Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Crime Writing

The opinion, The Shadow of Violence, by Jane Casey appears in the winter 2019 edition of The Author. Ms Casey is the author of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels.  Her most recent novel is Let the Dead Speak.

Jane Casey

Ms Casey takes exception to the Staunch Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, screenwriter and author of educational material on violence.  The prize is awarded to books that do not feature violence against women.  Ms Lawless says the purpose of the award is to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women, and make sense for exciting alternatives.

Ms Casey says, “Our genre may frequently feature murderous rage, but crime writers are renowned as a calm, close-knit and pleasant literary collective.  It takes a lot to get us agitated; we generally work through our darker feelings in our books.  Yet nothing has stirred us up more than the Staunch Prize.  The reaction of many crime writers has ranged from scepticism to hurt to actual outrage.  Crime writers are defensive.  Crime is a genre that struggles for critical respect, despite brilliant and inventive writing and enormous popularity with readers.  The Staunch Prize feels like a response to the bad old days when crime was thought of as low-grade and vulgar entertainment, designed to titillate and thrill, devoid of any merit.

“At a recent literary festival ion London, I suggested that it is the duty of writers who write contemporary crime novels to reflect society as it is at that moment.  We live in a state of perpetual change; what appals one generation barely ruffles the feathers of the next.  Universal crimes – the ones that echo through the generations – are crimes against people.  These stories are as old as time; not telling then does not make them go away.  Telling stories about these crimes to a new audience has an important function: this is part of the world and it must be understood like any other threat to our safety and well being.

“The Staunch Prize website asserts that through their work, crime writers are perpetuating rape myths.”  (The rape myth, based on academic research, is that jurors are reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men of rape because such men do not fit the idea of rapists that jurors have internalised from stories and popular culture.)  She continues, “But contemporary crime writers, I would argue, no longer perpetuate the myth that only ‘stranger rape’ is ‘real rape’. We do the opposite.

“With the rise of the domestic noir genre of psychological thriller, crime-writing has moved inside the home to focus on exactly those behaviours that the Staunch Prize suggests it obscures.  Gaslighting, emotional abuse, coercive control, domestic violence, rape: all of these are real crimes that affect women (and often men) behind closed doors.  Exploring them in fiction is a way of placing them in context for victims and those of us in society who have never had to endure similar experiences – even, eventually jurors.

“A 2013 study by psychologists at York University in Toronto found that reading two genres in particular was a significant predictor of greater ‘interpersonal sensitivity’ – romance and suspense/thrillers.  Reading crime makes us more empathetic rather than blunting our sensibilities.  A 2010 Harris poll found that crime and thrillers were the most popular novels for both men and women, with 57% off female readers enjoying them (compared to 39% of male readers).”

As a footnote: Dorothy, a junior doctor, in my novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, is raped by her supervisor, a senior consultant.  She goes public, winning public support, forcing the resignation of the consultant, who flees the country, and a financial settlement.

Review: The Cut Out Girl

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es, won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2018 after being named biography of the year.  It is non-fiction about a Dutch girl of Jewish heritage who was placed by her parents in the care of others in 1942.  As such, it bears some resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank, but the girl, Hesseline (Lien) de Jong is moved on multiple occasions to escape being sent to the to the death camps, where most of her family, including her parents were murdered.  The story is told by the grandson of the couple who were Lien’s principal foster parents.  Bart Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands in 1972, researched the story and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University.

Bart Van Es

Lien de Jong is now over 80, living in Amsterdam; she has children of her own.  Born into a middle-class, secular Jewish family, she was seven years old when, in 1942, her parents decided to place her into a Christian family for her safety.  At the time Jews were being deported to the death camps and had already been stigmatised.  Over 80% of the Jews living in Holland at the beginning of the war died in the Holocaust.  This is a gripping story of bravery on the part of many non-Jews in the Netherlands during the war; they risked their own lives to save thousands of children.  The story proceeds along two tracks: Lien’s story – her background, the events of the war years, and the after war years; and the author’s account of his thorough and painstaking research into the events, the people and the places that Lien experienced, as well as into the culture and circumstances as they affected Jews in Holland during the war years.  Since the author had heard that his grandparents had fostered Lien and that at one time she was considered part of the Van Es family, he wanted to understand why, after the war, Lien had fallen out with his grandparents.

The title is derived from Lien’s ‘poesy album’ in which she kept notes and little poems written by her friends, and in which there are pasted several cut outs of old fashioned girls.  But Lien, herself is a cut out girl being moved from one family to another without notice.

This story is timely, as Antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe.  The author’s fear that this is just another Holocaust story is un-founded.  It is told with such detail of the events, the feelings and motivations of the people involved that it is difficult to put down.  One is almost literally trans-located to the cities, villages, and houses in war-time Holland.  The author’s writing is straight forward and without extra emotional embellishment.  One has to admire the meticulousness of his research into people, places and events.  He clearly established a remarkably close relationship with Lien, the central figure, nearly twice his age, who had fallen out with his family.  My only quibble about the book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the numerous families who provided shelter to Lien, and what their relationships were to one another.  Clearly, though, Lien didn’t know this either.

This is without a doubt the best biography I’ve read in a long time.  It’s one that gives you faith in human nature is spite of all the evil around us.

Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century.  It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters.  As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories.  At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway.  She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever.  Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing.  She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937.  In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim.  She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories.  She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945.  In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught.  Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him.  Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY.  Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends.  Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates.  Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s,  There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser.  Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst.  The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.

