Saturday, 27 November 2010

Guest blog - in which brother Ron considers possible candidates for the role of 'primitive writer'.

I made the mistake of responding to a recent blog – about rules in writing – with a glib point about ‘primitive writers’ and whether they exist. Missing from my comment was the word ‘discuss’. I was hoping to be the equivalent of a naughty boy slipping a rude note under a door in Bloomsbury Square, then looking through the window to enjoy its impact. Bill figuratively opened the door as I was about to escape and I found myself standing, as it were, on an alien carpet with the Woolfs ready to pounce if I couldn’t explain myself. (I should have sidestepped that pun, shouldn’t I?)

Well, the fact is I can’t explain myself. If I were resourced enough I would bring a string of primitive writers to your attention, but my first example, Daisy Ashford and her book The Young Visiters, is hardly meaty enough. But she ticks some of the boxes: she was not following any rules, was surely too young (10) to have studied the art of writing but wrote with supreme, innocent confidence. To cap it all, her books sold. Perhaps this extract explains why:

I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.
You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.
Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superior run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.

My second witness is John Clare, who is ranked just about as highly as his contemporaries these days but whose roots are far more primitive. Maybe his range wasn’t as great as that of Byron or Shelley but from his beginnings as the son of an agricultural labourer, he wrote stirring romantic poetry (which sold).

WH Davies belongs in this group. Edward Thomas said of him:

“He can write commonplace or inaccurate English, but it is also natural to him to write……with the clearness, compactness and felicity which makes a man think with shame how unworthily, through natural stupidity or uncertainty, he manages his native tongue. In subtlety he abounds, and where else today shall we find simplicity like this?”

But a list like this doesn’t make the point. (And it’s boring). No, I really can’t muster an argument worth mustering, so I’ll think again about my initial remark and why I made it. There’s a bit of me that wants to believe that untutored, instinctive writers occasionally buck the trend and make it through to publishing. So, what I’m really niggling about is the fact that, as in so many spheres, one has to serve a rigorous apprenticeship to make progress as a writer. Ergo, because I am not inclined to work hard at my writing – or much else for that matter – I suppose I found the discussion on rules threatening.

But I also found myself remembering some of the children I’ve taught over the years who showed that they had either been here before or had somehow gathered a sublime instinct about words and how they might be used. And my dilemma was always about how much one could leave them be and how potentially dangerous it was to suggest any frameworks or rules. Maybe, in retirement it’s time I got over, and got on, with it.

Monday, 22 November 2010

What is the zone?

I think I’ve written before about what I suppose it means to be ‘in the zone’. You usually hear it from sportsmen such as golfers, who are either grateful that God has taken time out to accompany them on a round and make sure all their putts drop, or have succeeded because they’ve been ‘in the zone’ (hereinafter ITZ). To me, it simply means that you’re focusing on (and presumably enjoying) something so much that you don’t notice the passage of time, you’re unaware of your own self, your identity, your surroundings, or anything other than whatever the activity demands.

Why write about it today? Because yesterday I did some wood carving and, after concentrating on trying to sketch the basic shapes of the eyes, beak and claws of an owl, I suddenly realised that four hours had passed and it was time to rejoin reality and remember who I was/am. During that time, the only thoughts in my head involved which gouge to use, how much I needed to slice away to get the angles right, how the pale wood revealed by the cuts contrasted with the darker (dirtier) wood I was cutting into and so on and so on. With most activities, even enjoyable ones, the mind now and then wanders away into thoughts of a job that needs doing, ideas for stories, daydreams, anticipations and memories. There seem to be different bits of the brain throwing their preoccupations or delights into the mix. But, these ITZ moments seem to tell all those other bits of brain to shut up, butt out and let whoever’s doing whatever it is get on with it.

People cleverer than I am would now segue into the nature of Zen, and I can see the attraction of training the mind to experience that sort of oneness as often as possible. But all I feel is curiosity. It’s the total loss of self-awareness that’s so surprising. If the gouge slips and I cut my hand or lop off the claw I’ve just started to shape, I’m suddenly me again and I remember that this is a pretty frequent occurrence during carving sessions. But I stop the bleeding, put on the elastoplast (or start trying to remake the claw), and, pretty soon, it’s just the wood and what’s happening to it that takes over again.

