Your Questions Answered: Taking It Apart

The Arts

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In ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ we see an artist gradually assembling the component parts for what will become his most famous painting, ‘Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte’, by Georges Seurat.

We’re fascinated by how things are created. Yesterday, reader Anchovee says it’s a shame that I should pick apart a successful film into its components. But to find out how an engine runs so smoothly, sometimes you have to dismantle it and study the pieces. It’s what writers do all the time.

The reason why journalistic training used to involve a year of local court reporting is that over the year you start to see patterns in who comes up before the judge and form conclusions about them. Sadly, that training was demolished, although I imagine it survives in the good American newspapers, which leave Britain’s in the dust for factual reporting, especially the New York Times. We need to find patterns below the surface and learn how to use them for our own ends.

If we can’t see these invisible patterns, we never come to understand how things are constructed. Often, what comes out of such study is an indication that the creator has stuck to their guns and not compromised in any way. The creation of something special requires sacrifice. How many artists and writers went mad in the process of unlocking such secrets?

But let’s be realistic. In the modern world this is not often possible. I look back at my non-bryant & May books and am unhappy in some way with almost everything I’ve written. I’ve added elements to please readers and editors that would not have otherwise been in them. But once the words are in print, once the paint has hardened, once the ink on the musical annotation has dried, your work is imprisoned. John Fowles famously rewrote ‘The Magus’ because he was not happy with it. Is the new version better? I honestly can’t remember. I suspect not. Perhaps one’s first instinct is the best even if it contains flaws.

Creators are required to be impatient; content is needed, publishers push for dates – but the biggest impediment comes from the creators themselves. We convince ourselves that we need to make money, hit deadlines, get out there. Sometimes it would be better to work more slowly.

For me, the Bryant & May books are not hard to write because I understand the formula – so I test myself by constantly changing it. With standalone books there is no formula and you’re working in untried areas. I can’t say that ‘The Sand Men’ is like any book I’ve read myself, something which was picked up by the Los Angeles Times as its biggest strength.

I rarely write to commission because I don’t work for the money. I want to keep learning. One problem that confronts all career writers is that our work goes one of two ways as we age – it gets lazier and simpler, or it demands more of the reader. I want to make sure I take the second  route.

One of the most demanding writers I’ve read lately is Brigid Brophy, who refused to compromise in anything she wrote. She is one of the great unsung heroines of literature. If I could be like her, I’d be a very happy author. I think Brophy’s time may have finally come. Sadly she is no longer with us.

So there you go, Anchovee – that’s why writers pick things apart.

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10 comments on “Your Questions Answered: Taking It Apart”

  1. Bill says:

    Two months ago I began reading “Prancing Novelist” because- well, because I wanted to “get closer” to Ronald Firbank- well, actually not, no understanding, on my part, really, as to why I attempted it. I just like reading about those of a certain class who lived at a certain time. Wasn’t what I expected. Intellectual, hard to shoulder through, not the usual biography, and my upstairs story isn’t expansive enough to furnish it with her thought. What I came away with was a sense of her clarity occupying an elaborate discourse, and a notion that Firbank lead an arid life. Maybe someday I’ll try it again.

  2. Jan says:

    Well that’s cleared that one up if you hadn’t made me aware of these invisible patterns
    I would never have guessed how these things came to be constructed.
    Sounds like a quote from the Emporer slipping on a new outfit

  3. Brooke says:

    It was very gracious of Mr. Fowler to respond to Anchovee’s comments. While I certainly understand the need for fun and lightness during trying times, we should not loose our critical thinking abilities. We need to be able to reasonably and honestly “pick things apart” and hopefully be less vulnerable to the latest propaganda. If you want to avoid thoughtful criticism, you may want to skip parts of this blog AND you will miss a lot that is valuable!

  4. admin says:

    Thank you Brooke, that’s very generous of you. I want this blog to be different to most writers’ blogs and create real communication with readers.

    And Bill, you’re not dim – it’s a very demanding read but fascinating. It reminded me of the BS Johnson biography a little.

  5. SteveB says:

    That’s a very interesting post.
    Of course as a professional writer you can – must – see the machinery. It’s when the normal reader or viewer sees the writer at work that something went wrong.
    I think sometimes writers try too hard which is as deadly a trap as not trying hard enough.
    Looking forward to Carax’s Annette.

  6. Kevin says:

    I’m all in favor of demanding reads – but the effort has to be worth it. Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, even some PD James – all wonderful, demanding writers who are worth every ounce of effort. Yet I find too many writers, especially those who consider themselves candidates for whatever literary prize, simply do not have the chops to make their tale, as told, worth all the effort. Usually it’s just a poor novel – poorly imagined and poorly executed.

    The real challenge for me though is learning to tell the difference. Maybe I should just stay away from Amazon.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    No, Kevin, you just need to learn how to take apart an Amazon puff piece. Be suspicious of anything that appears to be an incomplete quote or have an implied conditional clause.
    Learning patterns is part of reading. Once I had Carl Hiaasen’s pattern I wasn’t interested in reading any more of his books because he just slots in the new situation and puts new names to his character list and off it goes. Other authors do similar things and finding them out simplifies one’s to read pile.

  8. admin says:

    I agree with you, Helen. Pattern-learning is part of the training. I once explained to my mother how to tell fake journalism from real journalism. As proof I gave her a set of dates when press releases would be delivered to newspapers and told her to watch for the articles. She was horrified by the predictable outcome.

    This is one of the reasons why I keep altering the pattern of the B&M books – to wrongfoot you all!

  9. Elizabeth Rose says:

    Perhaps you could revisit “how to tell fake journalism from real journalism” here. In an alternative fact age I’d consider it a public service.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    And it works, Admin. Many cozy mysteries have recognizable patterns but that might even be a comfortable trait the way it was with the old Perry Mason tv series. “He can’t be the guilty party because that’s just the first third of the program; wait until the commercial at the end of the second third and then see.” Of course until Mason’s surprise witness turned up in the final courtroom scene you couldn’t be sure.

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