I recently finished John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River.
Irving has been one of my favorite writers since I was a kid. I will never write like him; I have no desire to write like him. But I love reading his books.
Even if you’re not an Irving fan, here are five lessons from Irving’s 12th novel:
Keep the suspense moving
I was surprised by how suspenseful parts of Last Night in Twisted River were. Irving typically doesn’t create the kind of suspense that keeps his latest novel moving along. In some ways, it seemed obvious that Irving doesn’t normally write suspense.
There were suspenseful parts of Last Night in Twisted River that had me on edge. And there were parts where — just as I was about to fidget to the point of driving my wife crazy — Irving wandered off for pages and pages, writing about a character’s past. All interesting, but it deflated the suspense.
Last Night in Twisted River is a reminder of how important it is to keep the suspense there and moving if you introduce it to a story.
I read Irving for the cadence of his words, his plotting, and most of all–his characters.
Irving novels don’t move along at a fast pace. Irving novels aren’t something to be consumed on a beach, or finished on a cross-country flight. Like Dickens — one of Irving’s literary heroes — Irving stories are about characters.
Irving is not afraid to spend the time showing readers his characters. It’s easy to write archetypal characters — there are even times familiar is the way to go. But John Irving proves that if you care about your characters and let them develop, anything funny you do to them is funnier; anything sad you do to them is devastating.
If you create characters people care about or hate with a passion, you’ve done most of your work as a writer.
Take your time
Irving’s writing career started shortly before I was born (I’m 40). In that time, he’s produced 12 novels.
Sometimes he’s been prolific, and other times he’s taken almost 8 years to finish a novel.
John Irving doesn’t rush things — he lets his stories develop at their own pace and makes no apologies for his progress.
Things like NaNoWriMo are great, but there’s a lot to be said for not making writing a race. If your goal is to be the best writer you can possibly be, you owe it to yourself — and your readers — to take your time.
The importance of recurring action and elements
There are recurring scenes revolving around a blue car in Last Night in Twisted River. Characters who don’t seem important become essential to the story later in the book. Irving doesn’t waste action or characters. In his novels, everything matters — it’s one of the things he’s known for.
Readers don’t need to be tricked. It’s not necessary to twist your plot to surprise people; in fact, most readers like having a good idea of what’s going on and where things are headed. Using recurring elements is a great way to lead readers through your story without manipulating them.
Write with confidence
John Irving writes with confidence.
If he wants to take time and let a scene develop slowly, he does. If he wants to hit a reader in the side of the head with a sudden foul ball, he’s not afraid of that, either. He does what he wants, with pacing, with words, with character, and with plots.
He doesn’t write what he thinks people wants — he writes what he wants to write.
You should, too.
Confidence doesn’t demand to be heard; people recognize it for what it is and want to be around it.
If you practice writing and don’t rush things, confidence will follow…and so will readers.