Monday, April 26, 2010

Tips for Writers

There's been a surfeit of tips for writers recently including the Guardian's feature, which followed on from Elmore Leonard's book "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" - and nearer to home, Jen Ashworth's blogging of writing tips. She was looking for pithy, I think, and I haven't really been up for soundbites recently, so I didn't offer any of mine. But it did make me think...

It all goes back to reading with me. A writer, even (or especially?) a trainee one, reads books with a keen magpie eye for tricks of the trade. Does the average reader notice that Anne Enright's Booker winning "The Gathering" hides the revelation towards the end, yet could have revealed it on the first page? Perhaps not, but the writer might. If you're going to create a hostage to fortune - a death, a coma, a rape - whatever make sure you know how you're going to deal with it. My M.A. course was more bloodthirsty than Oxford during Morse's heyday - with just about half of the novels having a death in the first chapter. That's a lot for a first time novelist to have to deal with. (And believe you me, you have to deal with it.) I groan a bit in a soap opera or similar when there's a real tragedy affecting a major character as you know, just like in real life, time will stop. Making time stop is the worst thing you can do in a novel. Unless that's the point, of course... the novel I wrote in 1995 "Lineage" begins with a death, but of a pet dog. What it does is resurrect memory and send the character back to where he grew up, and back to his past.

In short stories I tend to undertake a "slow reveal" - and you notice that short story writer novelists like Enright, like McEwan - often do the same thing. The kernel of the story is there, known to the writer, an unchanging spot in time and space, and the story is a construct around it, revealing it little by little. Often, of course, the real story is not the death or the other big thing, but the reason for it. It is the absence of the thing that the novel is about, which creates the novel. Not all novels are quests, admittedly, but enough are. I always ask the question: why have I decided to introduce these characters at this time and place. Has something happened? Is something about to happen? Has a stranger come to town?

But as the years go by I read other books for style as much as structure. The two should be intimately linked. I'm not a great one for the first person because its so hard to structure a novel when it is always in the first person. Yet I appreciate the urgency of it and have - in novels and short stories - alternated between first and third person. We often speak about the unreliable narrator - and its there in Jen Ashworth's "A Kind of Intimacy" or Rachel Cusk's "The Country Life" - but there's its opposite, the reliable narrator. A storyteller/observer like Carraway in "The Great Gatsby", for instance, or our guide to the world such as Holden Caulfield. Read these books, and see what they get away with, what works, what doesn't. There's probably a model for your story out there somewhere. Just because your building your own unique house, doesn't mean that you have to invent the bricks, and can't use an architect.

Perfection's overrated. Competence is boring. Sloppiness is stupid. In other words, you can quite easily keep writing and re-writing, but the bane of fiction over the last few years has been competent writing. Even an excellent novel like "The Life of Pi" suffers from it's language being prosaic. It's been a while since I read it, but you'll be pushed to find a memorable sentence in the whole book. There's a kind of global style that's the literary equivalent of the transatlantic accent in singing - it's utterly competent, but lacks originality. Kill your darlings, all the courses say. Fair enough. There's purple prose or literary pyrotechnics that add little to a novel or a story, but if you're going to kill your darlings, make sure you don't strangle the life out of the thing. Perfection's overrated, and looks, to my tired eyes, like competence squared. That's no excuse for sloppiness, of course. Novels are full of contradictions (though hopefully not in the plot), and that's why we read the best of them.

Because I write contemporary fiction I don't do much in the way of research, but I am a stickler for authenticity. British novels remain scared of detail, scared of brand names, terrified of proper nouns. A character in a British novel will have a sandwich for lunch, in an American novel, the character will have pastrami on rye, with O.K. sauce. I hate how stories set in the near past tend to use a shorthand of signifiers. There was even a Space Hopper on the lawn in the 70s set movie "Cemetary Junction" - I hope they were just being ironic - in a novel a Space Hopper is generic window-dressing; think of something else; remember something different. If your characters are listening to music/reading books/going to films/using gadgets don't just say Lady Gaga/Dan Brown/Avatar/iPod - you've just created a marketing segment not a flesh and blood character. If in doubt. Then don't.

I find settings quite hard. I'm in constant admiration of writers who can move characters swiftly between rooms, locations and place and time. My first novel took place over 24 hours, I've written others that are equally real time: a week, six months etc. If I'm happy describing where they live, I feel I have to describe where they work. Remember "Friends". I don't think we ever saw where Ross lived in the first few series. Did it matter? If your Tolstoy or Georg Eliot you might map out every part of the town or village; but for the rest of us, novels are like film sets - they have a few detailed interiors, and the rest is just a facade, like in the movie "Westworld." (But without the homicidal robots.)

And whatever you do: don't write a long blog post when you were trying to spend a couple of hours on your fiction. That would just be prevaricating.

2 comments:

litrefs said...

I've never found any particular tips useful, but I guess over the years I've assembled a bag of tactics and strategies that work for me. Most involve reminding myself that there are other ways to do things - other words (thesaurus), other voices (walk in a busy shopping centre), other ways to go from one paragraph to the next (slide or jump or go sideway), other genres, other mixes of genres, other ways to end things, other ways to deal with writers block, other books to read, etc. I still find some "how to write" books useful to remind me of the potential range - I keep lapsing back to stock characters and settings otherwise.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Someone once wrote a novel about a self-help book that actually worked; and I think it's the same with writers' tips. Fun, nonetheless.