From Essay to Plot

A few weeks ago I finished my first novel. At least, I thought I did.

After three years of writing and leaving different jobs to focus on finishing it, I had my draft of Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (working title, pretty set on it). Building on my undergrad thesis — wherein I not-so-clearly pointed out that Hamlet and the Henry plays followed the same character of the “savior prince” in different genres — I started considering what an uncynical production of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 would look like on a modern college campus. Although they developed (and changed) quite a bit, much of what I wrote in previous blog posts provided the philosophical foundation for the book. To turn my original thesis into a plot, I began to ask what type of man would put on such a production — and thus was born the young, though hardened, professor, Rydar Colson. I asked what his convictions would be, how he’d talk, what past events would cause him to choose those plays and to defend them the way he does.

And defend his production he would have to; as if by a perverse form of caustic providence, as I was writing the book Shakespeare was progressively being censured and made optional in major universities around the US, and virtually cut from the high school Common Core curriculum. This definitely provided both impetus and material for the book, and it made me, myself, question why I loved Shakespeare so much. Was it just because Shakespeare’s fame legitimized the value of my own study, or because so many people from the past lauded him, or was there something still there–some meat to be pulled from his bones? Such a question should not have to be asked; however, the fact that we are asking it, I found, may be more a mark of health than of corruption. It implies a possible faith that Shakespeare will prove himself still relevant, perhaps in unforeseen ways.

The research, rereading, and introspection of my process all went into Colson, but it also produced my story’s protagonist, Elliot Fleming. A cynical sophomore who’s ability has never really been tested, Fleming is drawn to Colson’s conviction in a way he doesn’t yet understand. He eventually (if begrudgingly) agrees to play the part of Prince Hal, and the story goes from there.

Anyway, after exploring the characters (the others whom Colson approaches for the play, and the students who would oppose it) and finishing the plot, I met with a colleague in publishing. During our wonderful convo a few weeks ago I told her frankly that my word count was above 210k; she subsequently broke the news that as the average debut novel is between 60-90k words, no publisher would go near my book. A true pal, she immediately began to brainstorm how I could cut words. My two options were to cut, cut, cut, or to split the book into three parts (a la LOTR). I’m currently doing the former, though we’ll see.

A main bugbear I faced when writing the main plot, and one I’m still facing in cutting unnecessary discussion, is remembering that it is a novel, not a literary essay. To quote my mother, a retired English teacher who’s been reading through my drafts, “Thirteen pages discussing Shakespeare is a little much.” Sorry, mom; depending on the play and how much coffee I’ve had, thirteen pages is breakfast ;). Nonetheless, as a novel the active plot does need to be central, however well-crafted the discussions surrounding it may be and how seemingly integral to the plot I might think them. However, though I’m currently ousting all the articles (the story follows, in part, a media war against Colson’s production on the campus blogosphere) and emails (an homage to Orson Scott Card’s way of introducing several larger themes into his stories, as well as the bare facts of a professor’s life), the abstract ideas are still implicit in the characters–as much as are the books they’ve read.

That’s a major theme of the book–that, to a large degree, we are what we’ve read. Each character is linked to at least one book that is key to understanding their psychology. Take Elliot; I mentioned he’s untested and cynical. Through the plot one learns that he read much of Aristotle in high school (the Philosopher is a motif through the book). He gained so much from the experience–which he has not been able to use. Feeling his personal study to be a kind of Ferrari locked in a garage, Fleming begins to hide his light, optimism, and ability by being ironical, unserious, and, frankly, an arrogant clown. It’s not until meeting Colson–who deflates his persona by taking him seriously and by expecting great things from him–that Fleming begins to really enjoy his time at college. There’s much more conflict in Fleming’s character (romance, humbled assumptions of other faculty, and dealing with Colson’s unconscionable love for Nietzsche, among other things), but Elliot’s learning to understand Prince Hal through the perspectives of Aristotle and Rydar Colson shows him that Shakespeare’s relevance does not stop at the lecture hall door.

To conclude, the progress of Elliot’s character (and those of others) contain all the literary discussions and works that contribute to how he acts in real life. After all, that’s the main difference between novels and essays: the abstract ideas and themes, as well as the literary backdrop, must translate into human action. If the action is articulated in the right way, the former things need not be stated explicitly, and they will be apparent to those readers who wish to look a little deeper.

We’ll see how I do; the fact that I’m still realizing things about the scenes I’ve written gives me hope. Nonetheless, keep your eyes out for future posts on the ideas and works that went into the book (and which, having cut them, I’ll probably resurrect here). And thanks for reading this far; feel free to let me know if anything I said interested you.

 

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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