A good fiction writer uses this device with care. When they are successful, it enriches every aspect of the work and adds another dimension. Use this technique sparingly and make it so inconspicuous, the reader will not even be aware of it. Make your prose seamless and subtle. Stay behind the curtain and whenever possible, let the characters move, speak and do all the performing.
This novel is based on a personal experience; I used to teach prison workshops in Florida (a “live” demonstration of one of my dictums, viz., to write from your own experience).
The title refers to a fiction work by 20th century Austrian writer, Robert Musil, whose novel, The Man without Qualities, is considered a classic.
My title is also a play on the word “quality.” The woman in this novel (the protagonist) has spent her entire life trying to become a person with qualities, or “quality person.” The novel is the story of her journey toward self-awareness and personal growth.
Musil’s book is a pastiche on middle-class 20th century Austrian bourgeoisie society which he viewed as boring and lack-luster, without purpose or “distinctive qualities.”
Also playing on the word “quality,” Musil compares his picture of Vienna between the Wars—a dead-end existentialism in which life turns in on itself—with the properties of light. Every great German- speaking writer is familiar with the literary works of the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (best known as the author of Faust), who was also a scientist. Goethe discovered that white light or light without quality (lacking color) includes all the other colors of the spectrum.
During the early years of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud’s studies of the mind were becoming vogue. We discovered that we humans are multi-faceted “prismic beings.” Our minds consist of three distinct parts: the conscious (ego), subconscious (id) and super-conscious (super-ego). Contrary to popular belief, the subconscious part of the mind is responsible for most of our actions and behaviors.
Musil’s message was profound. What may seem boring and “without color” in broad daylight, may in fact, be exactly the opposite. It is up to the writer to hold the character’s (and their own) life up to the magnifying glass in order to split the psyche wide open and allow it to bleed onto the soul’s palette (the writer’s notebook) for all to see.
At that time in history, Europe was reaching a zero point or nadir of decadence and was about to go to war again. Vienna was about to be bombed by the Germans. The Royal Hapsburgs’ porcelain egg existence was about to be “split wide open” and exposed to the world for what it really was.
The setting for my own novel in 21st century America could easily have been Vienna at the Fin de Siècle (Turn of the Century), since it takes place in Palm Beach, Florida, one of the most decadent areas of the United States. I contrasted this mirage of the bored affluent with “real life” across the Causeway in West Palm Beach, which at that time was a drug den and haven for flunkies, drop-outs and other marginal characters.
The highly celebrated lifestyle of upper crust Palm Beach society was thrust on the same palette or screen as the adventures of a woman who decides to break out of her complacency and risk the ultimate. What appeared to be colorful was only monochromatic boredom (Palm Beach society) and what appeared to be lackluster when put to the test (held up to the light) proved to be a prismic display of human qualities or virtues.
Another reason for choosing to discuss this novel in my chapter about how to write fiction is its focus on the word “quality” in relation to the work itself. I believe good fiction is written with the intention of “having value” or “quality” because it delivers a message to the reader.
A good fiction writer strives to give the reader an emotionally packed, often heart-wrenching memorable experience. The depth of that experience may even be transformative, i.e., it may change the reader’s perspective about life or give the reader a deeper, more profound insight about people, places, relationships, beliefs, etc.
Here is an excerpt from The Woman with Qualities:
By the time I arrived at the Glades Correctional entrance, the sullen drizzle had turned into a blinding downpour.
“We didn't think you'd come tonight.” Bill Williamson, a former journalist, handed me a sheaf of notebook paper.
“I've been working hard this week.” Joshua Franklin, a young fellow who was serving forty years, placed his work on top of Bill's. Joshua was a natural, but in school had only gone as far as seventh grade; then he was out on the streets picking up extra cash to support the alcoholic habits of his father, a sick mother and four other siblings.
“And you, Judson?” I nodded at the scrawny dark-haired boy standing apart from the rest.
“I doubt if it’s ‘creative,’” he sneered. “Furthermore, he added, glancing around at his fellow inmates, “it’s all about death, and some of it’s pretty gory.
“I've been told I'm crazy.” Judson's eyes glittered, “and I've been told I have a death-wish.”
“So that's what you're writing about?” I inquired.
“I'd like to see some of your work. Poems? Stories?”
“Are you sure?” He eyed me incredulously. “It's terrible stuff.”
"Yes, I'm sure."
Thus far he'd only handed in three innocuous poems about poisoned prison food and one about Jesus’ second coming which, he said, was an orgasm; and a ballad about a woman who had drowned her infant son. Then, during the third session suddenly he stood up, strode to the front of the room and delivered the story of his life. He had been an adopted child. At the age of seven he'd been lifted up by his angry stepfather and hurled through a plate glass window while his stepmother passively watched from the other room. In the middle of his story, tears started to roll down his face. By the time he finished, he was crying.
Judson slapped a sheaf of paper on the desk. “Here. This is for you, if you really want to read it and if you don't like it, I don't blame you. No one would ever publish it.”
“We'll see,” I answered.
Just as we'd begun to go over some of the papers, a bolt of lightning bounced on the table in front of me. The lights flickered and heavy rain pounded on the roof.
Another bolt raced up and down my spine. I shivered as it spread through my shoulders and back. Instant thunder landed in my stomach. What if the lights went out and didn't come back on? Was the schoolroom building on the main generator, and was there an emergency backup one in case something happened?
Bravely I continued. “As I've stressed before, and I can't repeat it enough times, if you don't have strong characters, characters you believe in yourself—real individuals who are gutsy, interesting, exciting—wrestling with conflicts the reader can identify with—if you don't have believable, red-blooded characters, your readers are going to yawn and turn on the TV.”
More lightning and thunder. This time when the lights flickered they went off for a moment before coming back.
“And then, love,” I faltered, breathing deeply. “And a sense of humor,” feeling a release inside.
My voice soared. “If you don't love your characters for who and what they are, regardless of their shortcomings, how can you expect your readers to feel anything at all for them? Let's face it, we were put here on this planet in order to create challenges and then find solutions for them that will prove to us how powerful we are. If you can't laugh and cry and transfer your full range of feelings to your characters—if you can't transmit this—your work won’t—”
I jumped. The lightning was right here in the room. The lights flickered several times in succession but miraculously held.
No one seemed to notice. All eyes were glued on me. They were hanging on every word I said.
“...grip the attention of your readers and hold them spellbound. Yes! You want to cast a spell over your readers,” I continued excitedly. “But you have to love yourself first, before you can begin to love others. You must really love the characters you’re developing. Let them live through you. Let them feel your loneliness, despair, desperation, depression… put all your energy into it. Then and only then, will you have the true satisfaction of being a writer.”
No one stirred. “Do you think just because you ended up in prison that God and everyone else has given up on you?” I cried, my eyes circling the room. “It isn't true. Don't you dare even let those thoughts enter your mind anymore. Otherwise you will never be able to create anything. The creating goes on inside, where there's light and joy and freedom—and hope. This life inside has nothing to do with what's happening anywhere else.”
The thunder drowned out my words. As I repeated the last statement, they stood to give me a round of applause.
By the end of the session the storm had passed.
Instinctively I knew all was well because my fear had been replaced by love.
Next time: Commentary