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.

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.

 

Writers’ Groups

Have you ever thought of joining a writers’ group?  The Florida Writers Association, of which I am a member, has a number of them, and Veronica Helen Hart leads three different groups.  In the abbreviated article, below, from The Florida Writer, she describes how the groups work.  She has written ten novels and a play.  Regarding her experience with writers’ groups, she says: “One of the most successful efforts has been participating in critique groups and leading a writers workshop for the past several years. I have learned more in these sessions than I ever did in college classes.”

Veronica Helen Hart

“The first group is the Daytona Area Writers, which grew quickly, and split off a
second group, the  Daytona Area Fiction Writers, which maintains a schedule of two
writers a week, every week, submitting a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages in advance online. This is an invitation-only group, focused on fiction with a goal of
publishing. We meet at a local Barnes & Noble store. Another group, the Ormond Writers League, is a well-established group. Individuals read five to seven
pages aloud, and members critique on the spot. I found this technique most helpful to me as a writer but difficult to do as a listener. I prefer to read, so I asked if people
wouldn’t mind bringing one printed copy for me. Now, everyone brings copies to share.

Members must respect the leader’s ability to moderate the group. There are often
occasions when the moderator is called upon to resolve personality issues before they become major problems.

In both DAW and DAFW, the meetings open with news of writing progress from each member and announcements of upcoming competitions or conferences. There is always support and encouragement for writers who submit work for competitions or to
agents.  At DAW, we frequently do writing exercises or have a mini-workshop before critiquing. At the DAFW, we start with critiques.  The guidelines for critiquing are probably the same  as for most writing groups, however, and we don’t let members stray. Critiques may not be personal and must address the writing only. This is about critique, not criticism; about critiquers, not critics; about the effect the work evokes in a variety of readers; about writers helping writers to encourage areas of strength and improve areas of perceived weaknesses.  Our critique groups allow writers to save face before offering themselves on the sacrificial altars of agents, editors, and publishers.
To be critiqued, you must be an active participant in the group, which includes submitting your writing for critique.  Start by praising strengths.  Avoid the use of the word you. Instead of saying, “You used passive voice…” you can say, “I found the
passive voice used several times …” Or, instead of, “You can’t let a person jump off that building,” you can say, “I don’t understand how a person could survive jumping off
that building.” Offer positive feedback. Highlight and emphasize what worked well in the manuscript.  When speaking, still avoid you. Try saying, “I felt completely drawn into this scene,” instead of, “You wrote a great scene.”  When the writing is not so great, offer constructive suggestions. “It might help pick up the pace of this story if the scene where she’s grocery shopping was either dropped or cut short,” instead of, “The grocery store scene is boring.” Members are discouraged from rewriting the story for the author. It is okay to suggest an alternative path for the protagonist only if the
author has asked for help.  Critiques are not meant to be copyedits.
Typos and misspellings may be marked on the manuscript rather than being used as a discussion point, although an assessment of the manuscript mechanics may be part of the evaluation.  Honesty is the best policy. Consider the most basic questions: Has the author anything to say? Has the author said it in the best possible way?  In the end, kindness counts. This does not mean a charm offensive or gushing over a mediocre
manuscript. This does no one any good. But some writers never recover from being chewed up and spit out by a cannibalistic critique group.

In our twice-a-month group where we have a large attendance, everyone may submit up to ten pages for critique. We ask for four to six volunteers to critique each manuscript the schedule is then posted on a dedicated Yahoo site.
In our weekly group, two people may submit up to 20 pages and everyone critiques. This is also posted on a Yahoo site.
One of the most important rules is that the person whose manuscript is being critiqued
remain quiet during the critiques and can then reply once everyone is finished. Generally, the responses are to thank everyone for their help. There should be no need for anyone to defend their manuscript or take exception to a critique.
If something does not apply, the author is always free to politely thank the person and ignore the comments.
The best thing about these groups are how supportive each person is to everyone else in the group.”

If there were a writers’ group near me, I think I might join if I could bring along bits of a novel I’m working on.

Review: A Farewell to Arms

I had never read this World War I novel by Ernest Hemingway, so that when my wife suggested that I select some books for us to listen to while we were driving down to Sicily, I selected it.  The particular edition I bought is read by John Slattery, an American film and television actor, who is best known, perhaps, for his role as Roger Sterling in the TV drama series Mad Men; his diction is excellent, he reads with the requisite emotional emphasis, and with the distinct accents of characters of various nationalities.

Hemingway, born in 1899, was a reporter for The Kansas City Star for a few months after graduation from high school before leaving for the Italian front in World War I to serve as an ambulance driver, having been rejected by the US Army because of his eyesight.  He was seriously wounded and returned home.  This experience formed the basis of his third novel, A Farewell to Arms.  Similarly, the love story of the protagonist in A Farewell to Arms with the British nurse, Catherine Barkley, is similar to Hemingway’s affair with the American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who was seven years his senior and he had planned to marry, but who become engaged to an Italian officer.

