Writing the Serious Novel

By Clifford Forde



Let me put my cards on the table straight away and say that I am primarily interested here in giving you an insight into what is involved in writing a serious novel. What I mean by 'serious' will become more obvious, I hope, as I explain my position. For me the initial urge to write can be anything as mundane as a snatch of conversation, a character, a memory, an absorbing situation - any one of which might, if I'm lucky, push me off on the long journey of writing a novel. Then once I'm away and as my story develops, I discover that I am writing what I feel bound to call a serious work of fiction. This has been true of all my writing endeavours in the past. Not that I set out with the intention of being especially serious; I would say it was more out of interest that I lent an ear to whatever it was made itself available to my imagination. I was intrigued. You might say I thought it would be fun to follow that lead. But let me give you a clearer idea of that process from the experience I had of writing my last novel THE PURSUIT OF INNOCENCE.

Imagine me then one morning sitting before my computer screen and letting my fingers range over the keyboard. For some reason I begin with a young man (name not yet decided) running away into the night. Perhaps this is not the first bit of doodling of the morning but I like this young man who suddenly appears on my screen, and I persevere with him. I like his innocence, his will to live. So I decide to nurture him. Go with him. This young man is elated and fearful: elated, because he is running away into the dark to freedom; fearful, because he has no idea what he will encounter. There is a metaphor here for me as a writer; only later do I realize this, for I too am elated to have set out on my journey of writing a novel, though fearful also of how much I have yet to do in order to achieve that goal. But now the young man is on his way at least and I am excited for the both of us. You see, I am that young man.

There are days, months and even years ahead of us. But I am not yet to know this. Either of us could run out of puff any day. Or worse. After all, I have forced this innocent youth to jump from a train into a dangerous country, to run away from the loving care of those who have made a terrible sacrifice for him to gain this freedom. They have willed him to succeed, as I do. He cannot let them down. They are his history and he carries that history with him. So I push him on. But this young man needs an ally. He cannot bear to be alone, not now that he has lost his 'brothers', his true family, as it were. Besides, he needs someone to help him find his way home to freedom. He needs to get a map. So, out of this bleak, nightmarish land a house appears . then a woman: a strong woman who has known suffering . a mother . a loving and defiant creature with a history of lost ones too . And so I write, on and on. I write through dark and dismal days when nothing much is achieved and I seem to have lost hope. By way of distraction and excuse I polish and re-polish sentences until they seem to stretch and groan under the weight of my attention. I fiddle endlessly with punctuation marks that act for me like worry beads until I can find the inspiration to go forward. Then the sun shines and I'm off again. I do not think of readers, of money, of best sellers. Not while I'm writing I don't. I think only of this need I have to make it all come out right - whatever all that is. This need - urge, itch, compulsion, call it what you must - is ever present within me. When things are going well it manifests itself as a powerful emotion, euphoric, almost palpable. And it seems to be working for me now. I think I will call this novel THE MAP. That title is solidly reassuring. It will do. As time goes by my characters develop, grow to maturity at my fingertips. I see their faces clearly, hear the sound of their voices, recognize their own individual peculiarities. And I love them all. I love their goodness; I love their humanity that shines through the darkness of the horrors they have to face. And I am convinced that if I love them enough and care for them enough, by bestowing on them all the skill I have as a writer then any reader of mine will care for them and believe in them as much as I do.

But I see trouble ahead for these characters. Theirs is not a kind world to find oneself in. I should know. Yet the sentimental side of me wants all these good people of mine to live and be happy right to the end of the last chapter. Their suffering should grant them that comfort at least. But I cannot save them from is bound to happen to them, though I would if I could. I have no recourse to flying broomsticks or wizards or romantic swashbuckling heroes. No one can come to their rescue here. They are too substantial for magic, for wish fulfilment, and the world they inhabit is their natural element. You see, everything here in this novel of mine is as real as my fiction can make it. And my characters know it too. We have colluded in this, made our pact. When all is said and done we know that we have to face up to what's in store for us. That is the truth we acknowledge. Our bible. Any cop-out would be demeaning to the whole enterprise. Not worthy of us. There is no going back. This is serious stuff.

Serious? Yes. For while I am preoccupied with shaping plot and character and story the serious business of what the novel is struggling to articulate has been brewing away all along. It is deep down there somewhere in the misty undercurrent of all these writerly preoccupations. Down there you will find an exploration of the characters need for one another, the nature of family and loyalty, the struggle of frail individuals against the tyranny of absolute power, the wish to leave ones mark in the world, to be remembered ... Above all there's the pity of being alive in a cruel and unforgiving world.

And I have been exploring these issues all along, developing these themes without actually been fully conscious of doing so; certainly without deliberately setting them out for display. But they are there sure enough and they are the lifeblood of my story. You might say they are the heart and soul of the novel, realized spontaneously, so to speak, through character and situation. All along they have been the force propelling me along the way towards that inevitable conclusion: the finished work. And this is the business, as I see it, of what the serious novel is all about. Indeed it is the business of all serious novels. For such novels invite us as readers to explore the issues that should concern us most if we are to count ourselves as being truly human.

So now when I consider what I have been doing and the complexity of issues that are being developed in this work I see that my original title THE MAP will not do. It is too basic and explanatory. Too perfunctory. For a start the innocence of my young character is pervasive throughout the novel in various guises. As an innocent he is being pursued by the authorities. True enough and literally quite obvious. But what about the farmhouse that is intended by the woman and her family as a refuge from the callousness of the world outside? Is not that the pursuit of an innocent, idyllic existence? Misguided as it turns out, I know. Then there is the political dimension, explored through the injustices and brutality inflicted by the most autocratic of regimes, such as the one in this novel. Yet do not these regimes often have their genesis in the pursuit of some worthy, perhaps innocent notion of how the world should conform to some utopian ideal? This may be to stretch the term 'innocence' a bit; but at least it allows for an extended discussion of the point at issue here. So for me THE MAP as a title will not do. THE PURSUIT OF INNOCENCE will suit me better. It invites a more searching appraisal of the work in question. That is what I must have meant all along. And that, for me, is what writing the serious novel is all about.

Clifford Forde has taught language and literature in a number of colleges in the UK. He has published poetry in many magazines and now devotes his time to writing fiction.