Saturday, 1 February 2014

Monkeys and all that

I won my copy of Scarlett Thomas's 'Monkeys with Typewriters'  from Jim Murdoch at The Truth About Lies over a year ago. It had pride of place on the bedside table but I had not managed read it. I started reading it before NaNoWriMo but then discovered I write episodic plots which was depressing ("Aristotle warns against the 'episodic' plot, in which several things happen, one after the other, but do so without each thing being caused by the one before." p.59). It is a writing advice book, based on her own experience as both a writer and a creative writing teacher. Firstly this isn't is a step-by-step 'how to write a novel' book, and I think that you should definitely be suspicious of anything that comes in that format. It is a book about novel writing, the first part taking us through the long history of stories from Aristotle and Plato, theories about fiction and the types of plot structures, drawing on examples from both classic and modern literature and popular culture when describing the things that make good stories and good writing. She does assume somewhat that her reader is quite well read, but it doesn't detract from it if you haven't read the books she specifically refers to and she seems as fond of Harry Potter as she is of George Eliot. She does spend quite a lot of time giving detailed examples of plot types, for example the 'rags to riches' plot or the 'stranger comes to town' plot, describing books and how they fit, but I found it all very interesting and helpful to visualise stories in that way. The second part has chapters on having ideas, plotting, characters  and how to put a sentence together (because if you can't write a decent sentence you certainly can't write a novel). It is a very readable book, she has a lovely informal, chatty style and is not shy about sharing the hard lessons she has learned along the way of how easy it is to write badly. This is not going to be a review as such because it's far too big a subject, but I thought maybe I would just a share a few nuggets of wisdom. 

Who tells the story?
"What you write will be as much a result of these decisions as it is a result of those you make about plot, character and theme. Would Great Expectations be the same narrative if it were narrated by Joe or Estella? Would Middlemarch remain the same if it were told in the first-person present tense from Dorothea's perspective? How would The Bell Jar change if equal weight were given to Esther's mother's version of the story? One of the most interesting questions to ask about fiction is therefore, Who tells the story? Before we even consider any of the other questions, we should ask, Who is telling this to me? And, maybe, Why? And, perhaps also, What's in it for them?" (p.228)

"When I first stared teaching sentence-level writing I felt uncomfortable because so much of it seemed to involve pointing out what was wrong with bad sentences, rather than celebrating the really amazing ones. But the point is that it is possible to define bad writing in a way that it is just not possible to define good writing. We can admire 'The lawn was white with doctors' all day long, but I'll never be able to tell you how to write it. I can suggest that you might cut all unnecessary words from your sentence about doctors standing on the lawn, but you might just end up with something like, 'There were doctors on the lawn.' That would be fine. It's a good sentence. It's a true sentence. but it's not a brilliant sentence. Of course, before we can aim for brilliance we must aim for simple truth (and if we get it right, our exact simple truth may well be brilliant). But again, this is hard to define unless we say what it isn't. It is only by studying false sentences that we can see what sorts of sentences are likely to be true." (p.308-9)

And adding to Stephen King's advice (and anyone else worth their salt it seems) on the subject of adverbs:
"Adverbs and adjectives can make sentences appear more serious or meaningful from a distance, but when we look close up we see that they can actually be very distracting, or even meaningless. They also lead to long-winded, 'wordy' writing, which is quite different from what we've been calling expansive writing. Wordiness implies that there are extra words that don't mean anything, or that tell the reader what to think. Most of the words could be deleted or rearranged and the sentence would be better as a result." (p.330)

Then down to the nitty gritty:
"Narrative questions will intrigue your reader and keep him or her reading. Will Cinderella go to the ball? Will Hamlet kill Claudius? Will Odysseus get home? Will Dorothy get home? Will E.T. get home? Will Eiji in number9dream ever find his father? A question like this will usually be the main reason we start engaging with a piece of fiction. We want to find out not simply 'what happens' (after all, things happen randomly all the time), but whether a particular question is answered and whether a particular character gets what they want or not." (p.373)

And finally, the novel at the top of a mountain question:
"How far would you go to rescue it? If you did somehow manage to leave the only copy of it on a bus, how devastated would you be? The answers to these questions tell you how important the novel is to you, and therefore how important it is likely to be to other people." 

If you are interested in writing fiction this is the kind of book you could read over and over, scribbling in the margins and folding down the corners of pages; it's not a book to treat with respect but one to use until it falls apart. I feel inspired to go forth and pick apart my favourite book to see how it works.

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