I assumed earlier that, while we're in these zones, it’s the pleasure we're feeling that makes them so special – but here’s a paradox. The focus is so intense that you don’t know you’re having a good time. The enjoyment is retrospective. You stop, notice that four hours (or whatever) have passed and then you feel the contentment.

Because writing is my job nowadays, most of my ITZ moments are connected with it. It almost never happens when I’m writing something commercial or non-fiction, but when I get into a novel, short story, flash fiction, it’s a familiar experience. It doesn’t happen so much during the research phase, but once the characters have started taking over, I’m so curious about them and their world that my own ceases to exist. The choice of words and the order in which I put them seems to be part of the fabric of whatever these people or creatures are doing and although, objectively, I know I’m the one who’s writing them, the ‘me’ isn’t there. I mean, how can I write of a scene near Aberdeen harbour in the days of sailing ships when I’m sitting here at the computer with a mobile phone in my pocket with more computing power than the Apollo mooncraft?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely not trumpeting my 'talent', I’m saying that these things happen and I’ve no idea how. Or why for that matter. It’s a type of controlled oblivion. I sneakily suspect that all these ITZ moments are so valuable because they give us the impression that we’re in control, we’re actually shaping experience and making sense of it. It’s a familiar delusion – you get it from carving wood, writing, painting, making music, playing golf, sailing and no doubt hundreds of other things with which I’m not familiar.

I only wish I could be aware of the pleasure it’s giving me as I’m doing it rather than only in the moments when I stop. There must be a moral there somewhere.

Friday, 12 November 2010

‘Welcome,’ he adumbrated lubriciously (and other rubbish).

I thought I’d played out the rhythm theme but recent experiences with an editor’s suggestions for (I presume) ‘improvements’ to a text forces me to revisit it. These ‘improvements’ also, once again, brought more of Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’ into focus. First of all, there’s the problem of ‘said’. In ‘rule’ 3 Leonard advises us ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue’ and 4 says ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”’. That’s just the opening sentence of each and I’ll quote more later but, for the moment, let’s try to see (hear) what he means.

If you only have two people talking, it’s not really a problem. You establish the first exchange:
‘Morning, Joe,’ said John.
‘Morning, John,’ said Joe.
Then you can let them chat away without needing to identify the speaker for a while. When there are more than two, however, there could be some confusion, so the word ‘said’ crops up more frequently, and I think that bothered the editor I mentioned so she tried to find substitutes. But that led to some weird effects. I’m making these up now but the examples from the text were similar:

‘Do you really want to learn this?’ his father pondered.
‘Work was awful today,’ she stated.
‘You’d better be ready soon,’ taunted Felicity.
‘Definitely not,’ Harold denied.

In each case, the thing that jumps off the page is the verb. They’re all perfectly good verbs but they’re totally wrong in the context. And the result is that they call attention to themselves and take the focus off the characters and what they’re saying. It’s the characters whose words are important, not this intrusive person who’s not just relating what they say but interpreting it. In other words, with some obvious exceptions (replied, asked, shouted, whispered, etc.) trying to supplant ‘said’ only means that there’s another person clumping about in the text, someone who has nothing to do with the action and who’s getting in the way – and it’s the writer.

The same criticism applies when it comes to adverbs and the interesting thing here is that, once I started noticing the adverbs that the editor had inserted, presumably to reinforce meaning, I began questioning and deleting lots of my own. Adverbs are like stage directions. If a character says something ‘gruffly’, ‘menacingly’ or whatever, it narrows the readers’ choices and options. When the baddy’s words are ‘If you upset me, you’re finished,’ some readers may hear them as a quietly whispered threat, others will prefer to imagine them expressing rage, and yet others may think they work best when spoken in a normal, conversational tone. The minute you attach an adverb, they don’t have that luxury of interpretation.

The full text of Leonard's two rules makes the point more succinctly.

3.. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

But one other thing that came out of my reading of the editor’s revisions; it concerned rhythm but it was such a simple thing that it surprised me a bit. So … which of these lines do you prefer?

‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ said Bill.
‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ Bill said.

To my ear, ‘Bill said’ is too strong. It leaves two solid beats at the end of the line which upset the rhythm and, once more, pull the attention away from the actual line of dialogue. One of the advantages of ‘said’ is that it’s short and hardly needs pronouncing, but only when it comes before whoever is doing the saying; when it’s the last word in the sentence it has to be given more weight.

And I suppose this is just the sort of nit-pickery that gives writers a bad name, so I’ll stop whining and, instead, thank my good friend Rosemary Gemmell for giving me what I’ve called ‘The writer’s blog award’. The sentiment on the mug is so familiar. In case you didn’t know, one of Rosemary’s blogs, Reading and Writing, is a mine of information about potential short story markets, publishers accepting submissions and many other links for writers at all stages of development. Have a look here and you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Detail and description

I have enormous respect for Elmore Leonard and I’m forever quoting his 10 ‘rules’ for writers. They really do make sense, especially his exhortation to ‘leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and get rid of anything that ‘sounds like writing’. But, while I agree in principle with rules 8 ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ and 9 ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things’, I think detail, even in descriptions, is a useful writer’s tool.

Whenever I give talks or workshops on writing short stories, I stress how great an impact you can create with details, and the thing I quote isn’t a story but a song. It’s Ode to Billy-Joe – the Bobby Gentry hit from what feels like 2 centuries ago. I’m sure you know it but, just in case there are some who don’t, it tells the story of a small, domestic tragedy (Billy-Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge). But the thing that gives it its impact is the ordinariness of the context in which it’s happened and in which the story’s being told:
Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
‘Billy-Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits please’.
It’s the apparently trivial details of the ‘black-eyed peas’ and the ‘pass the biscuits’ that make the suicide so poignant. They make it real. Stendhal, who figures quite often in things I say about writing and novels, called them ‘petits faits vrais’ (little true facts) and said they give authenticity to a story.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that the whole business of visuals in text, which Linda triggered a couple of postings ago, seems to have so many different facets. And I’m sure Mr Leonard would agree that there are plenty of exceptions which disprove his ‘rules’. His first, for example, is ‘Never open a book with weather’. But the first words of Bleak House are ‘Implacable November weather’. Then, after brief mentions of muddy streets and smoke, comes the wonderful (and often-quoted) passage about fog:

‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck.’

That’s much more than weather. The first time I read (or heard) it was at school, when football (and perhaps girls, but certainly not literature) was all I cared about, but it’s stayed with me – its rhythms, its sinister threats, its oppressiveness – and all deriving from its visual impact. Detailed descriptions for their own sake get in the way. They may be beautiful sunsets, wonderful vistas across the glens, tumbling seas or simply navy-blue serge trousers and waistcoats, but if they hold up the pace or keep the people out of the picture, they’re intrusions.

I said in the first posting about this that I thought I saw visuals through the prism of the effect they have on the characters, but of course, it’s obvious that they’re even more functional than that. They create character, too. So, having quoted Elmore Leonard, Bobbie Gentry, Stendhal and Dickens, my last quote will be from another literary great – me. (That’s an example of British humour, by the way.) In the next of my police procedural series, due for publication next year, I introduce two of the main characters as they sit in a meeting.

Christie and Leith contrasted in every way. Christie was nearly fifty but dressed like someone in his early thirties. His skin was sun-bed orange and his blonde hair was long enough to feature in shampoo adverts. Unfortunately, there was very little of it. His dark brown Ben Sherman shirt and green velvet waistcoat suggested that his ideas on fashion had frozen in the eighties. For Leith, on the other hand, fashion was a foreign country. He wore a limp tweed jacket over a green shirt with a filthy collar. His tie had been worn through too many meals involving juices, his face was red and shiny and he had a habit of scratching his scalp with a pencil.

It’s obviously not an objective description but my hope is that, by using their clothes and appearance, I can predispose the reader to have a particular attitude to each of them. Descriptions and details aren’t passive things. They contribute. But, as Mr Leonard says, don’t overdo them, and make sure they’re there for a reason.