Thursday, November 17, 2005

Novel Pacing - Richard Ford

I recently read Richard Ford's short story collection, "Rock Springs," and am now embarking on The Sportswriter, his novel that precedes Independence Day, for which he won the Pulitzer.

Moving from short stories to a novel, I'm struck by the (necessary) change in pacing. I don't know if I'll ever be able to write a novel, because the pacing is so fundamentally different from the pacing of a short story.

Taking a look at the first chapter in Ford's novel:

It's 21 pages of fairly dense text; I'm estimating 8,000-10,000 words. Longer than a long short story. This edition (Vintage, paperback, 1995) is 375 pages long. In this chapter, the first-person narrator (Frank Bascombe) introduces himself, giving us bits and pieces of his life story, telling us that he had a son who died at the age of nine and that Bascombe and his wife are divorced, although they have two other children. In the course of the chapter, Bascombe and his wife meet, pre-dawn, at their son's grave and chat, as is their custom on the anniversary of the boy's death. That's really all that happens in the primary thread. They meet and chat. Which is fine, for a novel, I don't intend to be critical. But how does he get nearly 10,000 words out of this?

He simply tells the fairly unexciting story of his life: his parents were unexceptional but acceptable people; his father died when Frank was 14, and Frank was sent to a military school, which he didn't mind; he met X (his ex-wife) and married her and they had children. He wrote a book of short stories (oh my god, he wrote a book about a writer) and then an unpublished novel and then became a sportswriter. We get varying levels of detail about each stage of his life, mingled with the scene at the cemetery and some gentle rambling about the current state of his life.

It's just details, good, telling details, backstory that makes Frank Bascombe seem real, concrete, authoritative about his own existence. Although he wouldn't describe himself that way; he refers to his own tendency to be dreamy, not in the sense of physically attractive, but of being distracted, lost in fantasy.

It's thick.