Can you learn how to write? In the fourth of our series, Prime Writers Matthew Blakstad, Jon Teckman, Fionnuala Kearney and Fleur Smithwick review the books they believe have made a difference to their writing.
HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Wood – Matthew Blakstad.
I haven’t had much luck with ‘how-to’ books about writing. It’s not that I have some high-handed objection to learning a creative process from a book. Quite the contrary. I welcome any help I can get when wrestling into submission the giant squid that is a work-in-progress novel. But every time I’ve tried to read one of these guides, I’ve drifted off after 50 pages. However insightful the ideas are in principle, I’ve never been able to apply them to my own work.
James Wood’s How Fiction Works is different; perhaps because it isn’t a how-to book at all. It’s an attempt by a leading critic to articulate to a general reader the things that differentiate fiction from other forms of writing. One central idea that I’ve been using ever since is Wood’s assertion that fiction is characterised by free indirect style and, as a result, buy a subtle for of irony. Free indirect style is often introduced to writing students as the form of writing where third person ‘slips into the mind’ of a character. If you come across a third-person sentence that could have ‘he thought’ or ‘she thought’ added to it, while still retaining its sense, it’s a safe bet it’s free indirect style. But Wood’s definition is deeper and richer than I’ve come across elsewhere. One of his first examples has really stuck in my mind, where he anatomises a short phrase from Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, who has just received bad news, drops a corkscrew into a sink of water. As he fumbles for this mundane object, Nabokov uses the words the leggy thing to refer to it. The word ‘leggy’ is a nimble metaphor suggesting a man falling from a roof – Nabokov’s word, suggests Wood – while the very vagueness of the word ‘thing’ brings to life Pnin’s own fumbling helplessness. No reported thoughts or feelings; no ‘telling’; simply impeccable word choices. In just two words, Nabokov enables the reader to inhabit the consciousness of a complex individual, without even noticing they’ve been transported.
That is, I agree, how fiction should work, at its best. It’s what I now strive to do in my writing.
HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark – Jon Teckman
Apparently, the human brain finds it easier to think in the negative than the positive (this may not be true of everyone but certainly applies to every agent I’ve ever submitted my work to). Perhaps this is a natural function of the way we are educated as children. “Don’t look down!” and “Don’t play with matches!” are easier instructions for our young brains to process than “if you do choose to look down then please concentrate on where your feet are treading as you cross that wall” or “if you must strike that match then please make sure you hold onto the cold end”. Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark’s excellent How Not to Write a Novel applies this premise to the art of fiction, demonstrating through a series of clever, pointed and often hilarious examples the mistakes that writers often make, any one of which may ensure that your masterwork never sees the light of Waterstones’ day.
By focussing on the errors of style and form often found in rejected manuscripts – and creating exaggerated parodies to illustrate them – Newman and Mittelmark help the reader shine a light on their own failings, while reassuring us that they could be much, much worse!. By showing us how not to do something rather than laying down a set of rules to which the aspiring novelist must conform, the authors give the reader the freedom to write with imagination and flair, and, crucially, in a way that might give them some chance of getting their work published.
A couple of examples might help to illustrate the authors’ approach:
On plotting: “What if, despite your best efforts, your story begins with an exciting premise and gathers momentum through purposeful and surprising scenes? Don’t worry – it’s still possible to drive away editors by writing an implausible, irrelevant ending.”
On character: “Unpublished novelists understand that there is more to a character than the interesting stuff.”
Above all, whereas I have struggled to finish many “how to write” books, especially those that focus on the technicalities of form and structure, How Not to Write a Novel is a pleasure to read from cover to cover. Newman and Mittelmark’s acerbic New York wit can be harsh and uncompromising but you always feel they are on your side, wanting to help you avoid wasting your time writing and submitting something unpublishable. And anyone who can make you smile through those long, lonely hours locked away in your attic cramped over your laptop is alright in my book.
THE KICK-ASS WRITER – Chuck Wendig. Fionnuala Kearney
Chuck Wending (novelist and screen-writer) or Lord Chuck as I like to call him, is, in my opinion, a master when it comes to writerly advice. His book, The Kick-Ass Writer starts off by saying any suggestions he can give can either work for you or it won’t, then he warns us of his preference for ‘naughty’ language. It’s true and though I like his irreverent way of getting the point across, it’s not for everyone.
What I love about the book is that it’s easy to either read through as a whole, or dip in and out of. Each chapter is the same format: “Twenty five things you should know about…” He covers everything from storytelling, writers block, plotting and prepping, Setting, Suspense, Theme, Editing and revising and much, much, more. Within each chapter he gives twenty five ‘pieces of advice.’
The best way to explain why I think this should be in every writer’s arsenal of ‘how to’ books is to give you a couple of examples. Here’s Lord Chuck’s point 18 of 25 regarding ‘Theme’:
“18. Take That Question Mark and Shove It. Theme is never a question. “How far will man go for love?” is not a question, not a theme. Theme isn’t a big blank spot. Theme is the answer, right or wrong, good or bad.”
And his point seven 25 regarding ‘Dialogue’:
“7. Expository Dialogue Is a Pair Of Cement Shoes. One of dialogue’s functions is to convey information within the story (to other characters) and outside the story (to the audience). An info dump is the clumsiest way to make this happen. You have ways to pull this off without dropping an expository turd in the word bowl. Don’t let one character lecture; let it be a conversation. Question. Answer. Limit the information learned; pull puzzle pieces out and take them away to create mystery. Let characters be reluctant to give any info, much less dump it over someone’s head.”
Lord Chuck also runs a brilliant blog (not for the faint-hearted) www.terribleminds.com
Fleur Smithwick: I haven’t read any How To books that aren’t mentioned here but novels about writers can be full of good tips. The hilariously funny Straight White Male by John Niven, for instance, is about a screen writer. He spends most of the novel pissed but Kennedy Marr’s best tip to his students, and to himself, goes like this: ‘The problems of the final act are the problems of the first.’
In The Writing Class by Jincy Willett, Amy Gallup, a jaded creative writing teacher, has this to say: ‘Fact exerted a tyranny over beginning writers, sapping them of the will to make things up, seducing them into complacency. They didn’t understand: it was the writer’s job to fashion truth out of fact.’ Two excellent lessons wrapped up in hugely entertaining novels.