Tagged: showing and telling

York Festival of Writing 2014

York2014

Just back from the York Festival of Writing. Well, I came back on Sunday, but I’m still decompressing on Thursday, all afizz with emails and Twitter and words and ideas.

The only thing that I really don’t like about York is the fact that you don’t get chance to spend time with the dozens of wonderful souls you meet. A fleeting hello to Ruby whom I met two years ago and now see daily on Twitter, someone else who told me her sentences had improved, a fantasy writer with a very rich new landscape, a few shy people I’m sorry I had no chance to speak to, lots and lots and lots of new faces and voices and writing. A dirndl, Buzz Lightyear, many dogs, survivors, and heroes. I need Hermione Granger’s time-turner, except I want it for socialising rather than swotting.

I did meet Matt Haig (and very much look forward to reading his forthcoming memoir), and it was fantastic to hear Antonia Hodgson’s keynote speech, full of daydreams and resilience, both of which writers need in abundance (far too many of the former and not enough of the latter, as far as my own writing is concerned, I realise). Antonia’s tale about a prison guard (involving one of her authors, not her …) brought pricks of tears to my eyes.

The best story of the festival though involved the racism directed towards blue vibrators by sex professionals. It’s one of those real-world tales that proves that truth is stranger.

Lots more, but there’s only so much a mind and a blog post can hold. What I can remember of links and the things I failed to squeeze into various workshops are described below.

But before I go: thanks SO much to Writers’ Workshop and all who dwell there. They really care, and given the scale of the event I never fail to be impressed by their organisation and friendliness, and their ability to attract participants who’re both practical and inspiring whether they’re presenting or coming along as delegates. The Writers’ Workshop really is the best at what it does, and it is an honour to be asked to take part in their events. Thank you.

 

TELL ME A STORY: THE ART OF NARRATING: MINI-COURSE

It’s all about the voice, darlings. Take any dull material and wrap a sexy voice around it, and that’s going to be an improvement.

This was a great group that really warmed up (I think I was rambling a bit at the start – sorry). A lot to cover, and I didn’t get through it all, but the room was smart and responded to the readings in meaningful ways, and I also ended up talking some about plotting (not plot), which is a particular passion of mine.

The exercise on voice began with Elaine Kingett’s ‘How To Be A Writer’, which was in turn inspired by Lorrie Moore’s ‘How To Become A Writer’. In another screen, I am penning my own (it might be a bit TMI and ranty, but I might post it once I’m done).

I also used the opening of Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal.

And thank you, peeps, for allowing me to indulge my inner Julie Walters via my outer Alan Bennett. Put another bar on.

And here is the original blog post that was a starting point for this workshop: Tell Me A Story.

 

SHOWING AND TELLING AND STORYTELLING: WORKSHOP

We have to show as well as tell in our writing, but Show Don’t Tell is a myth that needs busting; we need to storytell.

Here is a link to Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. In all our discussion of what takes place in the opening (nothing, but lots too), we never got round to mentioning that the story expands into a particular dramatic situation – one that also never gets explicitly discussed within that story. Showing, not telling.

We listened to the start of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which as far as I am concerned is one of *the* great pieces of fiction, and (note) only takes 10,000 words or so to work its magic. Showing and telling and storytelling.

While we are on the subject, let me share Annie Proulx’s splendidly hatering write-up of the Oscars the year that Crash (a film I really hater too) won Best Motion Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Fantastic example of voice and tone.

 

HISTORICAL FICTION: GENRE PANEL

Emma Darwin, who chaired this panel, is remarkably eloquent and inspiring and brainy, but unlike many other brainy people I know she can translate brainy into words the rest of us understand and relate to. She really has such a wide range of knowledge too.

Some things that came up: it’s still all about the voice. And character. No such thing as rules. Legal matters aren’t always clear-cut but involve degrees of risk. Have you thought of writing nonfiction? And we all love Sarah Waters (my fave is Fingersmith). I also recommended Kate Grenville’s Searching For The Secret River (to read after The Secret River). I perhaps should have made my recommended read Game Of Thrones.

A question I wish I’d myself asked the editor (Sophie Orme) and agent (Jamie Coleman) – who both seem very bright and brainy too, but I’ve just spent less time in their company so can’t gush so much – is perhaps a question that could be posed to other agents and in-house editors, and booksellers too. Fashions come and go within genres and without, and a few things I read as book doctor this year felt very much in the vein of historical blockbusters I read in my youth such as Gone With The Wind or The Far Pavilions or the blockbusters of Ken Follett or Edward Rutherford. And I wondered if my points of reference were old-fashioned? Whither the historical blockbuster? Where or how does that sort of book get placed in the market and with readers now, relative to, e.g., reading group fiction (which, I know, is quite a vague name for a wide-reaching description). I think I need to do a bit more research myself, and maybe I’ll blog on that one day.