When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.  She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.

For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then.  The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.

Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Creative Writing Classes

I have decided to take two courses on creative writing at City Academy in London.  One is a full week, full day (10-5) class in advanced creative writing.  In addition to providing the students with a sharper writing tool kit, it covers the specific skills of novel writing, script writing (film or television) and play writing.  There is a good deal of emphasis on creative techniques and structure.  There were four instructors on this course, all of them freelance writers, some of them take commissions from the BBC and one is a children’s book writer.  All of us (six) on this course were impressed with both the knowledge of the tutors and their skills in transferring the knowledge to us.  We completed many specific writing assignments in class, ranging from five to twenty minutes, and we would read out our work to the class.

The other class is on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 for six weeks.  This course is taught by the head of the creative writing department, who is script writer for Casualty on BBC1.  As such, he has a flair for drama.  This course is designed to help students progress or design a piece of creative writing.  There are five students in this course; I am the only male (aside from the tutor).  One woman in her early 30’s has finished writing a middle grade children’s book about a child who is disappointed in her own achievements.  A woman in her 50’s has a musical which has been performed somewhere locally and involves repercussions from Vietnam.  These two are making final corrections.  A woman in her late late 30’s has some ideas for a novel about two female friends, one of whom has a father who has strangely reappeared.  And the other student, in her 20’s, is trying to develop ideas for a novel.  And I am there with a completed manuscript about a man who is preoccupied with fears of his death.  Agents say it is well written, it has three good reviews, but nobody has said ‘yes’, and one agent said that in needs more intensity.

So I outlined the novel last Wednesday, including the concern about intensity.  I also presented my list of ideas for ramping up the intensity.  Almost immediately, the tutor said, why don’t you make the relationship between the protagonist and his grandniece the centerpiece of the novel, having them tell the story rather than the protagonist alone.  At first, I thought, Oh, God another rewrite!, but then it began to make sense.  The current structure of the novel is around a timeline which tends to dilute the intensity of the relationships.  But, if the two narrators cover and debate each of the relationships in depth, in series, it will be much more intense.

So next Wednesday, I’ve been asked to bring a revised outline to the class.  What this involves is taking all the events of each relationship, and grouping them together sequentially, rather than allowing them to be strung out along the time line.

This will, of course involve some re-writing, some new material and deleting some existing material.  But I’m looking forward to it.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Writing Seminar/Workshop

Last Saturday, I attended one-day seminar/workshop put on at the Cambridge Writing Retreat on the subject of ‘What Does Show Not Tell’ Actually Mean?  The instructor was Emma Sweeney, a novelist and literary instructor, who was both knowledgeable and interested in the development of the four writers attending.  Aside from me, there were three female writers: two novelists and a flash fiction writer.  The particular seminar I attended is part of a novel writing course put on by the Cambridge Writing Retreat over the course of a year, and the Retreat is the brainchild of Gaynor Clements, a poet with an MA in creative writing; it is put on in her attractive and spacious farmhouse.

The day started with Emma defining the terms.  Both Showing and Telling relate to what is in a character’s mind: feelings or thoughts.  Showing is accessing the world through our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.  Showing is describing a character’s reaction to one or more of the five senses to give the reader a clue of what they may be feeling or their attitude.  Telling describes the character’s thoughts or feelings directly.  Showing a close interaction – as for example, smelling a rose – can be quite powerful but can feel claustrophobic; showing a distant interaction tends to keep the reader at arms length. The literary preference is to use showing as much as possible, as this engages the reader in sensing the direction of the narrative, rather that being told the direction of the narrative.  Telling is best used when the author wishes to throw doubt on what a character has previously done or said; that is, to suggest that the character may be changing his/her mind.   If we are describing an emotion through telling, it is best to anchor it in an analogy or image.

Our first exercise was to go out into the garden and try to experience something close and distant with sight, smell and hearing; we were also asked to experience something close with touch and taste.  As the farmhouse garden has many herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees as well as chickens, dogs, sheep, birds and interesting vistas, this was not a difficult task.

We were then asked to write a scene in which one of our characters does something out of character using action, gesture, dialogue and a description of the setting.  This took forty minutes, during which time Emma spoke one-on-one for twenty minutes with two of the other participants about the status or their writing and any concerns or obstacles they were facing.  The two of us who had completed our scenes read them out for discussion.

When setting a general scene, it is good practice to follow it up with a more specific, detailed scene.

After lunch, we began to read and discuss excerpts as follows:

  • Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway.  This short story is almost all show and very little tell; the reader’s mind has to work to keep up with the narrative.
  • Notes on a Scandal,  by Zoe Heller.  The excerpt uses Tell to cast doubt on the protagonist’s version of events.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The beginning of Chapter 4 is used to raise a number of questions to keep the reader’s interest.
  • The Web of Belonging, by Stevie Davies.  The excerpt uses an unusual words and layout to express the conflict a character is feeling

Our last exercise was to write a scene in which a character has an epiphany, starting with the external world, moving to the character’s mind, and concluding in the external world.  I had a plan for this one, but didn’t complete it because I had twenty minutes with Emma.  We talked about my concerns: creating more tension in the narrative and being less kind to characters.

The day gave me just the ammunition I needed to defeat the mystery of Show vs Tell.

 

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!