Back Issues – The Basics


Actually, that is the title of an excellent book by James N Frey – and of all the Writers’ Guides I’ve read or glanced at, his is one of the most useful: ‘If you wish to write like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf and create experimental, symbolic, philosophical or psychological novels,’ Frey says on the cover, ‘this book is not for you.’ He concentrates solely on the ‘damn good novel’ – which includes thrillers, crime books and fantasy, but also embraces Romance, since romantic novels, like thrillers and crime stories, are about conflict, struggle and resolution.

‘Whenever a reader experiences profound empathy with a character,’ says Frey, ‘it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict’. For ‘damn good novels’ Frey warns us to ignore hidden symbols, vague literary allusions and philosophical nuances: ‘This kind of nonsense has ruined a lot of writers as well as a lot of readers. The prime purpose in reading a novel is to experience at the emotional level the lives of the characters – to laugh with them, cry with them, suffer with them. Your primary object as a novelist is to move the reader emotionally.’

He’s right. The reader is moved by character and plot. If the characters aren’t convincing – and interesting – no one cares what the author does to them. And characters (the principal ones at least) must change – or they’ll be static. And static spells boredom. I’ve just done something, incidentally, that used to drive my schoolteachers wild: sentences which begin with ‘And’. And consecutive sentences that begin the same way. Sentences without verbs.

Well, I’m sorry: we’re not writing school essays; we do not want prissily correct language, we want a language that rolls up its sleeves and gets down to work. Schoolteachers might protest, but even they’ll accept this approach in dialogue.

Anthony Trollope, in the 19th century, pointed out that ‘The ordinary talk of ordinary people is carried on in short sharp expressive sentences, which very frequently are never completed – the language of which even among educated people is often incorrect.’ Sadly, Trollope all too frequently broke his next rule: ‘No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath – unless the writer can justify to himself a longer flood of speech by the speciality of the occasion.’ Victorian characters were written as if they spoke in fully rounded paragraphs, and some modern novelists persist in this habit. But those novelists seldom write a damn fine novel.

Watch Your Language:

What is the use of a book, asked Alice, without pictures?  What is the use of a novel, you might ask, without dialogue – damned good, believable, character-revealing dialogue?  Oddly enough, most tyro writers think they can handle dialogue pretty well – though they often can’t, filling the space between the quotation marks with just too many words.  That may be how people speak in real life, but it is not how they speak in books.

But before we get on to that, let’s think about the language the author uses, outside of the dialogue.  In passages where the author is speaking, how correct should the language be?  Common advice is to write in a style that works for you – which is fine if what works for you works for the reader too.  The idea is not merely to express yourself, it is to get your idea across.  Which means using a language that your reader – any reader – can immediately and easily understand.  It doesn’t necessarily mean using simple words and short sentences (though they help) but using clear, illustrative and dramatic prose.  You may find slang helpful; you may prefer standard English.  Your novel may demand you use one of these forms and stick to it.  A tale set among the upper middle classes will sound ridiculous in demotic prose, though curiously, one set in the lower reaches may gain an extra edge by being told in a contrastingly elegant tone of voice.

It can be a mistake, though, to tie your language too closely to how your characters feel.  A character in dire distress, who in the story meets with outrageous unfairness, will lose the reader’s sympathy if the author weeps with him (or her), shares his distress, and pleads the character’s case.  Think of Dickens, famously laying it on too thick when Little Nell dies, causing Oscar Wilde to say later: ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.’  Had she merely expired, and had Dickens reported her death in quiet simple prose, how much more shocking would that scene have been.  Moments of high pathos need detachment from the author.  The author must not be seen to weep; tears should be extracted from the reader.  As Chekhov said: ‘When you depict sad or unlucky people and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder.  Give their grief a background against which it stands out in greater relief.  When your heroes weep, you the author must not sigh.  You must be cold.’

Rules for Writers:

Writers are happy to make up the rules, though you can’t guarantee they’ll give the best advice.  Elmore Leonard’s first rule of crime writing is that you should never open a book with the weather – hardly earth-shattering advice from one of the world’s best crime writers.  His second rule – ‘avoid prologues’ – is routinely ignored by half of today’s best-selling scribes, and in fact, Leonard doesn’t really come up with anything useful until rule ten: ‘Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’

Raymond Chandler came up with his own ten rules – and found them so dull he wrote another, fresher six.  But they’re hardly rules; more they are musings on the writer’s art.  ‘The perfect mystery cannot be written; something must always be sacrificed.’  That doesn’t get us far.  ‘Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery,’ he added – another rule nowadays ignored, although as Chandler explained: ‘In nine cases out of ten it eliminates two useful suspects’.  In any case, as he rightly says: ‘A really good detective never gets married’.

