Fiction According to John Irving: “You might say I back into a novel.”

Fiction according to John Irving: “You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries–at the end of a book–these are the things I have to know before I know where to begin.”
In his lucid book THE FICTION EDITOR, THE NOVEL, AND THE NOVELIST, editor and author Thomas McCormack quotes Irving to say: “I want to know how a book feels after the main events are over. The authority of the storyteller’s voice–of mine, anyway–comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin…”
This quote comes in the midst of Thomas McCormack’s discussion of what he calls the ‘master effect‘. McCormack defines the “verbal expression of that master-effect. The verbal phrasing is the statement of the desired cerebral and emotional impact of the book as a whole on the reader.” He cautions that although this is a vital tool for editors, it should never be forced on the writer, some of whom may balk or not find it useful.
I do think it’s a powerful tool writers should consider using–but only with impeccable timing. It demands that we, as writers, move toward our relationship with our imagined reader to consider what his/her experience might be.
One danger of considering the desired master-effect too aggressively in the writing process is to suffocate a story with what emerges as a stilted message. But to hold the master-effect gently in mind–in soft focus–can be amazingly provocative and enlightening for a writer in process.
In his book McCormack imagines a possible master-effect statement for a best-selling novel some years back: “She could not stand the ‘mess’ in her life, probably because of the humiliation her own parents caused her. So when her son tried to commit suicide, her reaction was not concern but anger and fear for her image in the community. I want the reader to see her as she acted on these motivations, and to feel their impact not just on her son but on her husband…how his new perception…stopped her husband’s love…reader should also feel the boy’s guilt and his struggle…it should feel inevitable when the mother simply goes away.”
I love the idea of the gentle use of a master-effect statement. Ultimately, stories area about relationships, those within the story and the relationship between the author/reader/narrative. For more information on this and other writing and editing tools, seek out McCormack’s book.

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