Architecture of the Novel — A Book Review

Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook, by Jane Vandenburgh.  2010, Counterpoint, Berkeley.


“To start writing a novel is exactly this simple: You allow the scenes from your story, the story that has been bumping you and nudging against you as if it’s emerging out of darkness, to itself begin to control the writing process.  As it begins it wrests the reins of the narrative from you, and you begin to sense your story’s absolutely amazing power.”   — Jane Vandenburgh

A lot about writing is just giving yourself permission to go ahead with what you have.

I’m slowly gathering my forces, as I put it to myself, to launch into the actual writing, painfully deliberate and slow as it will be, of a novel I have in mind.

The most encouraging book I’ve read recently about the mammoth conceit of wanting to write a novel is this one by Jane Vandenburgh.  As a novelist herself (of two books), her experience of the act of writing and bringing such a long form together is expressed so that one can almost hear the ringing of distant bells — the auspicious tolling of something new about to be.

There’s a kind of trust required to write a novel… a trust in the process that the ambiguity and the fogginess concealing characters, settings and connections just out of awareness will prove to make sense in the end.  It’s not a trust that’s fully enveloped me yet.

In my thirties, unemployed, I did write a novel manuscript that after two drafts did manage a story of a kind of linear existential adventure in the wilderness.  It wasn’t very good, but after several previous failed attempts to write a novel, that I was able to finish it at all brought a kind of satisfaction that didn’t need to be published.

But the urge to write a novel again since then continued to rise up…. I’ve had a number of false starts, and the always disconcerting sensation of good ideas leading nowhere.  Perhaps I don’t really understand what makes people do the things they do, or am unable to communicate it, or maybe I have no sense of what a good story is, or… well, there’s a fair amount of self-doubt.

I’ve tried outlining, I’ve tried mind-maps, I’ve bought books on writing by the score… but finding a self-sustaining core of developing truth at the heart of the novel has continued to elude me.

In that context, I found Vandenburg’s advice to begin anywhere, with whatever scene means something to you now, as liberating.

“All you need to do is write a scene that lies somewhere in the neighbourhood of what might turn out to be your storyline.  Go do this one immediate and concrete task, spending as little time as you can thinking about it beforehand, and no time at trying to write well.  Make sure the writing doesn’t sound large or grand — and more like something that would be easy to throw away.  … With this simple act you’ve started to write a novel.”

At the start of this process, the scenes, the units of story, take place only in action, reporting the direct witness of the senses…. What one is seeking in this, says Vandenburgh, is a feeling of physical immediacy which brings the story to life for the author, and thus one hopes, eventually for the reader.  We want to find the thread of the narrative that can only be found in an exact time and place.  Summaries of scenes can’t work for this.

And what is a scene, this basic building block?  I think I have two or three books on the subject….  But Vandenburgh helpfully again distills it to its essence:

“A scene is simple and easy to understand: At a certain time and in a specific place, an action has been allowed to happen, an action that plays out before the witness of our senses.”

She advises not to worry about The Beginning at the start, but to just plunge in where a scene comes to mind.  And then write the next one that comes to mind.  Eventually your mad and glorious story will make itself known, and a beginning and an end will come about.

It is better to think of this first draft as a “provisional” draft, she also says.  You’re not bound to anything, yet, other than to feel out the physical dimensions of the dramatic action that comes to us, the story’s moments.

“There is honestly nothing more important to your story at this early stage than its ability to pull its writer into a scene that makes this writer seem a willing participant in it.  You will simply need to live your story’s physical reality in exactly this visceral way for its scenes to do the work they need to do.  They need to get us all to believe in them.  The first person your story must convince is you.”

Her advice is to discipline yourself away from all structural considerations at the beginning, including chapters and outlines.  Don’t import background or worry about plot.

“Your scene often advances itself upon you by its use of a single image…. As we write our scenes via their sounds and sights and physical objects, we suddenly feel that we have entered into the excitement of the narrative present, which feels dreamlike and vivid.”

Now this all sounds very fine, and it squares with my previous struggles with overly conceptual approaches to novel writing.  Some people may need outlines and three acts planned ahead to get themselves going, but I’ve always found those requirements weighing me down. I want to discover the story, I want to be excited and inspired by that discovery, and driven to go on.  So what Vandenburgh encourages feels right, and is very much what another writing teacher Robert Butler also advocates as the best process.

How’s that working out?

So how’s that working out for me so far?  I did write the first scene that had been coming to me.  That felt good.  But for some of my next scenes I immediately started to drift away from the witnessing, away from bodily, intimate perception and participation into more abstract summaries rather than the hard work of the scene’s felt reality.  I’ve discovered that to write like this requires considerable discipline, both in the unstructured approach and in the need to write consistently every day to get into the right “head space” — to borrow an anachronism from a few decades ago.  I’m still getting myself ready to go, in the procrastinating way I have.

So one may accuse Vandenburgh of being a trifle glib, of minimizing the need for structure and of turning the novel into a mysterious stream-of-consciousness endeavour that’s bound to turn your way.  It ain’t necessarily so.  But this approach does empower, I find, if only by recognizing and accepting and trusting in the chaos that starting a novel engenders.

She does devote a section of the book to plot.  As the scenes begin to accumulate, their sequencing starts to take on more meaning. A quest in some sense starts to become evident.  But:

“The novel-writing enterprise — when you get to plot — starts to sound like a structural impossibility, that it’s an instruction manual you have to write in order to be able to read how to begin.”

But the restructuring and rearranging of the scenes and episodes imagined in their reality will, Vandenburgh says, make the story our own through the story’s intrinsic architecture revealing itself.

What can go wrong?

Vandenburgh says of her writing process: “My greatest strength? I’ve always allowed myself to be wrong for as long as it takes for me to learn the truth of what my book wants to say from the inside out.  I let myself be wrong.  I absolve myself ahead of time; I am forgiven all my lapses and failures.”

There is a lot more of substance in this book than I will examine here:  a section on narrative time and a kind of glossary covering narrative structure.

I like her voice, the lightness and the humour in it:

“This is why you’re going to have to let your story confound the plot, stand up, say whatever is on its mind, tease it, poke it in the gut.  Story dances off, hides in the bathroom at the truck stop and says it won’t come out.  Story makes fun of plot by diving out the window the moment plot thought it had its hands on it.”

And finally, as a last bit of advice from her, here’s a passage summarizing Vandenburgh’s message about the difficult project of writing a novel and respect for what we’re setting out to do:

“We enter the time of our story and look around.  It may seem as wild and as strange as the New World did to the first European explorers.  We look around, entering it respectfully, listening to the voice of those who already live there to find out what the story’s things want to call themselves.

We enter our story as we would a foreign country.”


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2 Comments on “Architecture of the Novel — A Book Review”

  1. MDW Says:

    Very interesting. As a person with absolutely no writing background, I have no idea how anyone goes about writing a novel. This sounds like the kind of approach I would use if I tried it. With a chemistry and computer background you would think I’d like a very structured system, but my method of taking photographs is very unstructured and stream of consciousness like.

    Start writing those scenes, dude.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your encouragement….

    It promises to be an interesting process.


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