February 22, 2018

Your state of mind while writing is crucial

Posted in Creativity, Fiction Writing, flow in writing, Literary Commentary, Momentum in writing, Tone tagged , , , , at 9:31 am by Rebecca Hein

What’s driving your state of mind while writing? This element of your work process can make or break your short story, novel, or nonfiction narrative. Both War and Peace and Crime and Punishment are excellent illustrations of this phenomenon.

It’s not too hard to guess what Tolstoy was thinking when he wrote War and Peace: “I want to make people think in a new way about history and the nature of power.” His vehicle, an epic historical novel, might have better fulfilled his mission if he’d kept to one genre throughout the story.

However, periodically he jumps out of the plot to deliver an essay on what power really is versus what we think it is, and how historical events prove his point. Thus, we find we’re reading two books in one: a novel about Napoleon’s invasions of Russia, and a string of nonfiction essays.

The novel is okay, though not the best ever written, despite the scope of the story. The essays are fine too, except they belong in a separate book. Possibly they would have more impact if presented in a collection of philosophical essays.

It’s obvious that Tolstoy had to express his convictions, and that the novel, as a literary form, couldn’t contain them. His failure to separate the two genres diluted them both.

Dostoyevsky also had strong convictions. But why would you want to slog through Crime and Punishment to discover the overriding conviction that clearly powered the book? Because the force of that one idea gives the story irresistible forward motion and absolute credibility.

February 14, 2018

War and Peace: Worth the Slog?

Posted in Fiction Writing, Literary Commentary tagged , , at 2:55 pm by Rebecca Hein

In a pithy commentary on perhaps the most long-winded composer in history, Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (reputedly) said, “[Richard] Wagner has beautiful moments but terrible quarters of an hour.”

Perhaps other artists also inflict the same problem on their audiences, hence, the listener, viewer, or reader may not stay around, and shouldn’t be expected to.

When I recently re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I wasn’t thinking about Wagner, although the book is long. Rather, I was curious: The blurb on the back cover claimed it is “the greatest novel ever written.” That felt like a red flag: I had to know if it was really that good—and why the story elicited a rave.

I remember from my first reading, 38 years ago, that by the end of the story, I felt like the characters had become members of my family. In addition, during my more recent second reading, I encountered an event so suspenseful that I couldn’t put the book down until the episode was resolved. How did Tolstoy render his character so real that I cared so much what happened to her?

It was a compelling moment—a little masterpiece. But to get there, I had to trudge through some confusion and a whole bunch of characters and their circumstances that sometimes seemed not quite connected to each other. What else did I discover was wrong, and right, about this epic historical novel?

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