Writing Advice from Charles Dickens

The Writers Write website has a series of pages where famous (and not so famous) authors give advice about writing. In this case, Alex J Coyne, a writer, proofreader and card player, has found relevant passages from Dickens’ works and has interpreted them for authors.

7 Bits Of Writing Advice From The Works Of Charles Dickens

1. Nothing Is Impossible (When You’re A Writer) 

‘Consider nothing impossible, then treat possibilities as probabilities.’ – From David Copperfield 

If you believe it’s unlikely or impossible that your pitches and stories will be successful, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

But if you consider nothing impossible, you’ll wake up every day believing something good is about to happen. Keep working at it.

2. Write With Everlasting Curiosity

‘We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner.’ – From Little Dorrit 

Charles had a keen interest in law, and this sentence also applies to the average writer. Writers draw heavily on their experiences and research to be good writers who portray these experiences well to readers.

Do you have enough bits and pieces of life experiences, trivia, and research about odd topics to make sure your writing is rich, interesting, and accurate in its details?

3. There’s A Lot Of Bad Writing Out There

‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ – From Oliver Twist 

The Oliver Twist quote reveals that there was just as much grammatically incorrect (and nonsensically plotted) writing in the 1800s as we have today with the internet.

4. Choose Words With Great Responsibility

‘A word in earnest is as good as a speech.’ – From Bleak House

Another way to say the above would be, ‘One correctly chosen word is worth a thousand.’

Writing should never be lengthier or clumsier than it needs to be. Good writing says stuff, but remarkable writing says stuff with less (and usually more carefully chosen) words.

5. Have a Unique Selling Point

‘It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.’ – From Nicholas Nickleby 

Every writing piece that’s worth reading has a unique selling point.

6. Give Characters Depth (& Life!)

Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.’ – From The Old Curiosity Shop

Fictional characters should have depth, personality, likeability (or the opposite for antagonists!), and history the reader might never get to see.

When readers encounter a character in your story, they should always feel something. Love, hate, disgust, curiosity, interest, wonder, lust, something. Otherwise, you are just not doing your job as a writer.

7. You Should Be Writing

‘Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.’ – From David Copperfield

Writers write, but many writers also procrastinate.

Every writer has at least one or two excuses to hush their conscience when they should be writing now, but aren’t.

Writing right now is always better than not writing right now. Now go write something!

Review: The Nickel Boys

This novel, by Colson Whitehead, was one that my son-in-law left for me. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020, and i devoured it rather quickly.

 Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 in New York City; his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. As a child growing up in New York City, he decided that he wanted to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. He matriculated at Harvard University; after he was not accepted into Harvard’s creative writing seminars, he studied English and comparative literature. Upon receiving a B.A. in 1991, he became an editorial assistant at The Village Voice; he wrote music, television, and book reviews and eventually became the newspaper’s television editor.  He has written eight novels, including The Underground Railroad, for which he was awarded he 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, long Island.

Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction but it is based on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which the author discovered in 2014. It was a reform school operated by the State of Florida from 1900 to 2011. Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

The principal character in The Nickel Boys is Elwood Curtis, growing up in the Florida panhandle in the 1960. His parents have deserted him and he is living with his grandmother. He is an idealistic, well behaved boy who does well in school and is preparing to go to college. He is arrested accepting a ride from a car thief and sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school. There, he meets meets and becomes friends with Turner, a cynic, who cannot understand Elwood’s commitment to Dr Martin Luther Kings instructions to love your oppressor. Trying to intervene in the bullying of a younger boy, Elwood is severely beaten by the school authorities and spends two weeks in the school hospital. The novel lays out in gripping detail what life is like in Nickel. Eventually, Elwood, who has been taking notes of all his experiences, decides to pass them to a state inspector. This leads to an attempted escape by Elwood and Turner which ends tragically.

This novel certainly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult to set aside, but it is not sensational; it is factual, almost understated, moving on quickly to what happens next. The writing is tight, and the images are sharp. The contrast between Elwood’s and Turner’s attitudes is used to maintain the manageable temperature of the Novel. The school authorities are unembroidered: their action speak for themselves.

The book is a supremely eloquent indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. It leaves us asking ourselves how it can happen to ‘normal’ people. In summary: a great, memorable piece of literature.

Review: The Testaments

I acquired Margaret Atwood’s novel The Testaments from amazon.it just before my son-in-law dumped a pile of his completed summer reading on me. Some of it actually looks quite interesting, but Margaret came first.