Perhaps too that is an answer for writers to find themselves, for sometimes it is in making something new that something successful and exciting is created.

 

THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF CREATIVITY

This is the third time I’ve run a workshop on this topic at York, and this year I actually passed my tarot cards around for the first time. I have fun with this topic, stretching ourselves beyond words and the conscious mind. For it is in reaching towards the ineffable and delving into the unconscious that we make writing not only instinctive as a process but whole as an outcome.

I never got the name of the writer who cleverly identified the characters of The Wind in the Willows with the four elements: Mole as earth, Rat as water, Toad as fire, Badger as air (think I got that right – but correct me if I’m wrong). Yes, we can draw on the four elements for archetypes too.

The piece I used in class to illustrate the use of the elements is ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché. I did register a few doubts in the room when I said that writing (probably all writing) has a purpose, even a political purpose, relating that to Fire. Entertainment is a purpose, and that can be – perhaps even emphatically is – political (think carnival, think subversive). Is there a piece of writing that isn’t political? If you’re not changing the world with your writing, are you just reinforcing the status quo? ‘Discuss.’ No answers to that one, but exploring that matter in the work can make the writing bold.

Also, we listened to the piece first, without reading the words. For writing is a bodily experience in that way too: it might be invisible, but the spoken word is a material thing (Earth), and generating spoken words is a somatic practice too.

 

BOOK DOCTOR ONE-TO-ONES

A few common things that came up this year:

* I found myself suggesting to several people who were writing fiction that they might try nonfiction for their content, and vice-versa. Oh dear – I hope I’ve not derailed anyone. But usually projects were at early stages, and in that case I assume most anything is available for discussion, and there were reasons to put these ideas out there. But don’t blame the editor! There are any number of complications in this area (legal, ethical, aesthetic), and it’s something you have to tussle with sometimes.

* And you can’t have it all.

* Prose style and voice are often what define literary fiction. It’s all about the voice. It’s all in the telling.

* Less can be more.

* In fiction (and narrative nonfiction), establishing a mood and impression is often more important than explaining things. (Less can be more.)

The books on writing I recommended most are: On Writing, by Stephen King; Steering The Craft, by Ursula Le Guin (which is going for silly prices online in the UK, suddenly – are my recommendations outstripping the supply?! we need a British publisher!); and Sin And Syntax, by Constance Hale.

 

AND

Lots of other things to say and follow up, but they need separate posts. Look out for: integrating feedback (especially when it seems contradictory); agents, and how to address them (however you like?), and whether they need photos (no); different types of editing; when is a poem not a poem; the small press option. Etc., etc., etc.

I’m also thinking of starting a regular/weekly agony uncle/problem page about writing and publishing: watch this space (or the menu above).

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was lovely to spend time with everyone there.

Cheers!
Andrew

Tell Me A Story

TellMeAStory

Among the many manuscripts that I read for people who’re at the start of their fiction-writing careers (and also among many contemporary novels I read as well), I think one of the most significant weaknesses that I encounter is the lack of a narrative voice. Lack of a narrator, even. Nothing excites me more in writing than being told a story, so give me a storyteller, please.

There are probably several reasons for this lack. One, I think, is that emphasis on showing rather than telling that is ardently promoted in mondo creative writing. With good reason, of course. Too much inferior writing is clunky in how it plonks information our way. If we are simply told the vicar is cruel, we’ll take that in as a piece of data, and there is a chance we won’t really absorb it that deeply, or feel it: that information is delivered as something for the mind, and it can easily go in one ear and out the other. It is, perhaps, a less engaging and maybe even a lazy form of telling us something.

We’re probably going to be drawn much more experientially into a scene that shows how the vicar who is kind to his congregation is cruel to his children. It could show us his cruelty through the things that he does (action – the beating with a knotted pillowcase, the locking in the attic) and through the things that he says (dialogue – ‘You are your mother’s son!’ ‘You’re going to burn in a lake of fire!’). I think of such writing as dramatising: action and dialogue create a dramatic scene that brings a human point to life. It’s not only delivering an item of information about the vicar, but embodying it in a way that excites our passions and feelings about him.

But showing can be overdone. A lot of (unpublished) (or self-published) writing in the thriller, fantasy and science fiction genres emphasises foreground action in such a way that it reads more like film or tv than a novel. Of course, action is important in these forms, but such writing often relies heavily on closeups of characters running around at a madcap pace or talking to each other in info dumps: it can feel like an overwrought script for Dr Who. Though cinematic qualities can be super for bringing a world to life, especially through visual detail, prose fiction has many other things available to it that screenwriting cannot use, in particular the narrator (voiceovers are often frowned upon in the screenwriting world, I am told).

An excess of foreground action can also affect the pace, as events start to blur into each other. A narrator can take charge, punctuating and controlling the momentum of an unfolding story.

