Learning from the experts; David Mitchell

Students writing fiction, both long and short, sometimes have trouble getting their story structured so it makes the best sense, the most interesting read and yet becomes something fresh. In fact, structuring fiction is an elastic technique that can stretch story into new shapes.

David Mitchell demonstrates this to an extreme. He is the ‘structure Titan’, taking the way a novel works and starting from scratch, approaching storytelling with innovation. In a single book he can span the geographical and historical world, chop stories in half then join them together again, invite in characters from previous novels, and catch his reader out with shocks and surprise twists in books like Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) which consists of six interlocking short stories spanning 500 years, each narrative breaking off suddenly at the half-way point before moving on to the next half-tale.

Mitchell has won a bookcase full of awards, including two Bookers and the Costa Novel prize and now, the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. On October 6th he’ll be at the Cheltenham Festival in conversation with Peter Kemp, and as a taster of what we can expect if we manage to get a ticket for that event, he was interviewed by Francesca Angelini for the Sunday Times, in which he revealed what she described as ‘his literary ticks and tricks’. I pass on five of these here.

1. Missives to Self
While creating a new book, Mitchell receives letters from the characters, commencing ‘Dear Dave’ if they know him well, and ‘Dear David’ if not. In the letters, characters talk to him about their early memories and recent passions, and set out their thinking on subjects ranging from sex to politics. This is an excellent technique that we can all follow when creating new characters.

2. Reprise
It’s fair to say that Mitchell has an obsession with revision of motifs, settings and characters, transferring them across ‘stand alone’ novels, giving fans a buzz when they spot a reoccurrence. “I take the view that if it pleases me, it might please other people,” he explains. For the student writer, this device might not work in final drafts as well as it does for Mitchell, but as a kick-start technique it has a lot going for it. You loved using a motif, setting or character, so why not do it again?

3. Use Your Own Experience
Mitchell stammered as a young boy and in his fourth novel, he fictionalises this experience. Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor is trying to conceal his speech defect by searching for synonyms to avoid certain letters which cause him to stammer, particularly ‘n’ and ‘s’. This ‘autofiction’ may highlight a psychological foundation to Mitchell’s narrative virtuosity, especially his delight in coherence, language and structure…

Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ’cept for when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in woods. Ankley branches, knuckly roots, paths that only might be, earthworks by badgers or Romans, a pond that’ll ice over come January, a wooden cigar box nailed behind the ear of a secret sycamore where we once planned a tree house, birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can’t find if you’re not alone. Time in woods’s older than time in clocks, and truer.
Black Swan Green (Random House, 2006),

4. Create Biographies
Mitchell explains how he keeps a ‘top ten’ of autobiographical facts for each major character. He carries these in his head while writing his novels. His structures and plots are so very complex, one can imagine how getting on top of the characters traits and histories in this way could be essential when things start to get tangled up. Try it yourself; find ten bio-pic facts of the characters you’re working with now and try recalling these up when you need them.

5. Be Generous
Mitchell, who has an autistic son, and has been working with Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who writes about his own autism, introducing him to his publisher in Britain. In a Guardian Article (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jun/29/david-mitchell-my-sons-autism), he says…My wife and I translated The Reason I Jump [Septre, 2014] clandestinely, just for our son’s therapists, but when my publishers read the manuscript, they believed the book might find a much wider audience… The Mitchells continued to support Higashida’s writing, translating his next book Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 (Penguin, 2015). Taking time out from writing is essential if you want to stay connected to the world, so don’t feel guilty about time off to help family, friends, other writers or the wider community.

Mitchell’s delight in creating puzzles, bending time and experimenting with structure, genre, style and voice doesn’t prevent his books having a strong foundation of cracking stories. Despite his progressive approach, his methodologies could transfer easily to compliment the exercises in the course materials you’re using right now.

Always keep an eye open for advice from pre-eminent writers like David Mitchell. They often have hit on ideas, devices and techniques that helped them get from an initial thought to an acclaimed book. By tapping into their ingenuity, you can only further your own writing.

You can read a David Mitchell short story here; http://discovery.cathaypacific.com/a-forgettable-story-david-mitchell/ and his introduction to The Reason I Jump here; http://thereasonijump.com/intro

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2 Comments

  1. barbarahenderson 26 September 2018 at 9:57 am

    Great post – some good examples we can all learn from.

    Reply
  2. Sue 28 September 2018 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you Nina. Lots to think about. I’m currently about half way through “The Bone Clocks” so this is doubly interesting to me. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas yet but it is on my list for ordering from the library. I find it helpful, and interesting, to read of the experiences of established writers. I’m a fan of podcasts too.

    Reply

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