Sunday, April 28, 2013

To Haunt: Novels that Last Forever

“Haunt” displays an intriguing variety of meanings, especially when applied to novels. It’s a “hangout”—a place where the minds of novelist, readers and characters meet. The word also means “preoccupy”—to take hold of you in a positive way. Other definitions include “revisit,” as in repeatedly reappearing or to “inhabit,” as in permanently entering your mind, even soul. In contrast, there’s to “plague,” making you notice, remember, or understand what you’d rather ignore. The really good novels stay with you both for what you love and what you reluctantly understand or accept that you didn’t before.

What makes a novel haunt? It’s not the plot. Those details quickly disappear. What lingers?

·         Characters more gripping, complex and poignant than anyone you know.
·         Emotions real and familiar, yet startling in their complexity.
·         Ideas that you always knew but didn’t know you did.

Most novelists keep a mental list of the novels that haunted them. My most recent addition is Andrew Winer’s “The Marriage Artist,” the most haunting novel I’ve read since Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

Why does Winer’s novel haunt?

Characters: Dysfunctional and deeply flawed, yet empathetic.

Plot Intertwining: The fate of Jews in 1928 Vienna and the contemporary N.Y. art scene.

Symbolism: The graphic imagery that gives the novel its title.

Insight: Big issues, like religion, terror, marriage, art, jealousy, compulsion. 

Secrets: Dispensed with exactly the right amount of detail at the exactly right moments.

Texture: As reviewer Betsey Van Horn put it, “Saul Bellow meets Stephen King.”

Your details will obviously differ completely. But whether or not you read this novel, you can use similar characterization, plot, and other techniques to make your own novel haunt.

Where do you start? Try visualizing three or four of your favorite novels. What do you remember? Why do you remember it? Decide what’s memorable about your own novel. Change, add, or enrich as needed.

Tip: Identify the aspect of your novel that readers will never forget. Remember not to forget it while writing and revising.

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