I’m gearing up to take part in the Six Month Novel Programme, which starts next week. One of the first tasks you have to undertake is to select what is called a ‘companion novel’ to read. You’re supposed to choose something that contains an aspect of writing you want to work on in your own novel, not for the purpose of stealing ideas from other writers (instructions are to avoid anything that has a very similar plot, for example), but to learn skills and approaches from them that can aid you in your own writing.
I think the idea is to choose a book you love and that you know well, but I went in a different direction and selected one I had been intending to read but hadn’t got round to yet. It’s similar to mine in that it involves a small group of people responding to an alien presence and the protagonist is a woman of colour, but otherwise it goes in a completely different direction.
What I didn’t realise before reading the book is that it also has other similarities to mine. The chapters are very short, the backgrounds to the main characters are revealed in flashback and the action builds up from fragmented pieces into a whole gradually.
I also didn’t like my chosen book very much, which made me wonder if I had made a mistake and should go back and select something else for the programme. But, I decided there is just as much value to learning from books you don’t like as from books you love, and I’ve gained some good insight into potential pitfalls for my own novel.
I recently got some feedback from a professional editor on the opening sections of my novel and one of the things she criticised was me telling the same events from several different perspectives, without adding any new information. This was the thing that annoyed me most about my companion novel because it felt like the same scene was happening over and over again and the plot wasn’t moving forwards at all. So, it was very useful to experience that as a reader, because I can now apply that lesson to my own writing with a much better understanding of the problem.
The extreme shortness of the chapters was also an issue for me, because it felt like I didn’t get to spend enough time with the characters to get invested in their fate. So, this is something else I’m going to be wary of in my novel, working to ensure the action isn’t too fragmented and that the reader has time to immerse themselves in the story before it moves on.
So, while I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading the novel I selected, I think it’s going to prove extremely useful to have done so. I’ve made a lot of notes and feel more aware of the possible problems that could be created by the style and structure I’ve chosen for my own novel. I feel better prepared to continue with my first draft and that, after all, was the purpose of the exercise.