I have a habit. (It's a habit I think I share with most book-lovers.) It's the habit of buying and borrowing more books than I actually need. Every time I'm in a thrift shop or library--or bookstore, when cash isn't too tight--it's an effort not to walk out with just one more thing to add to my to-read pile.
Lately, those one-more-things have been adult literary fiction as often as they have been YA, and that's led to some interesting reading experiences, and musings on what those experiences mean for me as a writer.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Room by Emma Donoghue. (Links to Goodreads, and a disclosure: White Teeth was a Goodwill purchase, and Room was a library find. When I'm a little less poor, I fully intend on buying shiny new copies of these books so that publishers and authors get my pretty penny, because that's just the right thing to do.)
What surprised me most about these two novels was how deeply riveted to and moved by both I was, despite their vast differences.
White Teeth was an epic; a tale of three families in London over generations--one Jamaican Jehovah's Witness, one Bengali Muslim, and one English yuppie-atheist by way of Judaism--as well as a love story, a war story, a culture-clash story, a story of religion and how it shapes us, and a growing-up story. It also happened to be a human story, which is really the only thing tying it to Room: an intimate, gripping story of a young woman imprisoned in an eleven-by-eleven foot room with her son, and the life they create for themselves.
White Teeth is a story on the macro scale of humanity. Room is a story on the micro. They were, in my opinion, both equally excellent, affecting, frightening, and incredible.
So what can we take away from this? I think I have a tip for writers of any genre: Determine which scale is most effective for your story, and stick to it.
Whether you figure it out pre-draft, in the first draft, or the umpteenth draft, don't get to final edits and realize you've tried to zoom in on a story about a crazy family or a group of friends, or zoom out on a story that really only hinges on one relationship or conflict. Think of those photographers that focus in on one tiny part of a big picture when the full landscape is called for, or the ones that lose a tiny subject in a massive panorama.
For what it's worth, in my experience as a reader and a writer I think it's much easier to accomplish a micro-story that focuses primarily on one relationship conflict. That's not to say you can't have subplots, but just like babysitting one screaming kid is easier than babysitting, say, ten, a smaller story is easier to manage, especially for beginning writers. I've waded through far more bloated novels where a writer has tried to squeeze in every single detail than I have through novels that are too lean (though it does happen).
Of course, I feel that all writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt: the first rule is always to write the story, and to write it well. But I've seen so many novels go wrong on the issue of scale that I felt it was about time I highlighted a couple of books that did it right.
As always, I want to hear from you. What novels have you read that dealt with scale well? Middlingly? Very, very badly? Leave your titles and thoughts in the comments!