Friday, February 3, 2012

Busted!—Colum McCann Caught Exposing his Novel's Spine

In her wonderful cross-genre book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp calls a work’s organizing principal its “spine.” She writes:
The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to use this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.

I am such a student of the way structure can support meaning in literature that I had Tharp's notion tucked away in my consciousness while reading my book club’s recent pick, Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin.

The book begins with the description of a disparate crowd of onlookers brought together by a 1974 public spectacle—specifically, Philippe Petit’s infamous 110-story walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Because the thread connecting the interrelated stories comprising McCann's novel is as tenuous as Petit's high wire, the book baffled many in our club.

My Kindle was not the best way to experience this book. I longed to flip back through for a more visual sense of how the stories fit together. But I had blogged here about McCann before, and had faith it would all come together—and was rewarded with this paragraph in the voice of a character named Gloria, on p. 306:
I caught glimpses of people’s rooms: a white enamel jar against a window frame, a round wooden table with a newspaper spread out, a pleated shade over a green chair. What, I wondered, were the sounds filling these rooms? It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

And I thought, there it is: in one paragraph, McCann has revealed the spine of his 400-page work. Once my book club members knew they were peeking into the details of these characters’ lives as if stacked atop one another, the book started to make sense in a way they could verbalize.

Was McCann’s use of this technique conscious? Who knows. But even that which has been done subconsciously, once brought into the light and examined, can be recognized and used again.

About the spine, Tharp concludes:
In the end, whether they see it is not part of the deal I’ve made with my audience. The spine is my little secret. It keeps me on message, but it is not the message itself.

Tell us: What is the spine of your WIP? Is it on the page, on a Post-It, or tucked away in your head?

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Oh, what an excellent concept. I've been calling this my book's "matrix": the scaffolding on which the narrative unfolds, which (I thought) should remain (relatively) hidden.

    The spine of my WIP is that I have alternating chapters set in two alternate worlds. The main theme is "balance" and I see these chapters as placing a weight on a pair of scales that keeps tipping and then the next chapter brings it back into balance. I've even got a pair of such scales in the narrative, so there you go: not as hidden as I'd thought.

    I also love that imagery of "layers" of New York, built on top of each other. It is exactly what I felt about London when I was there: layer upon layer of history and humanity and this sense of depth. I can definitely relate.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. Another post to the very heart of writing, Kathryn. One might say my WIP is currently spineless. It is really two stories--one of deeply buried secrets in the here-and-now and the other of a deeply buried past--and I am still working on just how to interweave these. I will know the way forward when I see it.

    --Larry Constantine

  3. You would think that all those years of coming up with concepts for the PR work I did would make something like defining the spine of my story a breeze, but with most of my commercial fiction, I seem to have trouble. Now I can see the spine in my short stories, which are more literary. I wonder if it is easier to do this with mainstream and literary work, and not so much with strictly commercial, like romances, mystery, and other genre books. Opinions anyone?

  4. Well, one thing I can assure you of, you won't have work all that hard to figure out the 'spine' of my WIP.

  5. Elle: I love the fact that your matrix, or spine, leaked onto the page, and that you found it. I do believe our subconscious does a lot of this work for us—sometimes. But when we're struggling, it's nice to have identifiable craft at our hands.

    Like you and Larry, my work has two interweaving plot lines: one that brought the character to the moment at the beginning of the book, and one moving forward from there in a way that brings all full circle at the end. I found my spine in these words, where my female protagonist realizes that the man who left her in the first part of the story is continuing forward without her:

    "He was still accelerating towards his goal; I, reaching back for what I’d lost, had created my own terminal velocity."

    Realizing she needs new goals motivates her forward motion in the second storyline, which is of course informed by the first.

  6. Larry: Your comment reminds me of that old Saturday Night Live skit with Jane Curtin as Gilda Radner's mother, Mrs. Loopner. She holds up a framed photo of her deceased husband, curled in a basket, and says: "Poor Mr. Loopner, he was born without a spine."

    When I need to answer a question such as "What is my spine?", I hold it in mind while reading a book like Tharp's The Creative Habit. Answers tend to form. Good luck finding your spine!

  7. Such powerful words - aren't they a metaphor for life itself?

    It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

  8. Maryann: Hmm, interesting question. My guess is that all creative endeavor has some sort of spine. Tharp suggests you look at your first strong idea for clues. Just before my story opens, my character has survived a fourteen-story fall she can't remember. A fourteen-story fall—that already must be the greatest obstacle she's ever overcome!—yet I put it off-screen. Why? Because I believed her greater challenge was rebuilding her life: she was a dancer, and when she wakes up, she can't move. So her waking up—not the fall—is the inciting incident, and removing her memory of the fall drives that point home. This raises dual questions: what put her out on that ledge, and what will she do now? Those spark my two story lines.

    Perhaps commercial fiction has a more predictable structure—such as two people who can't stand each other realize they are meant to be together when fate intervenes—but that's still a spine.

  9. Exactly, Dani! I think that's why metaphor is so powerful, and why it often springs from the gut.

  10. Ooooh, this is a great way to think about the theme. Thank you!

  11. Thanks Heidi. The more told the better, right? Hearing something put a new way sometimes makes all the difference.

  12. I love this concept. I'm definitely still working out the spine of my second novel, but the quote from Twyla Tharp's book helped.

  13. Thanks for leaving a comment, Brianna! Hope it helps you as much as it has helped me. :)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.