First and foremost then: don’t get hung up on rules.  By all means read articles or books on how to write, but don’t go looking for a formula, because formulaic writing is death.  (It may leap into the best-sellers chart, regrettably, but it is still death.)  The old masters ignored rules just as much as we do now.  Arnold Bennett, almost a hundred years ago, admitted: “As the years pass, I attach less and less importance to good technique in fiction.  I love it, and I have fought for a better recognition of its importance in England, but I now have to admit that the modern history of fiction will not support me.  With the single exception of Turgenev, the great novelists of the world have either ignored technique or have failed to understand it.”

Writing is writing, and a story is a story.  As long as we remember that a damn good novel is a story and not a set of literary allusions and philosophical nuances, we’ll be OK.

Straight Talking:

When you tell a story you communicate – so why is it that so many writers, including some that win big prizes, go to extraordinary lengths to muzzle their meaning in impenetrable – or at time ungrammatical –prose.  You’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) how many great names have ignored basic rules of grammar and sense and got away with it.  Virginia Woolf (who had the advantages of (a) committing suicide and (b) being married to a publisher) declared in her customarily dogmatic style: “Novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in characters when they have learned enough about it for practicable purposes.”  (A pedant writes: It?  What does “it” refer to in that sentence?)  “There is something about people which continues to seem to them [to writers] of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort or income.”  Ah, the Bloomsbury literati – generous souls who could remain interested in people, even if they had no bearing upon their income.

I digress – as Woolf did throughout her novels, which were little more than digressions from start to finish.  Virginia Woolf, incidentally, magnificent writer that she could be, never wrote a ‘damn good novel’ in her life.  That wasn’t her object.  But it is for you and me.  Dickens knew the rules – and broke them for effect.  He would deliberately start sentences with the same word, or repeat the same word in sentence after sentence to drive an image home (think of “fog” on the first page of Bleak House).  He would change tense, change point of view, step outside his narrative – only to highlight the oddity or singularity of a scene.  In his dialogue he would sacrifice every rule of grammar to point up character.  But for the bulk of his book he’d write in perfect English, violating rules only when he wanted to slap you about the ears.

If you think of the book you are writing as a meal, perhaps as a dinner party you are planning, then language should provide the colour and flavour for your food, while your characters comprise the food itself.  Your plot is the menu, the ordered pattern in which each course leads on to the climax.  On climaxes, incidentally, Gore Vidal, who may not have read too many crime novels, complained that most books (typically, he said “all” books) peak to a climax some way before the end, then spend the remaining chapters tidying up.  An exaggeration, but think how often you skim a book’s last pages knowing that the real story is finished.  Worse, think how often you are disappointed in the last page, where the novel finally peters out.

Oh, by the way, I Wasn’t Writing About You

Non-writers frequently assume that a writer’s best ideas and liveliest characters are pinched directly from those the writer knows.)  Are they?  No, said Ivy Compton-Burnett: ‘Actual life supplies a writer with characters much less than is thought … People in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print.  They are not good or bad enough.’

Somerset Maugham, however, felt that ‘the practice of drawing characters from actual models is not only universal but necessary.  I do not see why any writer should be ashamed to acknowledge it.’  But, he added: ‘I insist that it is a creation.  We know very little even of the persons we know most intimately; we do not know them enough to transfer them to the pages of a book and make human beings of them.  People are too elusive, too shadowy, to be copied; and they are also too incoherent and contradictory.  The writer does not copy his originals: he takes what he wants from them, a few traits that have caught his attention, a turn of mind that has fired his imagination, and therefrom constructs his character.’  Compton-Burnett would agree: ‘The things we think we know about each other, we often imagine and read in.  I think this is another reason why a supposed portrait gives offence.’

So you see, dear reader, in our books we haven’t been writing about you at all.  That particular character you alighted on may have your nose and your irritating way of coughing before every utterance, but in truth, hard as this may be for you to accept, we make our characters up.  They don’t exist.  The skill comes in making readers think they do.



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