Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa

I wanted to write to the famous authors to ask them for advice on how to be a true blue writer. Will you continue to write if no one responds? Very few authors get to become successful. The act of writing is the inherent reward for wanting to write. Writing has, to the novelist, be the best possible way of life. Vocation is not completely a choice at times. Inclination to the field is important as well, apart from vocation. If you have the inclination, then go for it. Authors are rebellious at heart. It needs to be a strong rejection of reality. People write because they imagine themselves as fictional characters in which reality failed to pan out the way they wanted it to. In the past, books were banned as they were deemed to go against the authority in question. Being an author is like having a tapeworm in your body. It will consume all your food and body that you take in. Your life is now dedicated into servitude. You must live to write. You need constant motivation, always aiming to surpass yourself.

The defining characteristic of the literary vocation may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward, much superior to anything they might gain from the fruits of their labours. – Mario Vargas Llosa

If that’s what you choose, you will certainly have taken a very important step, though your future as a writer will still be far from assured. But the decision to commit yourself, to orient your life toward the achievement of your purposes, is already a way – the only possible way – of beginning to be a writer. – Mario Vargas Llosa

The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity. It is an all-encompassing, all-excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims into slaves. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Literature becomes a permanent preoccupation, something that takes up your entire existence, that overflows the hours you devote to writing and seeps into everything else you do, because the literary vocation feeds off the life of the writer just as the tapeworm feeds off the bodies it invades. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Where do authors get their inspiration from? Writing is like reverse professional stripping. You start off naked, but then you start to put on clothes as you write. An author doesn’t choose his themes, his themes choose him. There are usually events which shake your consciousness/subconsciousness which you feel must be written into stories. An example is Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’. The writer’s responsibility is to convert the themes into literature. All writers have a hidden impulse to write. The more uncomfortable you are in the world, it helps to write. Accept the demons within you. Be authentic about it. Write the things that excite you and you will be more vibrant in your prose. There are no good or bad themes. It all depends on how they are positioned into words in a certain order.

All stories are rooted in the lives of those who write them; experience is the source from which fiction flows. That doesn’t mean, of course, that novels are always thinly disguised biographies of their authors; rather, that in every fiction, even the most freely imagined, it is possible to uncover a starting point, a secret node viscerally linked to the experiences of the writer. – Mario Vargas Llosa

There is something in their lives that make them wish passionately for a world different from the one they live in, a world that they are then compelled to construct of words and upon which they stamp, usually in code, their questioning of real life and their affirmation of that other reality which their selfishness or generosity spurs them to set up in place of the one they’re been allotted. – Mario Vargas Llosa

The novelist who doesn’t write about what deep down stimulates and inspires him and who coldly chooses subjects or themes in a rational manner because he believes that way he’ll have a better chance at success is inauthentic and most likely a bad novelist. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Form gives shape and substance. In great novels, content and form are closely interwined together. To persuade others, your novel must make use of personal experiences. It has to be freed from real life as well. The trick is to live a lie. Depict reality so well that the reader can imagine himself in that space. Fiction must aspire to independence. The next chapter will feature the importance of style in fiction.

Fiction should paint an autonomous reality. A style employed should be efficient. Even if you break grammar rules, it can still come across as great. Coherence and essentiality are the two keys. Some writing can be so excellent that it can mimic the human consciousness. Without coherence, the text won’t flow and makes it difficult to read. Essentiality means being able to feel close to the characters. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing style is not intellectual but more sensual. You need to discover your own style and do not copy someone else’s. It is a process of discovery. Technique is also important.

Read constantly, because it is impossible to acquire a rich, full sense of language without reading plenty of good literature, and try as hard as you can, though this is not quite so easy, not to imitate the styles of the novelists you most admire and who first taught you to love literature. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Anyone who writes fiction needs to face the following challenges: ‘narrator’; ‘space’; ‘time’; ‘level of reality’. The narrator is not the author. The narrator only lives in the fictional world and nowhere else. Who will tell the story? Some narrators are like God and can see everything. There are hence three different types of spatial view. It is possible to switch from one form to another while the story unfolds. The story can also be told from various narrators in one book. Flaubert intentionally wanted the narrator to remain a mystery throughout his novels. For classical novels, the narrator seems to reveal himself more as compared to the romantic novels. In writing, every little detail counts towards the grand work.

A narrator-character, an omniscient narrator outside and separate from the story he tells, or an ambiguous narrator whose position is unclear. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Now, we will examine the importance of time. Time in the fiction setting must be invented. There are two kinds of time: chronological and psychological. Psychological time is subjective and it depends on what we are doing. In novels, psychological time is more applicable. An author can use many chapters to describe a period of time. You can use present, past or future tense when narrating the story. Fiction uses a temporal point of view. A novel usually uses more than 1 temporal view. In some stories, it is possible to go back in time to feature an old man who gradually gets younger as the story progresses. It is also possible to narrate from a different universe, where time is different. Ulysses covers just 24 hours in a man’s life. Form does not really exist. Form and content are inter-wined. There is no stopping time.

The relationship between the space and time plane the author occupies will affect the space and time in the author’s world. There are the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastic’ worlds. Those with we can relate from everyday experiences are known as ‘real’. The narrator can be on a different level of reality from the characters in the story. Good authors can take advantage of different levels of reality. Sometimes, authors uncover aspects of life or the human experience and it gives them a refreshing vision of life. In every novel, there are 3 types of views. 1) Spatial point of view; 2) temporal point of view and 3) level-of-reality point of view.

This is the great triumph of technical skill in novel writing: the achievement of invisibility; the ability to endow a story with color, drama, subtlety, beauty, and suggestive power so effectively that no reader even notices the story exists; under the spell of its craftsmanship, he feels that he is not reading but rather living a fiction that, for a while at least and as far as he is concerned, supplants life. – Mario Vargas Llosa

When the narrator shifts from ‘He’ to ‘I’, there is a change in spatial perspective. They should help increase persuasion for the novel. Temporal shifts are also possible and more likely to happen. It is possible for there to be change in realms, from ‘real’ to ‘fantasy’. An example would be ‘Moby Dick’. It is like a puzzle, where smaller and smaller identical parts nestled inside each other. Learn to fit stories inside stories. Each story can be subordinate to another.

The true subject of a novel involves shared human experience: the way people retreat into fantasy and fiction in order to enrich their lives, and the way fictions created in the mind are built on the little occurrences of daily life. Fiction is not life as it is lived but a different life, conjured out of the materials supplied by life; without fiction, real life would be a paler and drearier affair. – Mario Vargas Llosa

Hemingway often leaves significant silences in his stories. There is always a question mark over the central event of the story. He tells by keeping quiet. Silence will force the reader to keep guessing. Faulkner was also the expert at hidden information. Sometimes, the sum of an episode is more than its parts. It is not possible to isolate theme, style, order, points of view from one another. Criticism can be a useful guide as well. Forget about the importance of a structure to a novel. You just need to sit down and write.

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