Sunday, November 17, 2013

Novel With A Key and a Good Cover

Top of the day to you!

A storm blew in last night. Temperatures went from 50º to 69ª. Too warm for November!

But that's not important. You came here to read about writing, write?

No updates on any of my submissions yet. Currently working on yet another short story. A scary one. This is taking me in a new direction. Can't wait to see the results.

I had the raw concept in my head. It was a short dream, but I didn't get the breakthrough I needed until yesterday because I was too focused on the wrong story idea. I was trying to plot another novel and getting frustrated when I couldn't come up with anything that satisfied me.

The idea was spawned from a large chunk of my own life. I've never tried to use real-world experiences for the basis of a work before, but the more I've learned about Hemingway, the more tempting it became.

My internet searching pointed me to this phrase: Roman a Clef (pronounced roman a clo)

The Roman a Clef is a literary device that was invented in France sometime during the 17th Century. The individual often credited is Madeleine de Scudery.

Roughly translated, it means "novel with a key."

Lady Madeleine herself. 1607-1701

Madeleine lived in an era when the salons were the place to go for exciting stories, usually in the form of gossip. However, since most of these stories revolved around the king, his court, the clergy, or other special persons, writing about them was illegal (especially if the document was meant to criticize or satirize).

In order to protect themselves, Madeleine and her fellow writers changed the names, dates, and places in their stories. Madeleine herself wrote a work of over 2 million words called Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus. The novel (considered one of the longest ever written) is set in a region known only as "The Orient," but the characters speak with 17th Century ideas. Madeleine's contemporaries are disguised as Classical figures, such as Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and various Greek heros.

In the 20th Century, many famous American novels have been written in this fashion. It's no surprise that Hemingway's first published book, The Sun Also Rises, was written with a French device after the young author visited Paris in 1925 with several known figures. He did this again and again throughout his life.

Hemingway's book, published in 1926.

Numerous authors have used their own life experiences and acquaintances as the basis for their stories. Ray Bradbury wrote over 600 shorts and over a dozen novels. Never sued. However, the laws concerning libel, defamation, and invasion of privacy have changed a lot. Most of the writing advice I've been given involves "basing" a story around something, but not as explicitly as Hemingway or the others.

It's a vigorous debate. Some say "just write the piece and then see what the editor thinks." Others insist that it's either too risky or not worth the potential fallout.

Defamation means you're saying something negative about a person. It's close to slander, which is basically lying. So....don't do that.

But what if you've lived a story that you are sure would make a great narrative?

Some things to think about. Life doesn't follow a story arch. Daily routines are boring. Even the most exciting events in your life are often unconnected.

And then there's the issue of putting it in writing. I found a great example on how to do this in the following article by Susan Breen.

See what she did there? She wanted to tell the story about her relationship with her mother.

But fiction can't just be about that. She threw some other elements into the mix, significantly altering the characters and circumstances to the point where it wasn't really her story anymore.

And that's the whole point. We're back to the notion of "basing" your story on something.

Even Madeleine's gargantuan novel mixed it up. The female characters were used to perpetuate the idea of women's equality and arguments for why they should be allowed to participate in literature and political discourse.

So while my novel idea still borrows considerable detail and feeling from my life, it won't, in all probability, be a roman a clef.

While researching the subject matter for this post, I came across several vintage book covers. Those things are great, aren't they? It's how you sell the story to readers. I've always been a huge fan of simple designs. Today, most book covers look like the artist tried to paint the Sistine Chapel in a space that's not even six inches across.

You've seen 'em. Sweeping landscapes. Multiple character designs. A giant title that's been lavishly painted onto the front. And of course, the obligatory reminder that this work (or the author) was a NY Times Bestseller

In ye olden times, most books didn't have covers at all. They were sold as loosely bound bundles of pages. However, around the 19th Century, dust jackets became popular. This paved the way for illustrations on the cover itself.

Vintage book covers, to me, do more to encourage reading. You only get a glimpse. The story is only hinted at. As if the book says, "You want to know more? Well, pull up a chair and crack me open."

I've thrown together a list of ten covers that I absolutely love. Ten. Because it could have been a lot longer. I thought about adding my own comments on the artwork, but I think you get the idea.








Power to the pen!

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