Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Fat Novel

Marcel Duchamp's Portrait of Chess Players.

Had a great day off with my son yesterday.
I showed him how to play chess and how to create music by layering preset riffs and drum patterns in a simple piece of sequencing software.

See if you can guess which chess piece gave him the most headaches ...

... It was the pawns. They can move one space forwards, except on their opening move when they can move two spaces forwards, and they take diagonally. (I'm saving en passant for later.)
I think he found the distinction between moving and taking difficult to grasp; after all, you need to move the piece to take another. Probably I'm just a lousy teacher.
After an introductory game, I decided to take things back a step.
I gave him various pieces, say a queen and two rooks, and gave myself just a king. I figured he'd get to grips with the movements and the concept of diminishing board space, and maybe thinking one or two moves ahead.
I discovered that he would not put my king in check: rather, he would creep closer to my king with one piece, ignoring his other pieces, and then scuttle away again the moment I threatened his piece with my lonesome king.
Anyhoo, he found the game 'too hard' which is his way of saying 'Hey dad, I'm not getting any instant and continuous gratification from this.'
So we turned to the music software and I showed him how to play through the presets and then how to select them and layer them up. I had him pick a drum pattern and then a bass pattern, and then some keyboard riffs, and we created 30 seconds of rather funky, if not eclectic, music.
Then I let him loose by himself.
He selected every sample that amused him (notably the 'I'm hot and sweaty' vocal sample played a pivotal role in his creation). And, rather than layering the tracks, he worked linearly so that the first track ended and the second began, and so forth, and soon he had four minutes of rather barren and rhythmless sounds.

All of this put me in mind of one of the most common of publisher/agent comments. I understand that many pubs and agents select novels that survive more than a single read. Every successive read reveals more hidden treats.
If my son's chess game or musical noodlings were novels, they would be single read material because they are linear. I kind of see them as long and thin.
Whereas one of my aims has always to be to create a novel that is fat (the length is pretty much moot: I read all the time that debut novelists should endeavour to come in at between 70 and 100 thousand words - these figures tend to vary marginally depending on where you look. It's a printing costs thing. Either way, I'm not really bothered because all of my energy is devoted to writing well and writing captivatingly).
A fat novel. A wide novel. Rather like the novel equivalent of Nacho Libre: You won't really get it the first time around - you'll just get a weird glow - but you'll want to watch it again and again, and with each successive viewing, the response changes and you think 'Cool! I get something different every time. I might just go watch it again.'
Okay, not a great example.
I'll have to give the concept of the fat novel some proper, considered thought.
My first thought, however, is that the reader gains knowledge over the course of the novel. If he were to re-read the novel, he would have a different knowledge. Furthermore, the author can secrete information that requires that the reader not only have a basic grasp of this knowledge, but has understood its deeper meaning or ramifications.
More thoughts will doubtlessly plop forth anon.

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