Step one: Choose a common phrase like, There and Back to See How Far it is, Head you Off at the Pass, It’s a Long Way to ……, you get the idea, and make it your title.
Step two: Collect anecdotes of your coming of age (COA).
Step thee: rack your brain for your pubescent sexual fantasies (PSF).
Step four: make a list of your own foibles (SD = self-deprecation).
Step five: have handy anecdotes from other trips to the same places (SP).
Step six: if you’re an American living in Britain, collect phrase and stories that put down the Yanks or the Brits. (OPD = own put downs).
Step seven: collect puts downs of a nerd that gets put down a lot by your targeted audience, like the Irish, the Mormons, the Kiwis, etc. (NPD = nerd put downs)
Step eight: you’ll also need some RPD’s – racial put downs.
So, let’s begin.
Chapter One. Of course, you start with a journey. However, if the journey is a little boring you can always rely on a PSF:
I fanaticised about “…finding myself seated next to a panting young beauty being sent by her father against her wishes to the Lausanne Institute for Nymphomaniacal Disorders, who would turn to me somewhere over the mid-Atlantic and say, ‘Forgive me, but would it be alright if I sat on your face for a while?”
and you can then tack on an NPD which has OPD overtones:
“In the event my seatmate turned out to be an acned string-bean with Buddy Holly glasses and a line-up of ball-point pens clipped into a protective plastic case in his shirt pocket.”
But if you find yourself on an inspirational roll you can continue this novel scenario:
“I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow.
‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly.
‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.”
It’s important to understand that such ‘stories’ don’t necessarily need to come from the trip you are now writing about, nor do they necessarily need to have happened at all. Let’s call it comedic license.
And of course, when in Germany, it’s likely that funny incidents are few and far between but there’s always a good PSF to come to your aid:
“I had only signed up for German [as a boy] because it was taught by a walking wet dream named Miss Webster, who had the most magnificent breasts and buttocks that adhered to her skirt like melons in shrink-wrap.”
Or, as in his few pages on Cologne, he begins with an RPD about the woman running the statin café who ignored him because he ignored her:
“This is the worst characteristic of the Germans. Well, actually a predilection for starting land wars in Europe is their worst characteristic, but this is up there with it.”
He then segues into an SP about a previous visit to Cologne when he stayed in a cheap hotel and read soft-porn magazines that other guests had left behind. He then contemplates the massive cathedral and comments on its size with a little OPD:
“You can understand why it took 700 years to build – and that was with German workers. In Britain they would still be digging the foundations.”
Without any nicer things to say about Cologne Bryson indulges in a reminiscence about flying on a 747, and regaling the reader with the lack of American know-how of audio electronics – a bit of ODP – and praising the Japanese “for filling my life with convenient items like a wristwatch that can store telephone numbers, calculate my overdraft and time my morning egg” – a sort of reverse RDP. He then cuts short his Cologne stay when he spies a non-stop porno cinema in the train station, which one would’ve thought would’ve given Mr Bryson an extra beat of his heart but it instead caused him to high-tail it out of Cologne and head for, ironically, Amsterdam.
His stay in Hamburg is similar: he complains about the ugliness of the prostitutes, the smallness and expense of his carpet-less hotel room, the sex-shops – “nothing compared to those in Amsterdam” – although he does praise their ingenuity when it comes to manufacturing and promoting sex dolls. He indulges in a little RDP, ODP, SP and then tops it off with a lengthy analysis of why beautiful and stylish German women don’t shave their armpits; like “a Brillo pad hanging there. I know some people think it’s earthy, but so are turnips …”
Oh, and he also hates dogs.
It seems that Mr Bryson understands well his potential readership: the kind of travellers that other travellers try to avoid.
However, after reading the dense prose of our human stains in the stories by Tsiolkas, a house-brick sized Moorhouse about mores, political and sexual, in Canberra in the 1950’s, and the ethereal beginnings of literary modernism in Joyce, I thought I needed something light.
Neither Here nor There (1992) is entertaining-ish, undemanding, diverting, and completely forgettable, but don’t let it inform you about Europe.
Access to all 46 formats and editions you can find here.
After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that? Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s) and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win.
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck.
Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.
I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.
or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.
If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.
Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.
I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.
King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.
But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.
All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.
“He came to the river. The river was there.”
He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!
However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.
For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.
All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment. Highly recommended.
I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.
The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!
This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.
Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.
* He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.
– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)
You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.
On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.
Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.
If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.
This is a story of a boy who did just that.
I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:
He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.
He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying
… and he’s still at school.
A boy in a man’s body.
Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.
I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.
I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.
However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.
I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on
So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …
I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …
… Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.
Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.
I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …
This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.
… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.
I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.
I googled “scary aunt” and found this,
I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.
When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.
I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:
It was dry and scaly.
Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.
I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:
“You don’t like me very much.”
That’s what she said, nothing else.
I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that,and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again“I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”
When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.
I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.
I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.
I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.
I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.
When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.
But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.
Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).
This is Robert Gulliver, and he’s in the process of being born.
Over the last few years, longer probably, I have sketched out a story about this curious character in script form. Because that’s how I originally saw him, it. I don’t remember where he, the idea, came from. He is sixteen but the rigours of puberty landed heavily and early on dear Robert; that, and given his unusual parenting, and intellect, he is very much a round peg in a square hole. In fact, he is a man still in high school.
I was inspired to re-visit Robert recently as circumstances are that I don’t have the luxury of blocks of hours at my disposal to give long-form writing the wealth of time it needs. I have a few long-form projects that need just that. I thought polishing and cut & pasting an existing work would be a much better use of the time I have. Unfortunately I had written 80% of Gulliver’s Travels on a script-writing program called Final Draft; my subscription had expired, the update was expensive, and I was locked out of the program. However, although Robert has been sitting there, locked in the ether, he has been a lot on my mind: the story is well formed and remembered, and re-remembering it, but in a different form, was an interesting and challenging idea to dive into.
Robert’s story is about family. And the moment I wrote that word ‘family’ Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina sprang to mind:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Translation by Constance Garnett)
And a comment by Patrick Gale, a British and favoured author of mine, in which he said he likes page one to hold some sort of key to the whole work itself. It’s not that Robert’s family is unhappy or that I need a cryptic smack of the whole thing to begin, but what those two thoughts inspired was this,
by Michael Freundt
If you asked a family member – of any family – if they were happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realize that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know that this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the faceless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it. This is a story of a boy who did just that.
Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.
If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.
However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true. No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.
Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.
John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto seriesLives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen?(Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.
“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …
“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.
This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.
Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.
I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.
Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.