This is her novel which won the Booker Prize in 2019, is pretty much a sequel to her The Handmaid’s Tale which was published in 1985, and which I haven’t yet read.

The flyleaf of The Testaments say that ‘Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Atwood has won numerous awards. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.’

Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is a dystopian novel set in the what was the northeastern United States in the twenty-second century in a military dictatorship which is strongly patriarchal, totalitarian and theonomic. It is called the Republic of Gilead. Women are not allowed to read, write or own property and are divided into classes, each with a distinctive dress. Most importantly, they are deprived of their reproductive function. Wives are the highest class, Marthas are the servants, Handmaids main role to to provide children to male Commanders (infertility is a problem owing to radiation and chemical pollution), Aunts train the Handmaids, and Econowives constitute the major segment of the female population. There are also unmarried girls dressed in white and widows in black. Mayday is a secretive resistance movement in Gilead, and the Pearl Girls are Mayday’s opponents. The Eyes are Gilead’s secret police.

There are three narrators in the novel: Aunt Lydia, an aging, cynical and powerful figure, and two young sisters in training, who become involved in Aunt Lydia’s scheme to bring down Gilead, whose Commanders have become self-serving and corrupt.

The novel is fast-moving and tension-filled. For some one who in not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale it can be a little bit difficult to get ‘the lay of the land’. Sometimes I also lost track of the historic relationships between characters. Nonetheless, the novel is fascinating in its complexity, its flawed, well-drawn characters, and its ever-shifting plot.

I would certainly recommend this novel to anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale. It will surely satisfy your hankering to know what happened next.

It’s my impression that The Testaments was selected as the joint winner with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo’s of the 2019 Booker Prize as a retrospective recognition that perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale should have won the 1985 prize. After all, the earlier novel was an enormous commercial success, presented the original dystopian landscape, which served as a controversial criticism by the author of the direction in which she saw America heading. It was also as tension-filled, peopled with flawed characters, and undoubtedly as well written as its sequel.

US Supreme Court Rejects First Amendment Case

On July 6, Andrew Albanese reported In Publishers Weekly on a decision by the US Supreme Court that preserves protections for authors and journalists, but raises questions about the future of such protections.

US Supreme Court Justices

The case in question involves Guy Lawson’s 2015 book Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, the basis for the movie War Dogs.

In 2017, Shkelzen Berisha, the son of the former Prime Minister of Albania, sued Lawson and Simon & Schuster arguing that the book’s portrayal of his involvement in corrupt arms deals was defamatory. In December, 2018, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, holding that Berisha, as a “limited public figure,” failed to show “actual malice”.  In other words, by the standard set in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, Berisha failed to show that Lawson and S&S had published statements they knew to be false, or with “reckless disregard” as to whether or not they were false.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision in September, 2020. And with the Supreme Court’s denial of Certioari last week the case is now over.

In a brief statement, S&S officials said they were gratified by the Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling. “[The decision] affirms long held rights and protections for authors and journalists under the First Amendment and puts an end to a lawsuit that should never have been brought in the first place,” the statement reads.

But the biggest takeaway from the case may be that two of the court’s conservative justices apparently believe there should be more cases like Berisha’s.

In dissents that take aim more at today’s fractured media landscape than the merits of the case, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch question how well the standard articulated by the court in 1964 in Sullivan holds up today.

“What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable,” Gorsuch writes. “If ensuring an informed democratic debate is the goal, how well do we serve that interest with rules that no longer merely tolerate but encourage falsehoods in quantities no one could have envisioned almost 60 years ago?”

While today’s media landscape is obviously different and challenging, the standard articulated in the New York Times v. Sullivan is widely regarded as a pillar of the American free press. Before the decision, handed down in March, 1964, public officials in southern states had effectively used the threat of libel and defamation actions against news organizations to suppress coverage of the civil rights movement. But the actual malice standard adopted by the court effectively mitigated the risk from costly defamation claims.

Gorsuch and Thomas are far from the only federal judges to urge a re-thinking of the Sullivan standard in recent years—though it is unclear from both dissents how the court’s intervention—as opposed to Congress’s—would alleviate the problems that have emerged in today’s media—a point Gorsuch acknowledged.

“I do not profess any sure answers. I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking,” Gorsuch conceded in his dissent. “But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

So, it seems to me that there will eventually be changes in the level of free speech protections now enjoyed by authors and journalists.