3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Nadine Gordimer’s JULY’S PEOPLE

his reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines Nadine Gordimer’s Nobel Prize-winning novel on South African apartheid, JULY’S PEOPLE

1. Time doesn’t have to be linear.

“The knock on the door
         no door, an aperture in thick mud walls, and the sack that hung over it looped back for air.” (1)

The first five pages of this novel travel back and forth in time so fluidly that it’s difficult to tell just where exactly we are. But for this novel, it’s effective. The main character, Maureen Smales, is experiencing a massive displacement. Her whole life is turned upside down. Everything reminds her of the ways things used to be and she is continually having flashbacks. The non-linear time stream is confusing, but it allows the reader to get inside Maureen’s head and experience her discomfort.

(Should you start your novel with a prologue?)

July's-People-book-coverHannah-Haney-writer

Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
 Twitter or on her blog.

2. Ambiguous endings aren’t always bad.

“she can still hear the best, beyond those tree and those, and she runs towards it. She runs.” (160)

These are the last two lines of the novel and they are ambiguous enough that no spoilers were issued in the writing of this post. When you get to the end of the novel, Gordimer doesn’t give you anything concrete. There is no definite answer, no bad guys loose, guy gets the girl nothing. Just running. And it’s powerful. Assess your story. If an open-ending feels right, go for it.


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3. Use your white space.

“Fifteen years
                           your boy
                                                you satisfy” (98)

Gordimer spaces out these three phrases so that they mirror the echo of July’s fist on his chest. As the thump echoes through the bush, these phrases echo through Maureen’s mind. Gordimer could have easily separated these phrases with a period, or even just a hard return. But she separated them by lines and space, so that they appear on an angle. This carries much more of an impact. Be creative and purposeful with your white space.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

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