basket. All my efforts to be profound were falling flat.

For eventually getting it done I am indebted to a friend who said, 'Can't you forget your old theory and spin a yarn that young people might enjoy. If you have something to say about human life, it will come out in your story.'

Lockie and Dadge was begun. I tried to write it without thinking of principle or theory. I just thought up a tale to tell. Without conscious effort I got locked into the characters. I was getting inside their heads, hearing their voices, feeling their anger and their joy, their hopes and despair. I believed I had at last come to grips with the task. I can’t pass judgement on the finished product of course, but the comments of reviewers, though brief, in articles that attempted to review a wide range of books at once, were encouraging for the most part.

Writers differ. They have different preoccupations and different approaches to what they do. With hindsight, if I were asked to define my priorities in writing fiction, I think it would be a sine qua non that the characters should be comprehensively conceived -- their physical presence, their circumstances, their feelings and their attitudes. I came to the belief that if that is done, they will act and react consistently and typically in the situations of the story. In saying or doing what they do, they will make a statement as representatives of their personality and of their class. There is no need, therefore, to strive to make a point. The characters will do it for you.

Having completed the book, I felt obliged to apply the litmus test of my own ambitions for it. I searched through it to see if, in fact, I had made a statement, either directly or by implication, about human living. Were there little pearls of wisdom obliquely stated or barely concealed in the narrative?

I think I may have made some of these points about human society:

  • It is unlikely that a set of inflexible rules will cover every situation.
  • Human sympathy doesn't need plausible reasons.
  • People who belong to the great huckster tradition act exclusively with an eye to profit.
  • People are duped by advertising into the culture of consumerism. There can be better.
  • We treat our derelicts abominably.
  • It is pointless trying to buck authority.
  • Acting solely on principle can lack that little touch of humanity that can be very important in a child's life.

There may have been something there about friendship and compassion too, but, as I have said, I didn't set out to make any of those points. They never entered my head as I wrote.

It has been said too that many of the characters are eccentric. I have been asked why. The eccentrics are all based on characters from life, changed of course because people straight out of life do not always fit conveniently into the scheme of a novel.

All my 'eccentrics' are people who live on the edge of society, people who do not conform to the fashions of orthodoxy. The freedom of such people has always fascinated me. They are free from the obligation to live according to the unwritten laws of polite society.

This freedom has its downside too. Clashes inevitably occur between the demands of freedom and the rigour of propriety. But the great fascination of their freedom is that they are free from the demands of any creed or political philosophy to think in any particular way. They are free to think for themselves, to criticise the laws and mores of the ones in charge, as one of the characters describes the people in authority.

We would all like to kick over the traces from time to time, and we can envy these eccentrics who do just that. The great difference between the way they treat the main character, Lockie, and the way he is treated by the orthodox members of society is that the beatniks take Lockie as they find him, while the others have an evangelical zeal to make him match their own blueprint. Lockie is a free spirit too, and it is logical that he would gravitate towards the eccentrics.

If I am not deluding myself, and those themes are present in the book, the question arises as to how they crept into it without being mentioned explicitly? I can only attribute it to character, what the characters say and do, how they react to situations and people. That it should be so is perhaps a truism, but one that can be easily ignored in the convulsion of story making.

Frank Murphy