This 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 José Eduardo Agualusa's Man-Booker Prize finalist A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION.
1. It’s okay to blend writing styles.
“If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls,
I could compose a great work about forgetting:
a general theory of oblivion.” (104).
Agualusa has divided his novel into several sections, some short, others several pages long. Some of the sections are prose, but quite a few of them are poetry. The poetry allows the reader to delve deeper into the mind of the main character, Ludo. Sometimes different styles of writing allows reader to understand characters on different levels. Different writing styles allow you to better articulate certain concepts or events. Don’t feel like you have to stick to one writing method if your manuscript is asking for something a little different.
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 onTwitter or on her blog.
2. Have a theme.
“There are some people who experience a fear of being forgotten. It’s a pathology called athazagoraphobia.” (196)
This might sound stupid. “It’s up to my readers to find themes,” you say. Trust me, write a theme. A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION focuses primarily on Ludo, but it also looks at several different characters that she has ties to. Everyone is tied together by the Angolan war. This could theoretically be a total disaster. There are a lot of characters and it would be hard to make us empathize with all of them. So Agualusa connects them together with the theme of forgetting. All of these characters are either trying to forget or are afraid of being forgotten. This theme helps us understand the relationships between the characters a little bit better and see how they play into the larger story. Themes can help you focus your book and help your reader understand what’s really going on.
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3. Resist the urge to give away the key to the novel.
“Ludovica never liked having to face the sky” (11).
The reader learns on the first page of the novel that Ludo is agoraphobic. We don’t find out why until page 237 out of a total of 246. It’s not until the last 10 pages of the novel that the reader finally understand why Ludo does what she does. That’s a long time to make the reader wait. But it works. It keeps the reader hooked. Once we find out, everything falls into place and we’re ready for the novel to resolve. So even though you might want your reader to know what’s happening right away, resist. Let us really want it. It’s so much more enjoyable once we’ve waited for it. One note of warning here—only make the reader wait as long as your novel requires. Hold back too long and your reader will give up. Give us enough to keep us reading without giving us everything right away. Feel it out and ask a beta reader what is or isn’t working.
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