A Little Piece About Writing

Reading & Writing

I’m working on the final part of my trilogy-memoir ‘Word Monkey’ today, and therefore thinking about writing. A surprising amount of popular fiction is lazily, not to say badly, written.

Want to write a quick bestseller? Try putting it in first person/present tense and you can get around the need for eloquence or better still, any research. Write only about your emotions and you’ll never need to look up boring old facts.

I don’t especially enjoy first person narratives unless they have a very good reason for being written that way. It’s true that they’re much easier to write but they’re restricting. A recent exception to the rule would be ‘The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach’ by Jas Treadwell, which uses the first person to parody an 18th century literary style.

The third person, AKA the God overview (especially when adopted by Dickens) allows you to dip in and out of the lives of others. I used it extensively years ago in a book called ‘Calabash’, even going so far as to fly over a town deciding whom to look in on. The third person narrative allows for greater eloquence, descriptive passages, shifting time frames, close-up scenes and ones viewed from a distance; it’s also much more filmic.

I had toyed with writing a Bryant & May novel from Arthur Bryant’s perspective, but felt it would be too limiting, although perhaps it could be split between first and third person. I’ve read books with shifting perspectives (I seem to remember there was one with over thirty different viewpoints) and don’t know how authors expect their readers to remember every overlap.

Writing a novel takes months or maybe years, and asking someone to absorb a long-evolving tale seems unreasonable to me. Even TV series have recaps.

Thanks to my Kindle I’m reading three books at once and consequently muddling their characters together. E-readers have their limits, and many of the authors whose work I’ve most enjoyed are not available electronically.

Many years ago I’d loved David Pownall’s ‘The Raining Tree War’ and ‘The African Horse’, and can perfectly recall set pieces from them (and the language – sex is referred to as hlanganana!) but they’re out of print now and all but lost. Whereas the equally bizarre but more narrowly focussed, not to mention violent and scatalogical, Tom Sharpe novels are all available in multiple formats.

Writers in the later parts of their lives often produce their best work, but editors are reluctant to invest in them. Where’s the market? they’ll ask. Right here, I say. You could use Pownall’s later books to replace some of the rubbish I’m offered every time I open Amazon.

12 comments on “A Little Piece About Writing”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I haven’t read David Pownall before, but have always enjoyed your recommendations, so I’m going to see if I can find them.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    As for first person narratives, I look for an authentic voice or ‘truth-in-character.’ This is less about research to me than it is about life experience and, of course, avoiding the always tempting stereotypes. For example, can a male author write authentically in first person female ? They have (often however, with a female pseudonym) and I’m sure, will continue to do so.

    Whilst gender would obviously be important with a female protagonist — unless it is an outright romance novel or what used to be called ‘bodice rippers’ (those stereotypes again), I would look for an authentic female voice, deriving presumably from observation over a long period of time and ‘heard’ in the just as important socioeconomic context of the novel. Critically for me as well is whether the character’s ‘femaleness’ informs the character’s individuality in general or is simply the be-all and end-all of the narrative. With all but an exceptional male writer, I think the latter would offer all manner of pitfalls.

    Which leads me to what I have been banging on about since I first looked in on ‘Mr. Fowler’s Neighborhood:’ there is a distinct difference (to me) between ‘authoring’ and ‘writing’ — the ‘twain’ doesn’t necessarily always meet. The difference, in many cases, is like that between an anticipated destination and a motorway service area.

  3. Joan says:

    In the novel The Book Thief, Death was one of the Narrators, I thought it was used very effectively for the story.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    Yes, it was, Joan. I am usually a little suspicious of first person narratives and particularly so if that narrator is a child or someone with a limited knowledge base. It can be very effective to reveal the basis of a situation but can be used by the sloppy, as Chris says, to cover a lack of research. I used to say that I read historical fiction to get illumination on history but that only works if your author is accurate.
    A book from Mr. Bryant’s point of view would probably be accurate as far as facts went but might omit some aspects of a number of situations. A Social Studies teacher I had warned us to always read the introduction to any book we were using for research because there is no one without a bias and where Canadian history is concerned there are at least three sides to any argument. He was certainly right about that.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’
    –Stephen King

    “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’
    –Toni Morrison

    “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’
    –Ray Bradbury, ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’

    “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
    –Thomas Mann, ‘Essays of Three Decades’

    ‘Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.’
    ― Norman Mailer

  6. Jo+e says:

    ‘If you’re a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes’.
    -Mickey Spillane

  7. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Fond as I am of Arthur Bryant – who has managed to add boiled sweets and Cumberland sausage to my life – I appreciate that the stories have more than one voice. Even the feline population manages to contribute in some way.
    Each character has his/her own perspective which gives depth to whatever is happening. I always look forward to “seeing” how things are, even if it’s Raymondo bemoaning his life.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    Conventional wisdom tells us that we often form pictures in our minds when we read. Neuroscience says that’s true, but not necessarily the photo or filmic images we assume. Recent research points to a specialized area of the brain which recognizes printed words as pictures or their orthography — how they look — rather than by their meaning, which is why we’re able to interpret marks on a page so quickly.

    As we become more proficient at reading and begin reading a variety of written matter, we build up essentially a visual dictionary or gallery much as we accumulate a catalogue of familiar faces on the opposite side of our brain. That is not to say that written descriptions do not result in true mental imagery. Interestingly, other research indicates that it is often simpler, rather than detailed descriptions which create richer and more emotionally involving images.

  9. Oskar from Sweden says:

    The Infernal Riddle seems interesting. I’m reading Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown at the moment – also a first person narrative but very elegantly written (at least to my eye; not a native English speaker).

  10. Peter T says:

    I have never written anything of any significance other than technical documents (not that I claim significance to any of those). There, the question is between the first person and an impersonal form that I find ridiculous with its ‘the equipment was constructed’ and ‘it was decided that…’. I prefer the first person plural as the writer and the reader progress together through an adventure in logic. One manager wrote across a report of mine that it should be written in the subjunctive! I sent it back to him with the comment that he may hope that were possible.

  11. Peter+Dixon says:

    Raymond Chandler managed the first person narrative beautifully, so much so that it became much imitated and, eventually, a parody of noir/private eye fiction. See: Charley Farley and Piggy Malone by Messrs Barker and Corbett.

  12. Paul C says:

    Thanks, Oskar – good to hear Fredric Brown’s name mentioned. I’ve got quite a few of his books. Very ingenious plotter and funny too : Try ‘Martians, Go Home’

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