Writing that shows too much still needs to tell us things (e.g., about characters’ back stories), and trapped in its mode of ceaseless showing it often breaks for those ruminations we call interior monologues. And all too often, sentences that begin something like ‘She remembered when …’ are red flags that this reader’s attention is about to drift … Couldn’t a good old-fashioned invisible narrator recount a bit of what I call narrative summary as a simple way to convey this back story, instead of these rememberings?

An example of narrative summary from one of the great short stories, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Yes, there’s telling there, but it’s elegantly done: those eccentric and revealing names of both people and places, the rhythm of Annie Proulx’s prose (which I dare to say amounts to poetry), the simple truths of these lives. It also comes after a couple of paragraphs of what amounts to prologue that presents some evocative and curiosity-pricking showing of Ennis in the present day (and present tense). And most of all, this narrative summary is efficient, and engaging.

And sometimes showing is simply too subtle, particularly with literary fiction. Katharine Viner summed this up finely in an article she wrote a few years back on judging the Orange Prize:

There were two particularly low points. One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. At one point, I rang a friend and shouted at her, “I wish some of these bloody writers would write about Iraq!” Or anywhere with a bit of politics or meaning.

Since then, in classes I’ve referred to that excess of subtlety as the Dishwasher Syndrome. You see it in a lot of what might be called ‘workshop fiction’ – carefully chilled prose, often written by sensible graduates in English literature, that is totally free of both error and soul.

So: perhaps we could gain from a bit more subjectivity in our narrating, please? Andrew Lownie’s blog this week included a feature on what editors want, where Mark Richards, editorial director at John Murray, says:

can we bring back the third-person narrator? I read a lot of novels where there’s a lot of statement – about what’s happening or what a character’s thinking – and not a lot of texture to that statement; no sense of the novel itself having an opinion on the events it relates. Perhaps it’s the long reach of Hemingway, but whatever it is, the effect is often deadly – it’s forgoing one of the great generators of irony and comedy in novels.

He also says: ‘I really think novels should be in the third person, unless there’s a very good reason for them not to be. Too many debut novelists, it seems to me, think that the first person is easier than the third. It’s not: it’s significantly more difficult to tell a story when the narrator is within that story, and doesn’t have the advantage of omniscience.’

There are plenty of good reasons to use first-person, of course; the ingenious plotting of a novel such as Fingersmith is achieved through extremely deft use of point of view, which works its magic through first-person narration in a way where third- would not succeed as grandly. The bigger issue might be that many debut novelists are maybe too ambitious, and probably as yet lack the expertise to pull off the first-person with aplomb, though we can certainly find plenty of successful cases, once we start looking. Fingersmith was Sarah Waters’ third novel, but her first, Tipping The Velvet, has a super first line, launching its first-person narration: ‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’

Think of all those great first lines spoken by narrators, first- and third-person: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ ‘Call me Ishmael.’ ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ ‘The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived.’

And, of course, ‘Once upon a time.’ That sense of narrating is perhaps nowhere stronger than it is in fairy tales and folk stories, where storytelling maintains its roots in the oral tradition, and where that notion of a speaker talking to a listener is paramount. That direct form of speaking can be such a strong way to address a reader, too.

There’s much more that could be said about narrators. The importance of trusting the natural speaking voice as the foundation of your voice in writing (writers don’t need to find a voice; they already have one). Varying the ‘psychic distance’ (a term used by John Gardner to describe ‘the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story’, and which is discussed in an excellent blog post by Emma Darwin). Focalisation (as an alternative to thinking about point of view). The narrative stance of a piece of writing. Unreliable narrators. ‘In Search Of The Perfect POV’ describes one writer’s search for a suitable narrator. And another time I want to revisit showing vs telling, too, because good showing should not be neglected either. Good stories lie in that careful balance of showing (dramatic scene) and telling (narrative summary).

But for now it is enough to say that a narrator invites the reader in. Third-person or first-, narration grabs us, holds our attention by telling us a story. Importantly, it can give your voice – your writing – some personality. Ask yourself whether your story can gain from having a stronger narrator.

And maybe have a go at this writing experiment.

You might also want to take a look at this related post: A Book Is Not A Film.

Round-up, 13 September 2012: Dictionaries, Otters, Pitching, And Why The Wire Is Not Dickens

An excellent piece in Salon on why The Wire is not like Dickens. A common weakness in many manuscripts is that they’ve overdosed on showing rather than telling, with the result that they read like madcap episodes of Dr Who: everything is foreground action. Laura Miller states the case for the particular form of storytelling that is the novel, and points out how stories are told differently on screen. (Should you be writing a screenplay instead?) Some great insights.

Why dictionaries are not wiktionaries, from the Guardian.

Also from the Guardian: Top Ten Literary Otters.

And a fun book trailer (for Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple), which illustrates the challenges of getting the pitch for your book right.