Ernest Hemingway

Frederick Henry, an American paramedical officer serving in the Italian Army in World War I, is introduced by an Italian doctor friend to a pretty British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and though Frederick does not want a relationship, he tries to seduce her.  In combat, he is wounded in the knee by a mortar shell and is sent to a hospital in Milan where Catherine has also been sent.  As Frederick’s knee slowly heals from surgery, he and Catherine spend time together and fall in love.  He is kicked out of the hospital for concealing alcohol, sent back to the front line, and by the time he can return to Milan, Catherine is three months’ pregnant.  When he returns to his unit, he finds that morale has declined precipitously, and not long after, the Austro-Hungarians break through the Italian lines at the Battle of Caporetto.  During the ensuing chaos, it becomes necessary to abandon the ambulances and Frederick kills an insubordinate sergeant.  He finds his way back to the main retreating column, and on crossing a bridge, he discovers that officers not accompanied by their men are suspected of cowardice and ‘treachery’, supposedly leading to the Italian defeat.  Solitary officers are being interrogated and summarily shot.  Frederick dives into the river and is carried downstream to a point where he can board a freight train which carries him to Milan.  At that point, he renounces his military service.  Catherine, however, has been relocated to Stresa, where he finds her, and he is aware that as a deserter, he is subject to execution.  Learning that he is about to be arrested, he and Catherine row a small boat some thirty-five miles up Lago Maggiore to Switzerland, where they are permitted to remain.  Catherine experiences a very difficult birth which results in a Cesarean delivery of a still-born boy, and she has a fatal hemorrhage.  Frederick returns to the hotel alone.

A Farewell to Arms is remarkable in its realistic, unadorned depiction of the absolute futility of war, and of the terrible price it can inflict on participants and bystanders, alike.  Without any actual combat scenes, one still has the sense of ultimately futile involvement.  Hemingway has a remarkable facility with dialogue that defines his characters.  Emotional impact is not explicit; rather, it is inherent in the careful scene setting, and the dialogue.  Exterior settings often leave one with not only a mental picture, but with the feeling such a place would evoke.  Indoor settings are brought to life with just a few words: a ladder-back chair here, a rickety table there.  Hemingway’s recollections of specific places like the Galleria in Milan are remarkably clear after over a decade time lapse.

The only fault I could find with this novel is that there were times that I felt that the pace needed to pick up a bit, particularly with Frederick and Catherine were together, and there was little really new in their interactions.  Of course, the ending is very sad, but the reader knows that the end will be tragic.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal

Beliefs About Writing

Mary Ann de Stefano, editor of The Florida Writer Magazine, and an independent editor with >30 years experience, has an article in the February issue of the magazine in which she expresses her beliefs about writing.  She says she started making a list of beliefs ten years ago, and would revisit her list every year to make revisions to it, trying to be bluntly honest with herself and listing even her most self-defeating ones.  Below is this year’s list.

Mary Ann de Stefano

  1. Showing up to do the work – fully present and open to possibility – is the hardest part of writing.
  2. The best writing sessions begin with and are fuelled by curiosity.
  3. Writing is about layering on, then taking away, layering on, then taking away.  (I’m not sure what she means by this.  If she means ‘writing, revising, writing and revising, I agree.)
  4. No one gets it right the first time. (Amen.)
  5. Don’t get stuck in an idea when another one is trying to happen.  (I would say ‘when one idea isn’t quite working, look for another one’.)
  6. You will always be learning to write.
  7. Writing is messy.  Make a mess and you can always clean it up later.  (I’m not that fond of being messy.)
  8. Although you may regularly prove your inner critic wrong, that doesn’t make the critic go away.  Turn down the volume!  (Fair point.)
  9. Creation is painful.  Revision is a blast.  For some writers, it’s the reverse.
  10. Laughing out loud while the writing is good, even if it’s not during the funny parts.  (There’s something similar about crying during the good sad parts.)
  11. You are a better writer than you used to be, but you’ll always be raising the bar. (!)
  12. Your best writing happens when you’re not thinking about it.
  13. It’s not a bad thing to remain cautious about sharing work in an early draft.  The writing is fragile then and so are you.
  14. Writers need keen readers they can trust to tell them the truth about their work.  (Yes, but they’re hard to find.)
  15. There’s always a nugget of truth in every criticism.
  16. Time slows down painfully while a writer waits for someone to read and comment on their work.
  17. Be kind to other writers and yourself.
  18. No one else can write the story you can write.
  19. Writing well isn’t easy, or everyone would do it.
  20. The writing itself is the best teacher.  (I think writing is like tennis or golf: practice by yourself is necessary and most effective at first, but later you need discover what is possible by watching others.)
  21. Writing is not a social activity, but writer-friends who get it and get you are necessary.
  22. All you can ever do is write it to the best of your ability, and let it go.   Your next work will be better.

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

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Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives
William Peace
Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co. (2018)
ISBN 9781948858892
Reviewed by Robert Leon Davis for Readers Views (1/19)
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by author William Peace is a novel set on the Continent of Africa, involving the personal lives of three East Africans. Each is exposed to various decisions and choices they make involving their lives, with either dire consequences or happy outcomes. The intertwining relationships between the friends is just plain awesome.
“Achieving Superpersonhood” is sort of written in the third person, which eloquently dictates the pace of the characters’ lives. There is also what I call a “footnote,” or another person speaking in the third person, which reminds one of God or Satan, (or good or bad), immediately questioning each person’s decisions. This “footnote” is the brilliancy of the author and the plot! I really don’t know how he imagined this stupendous plot or “footnote.” It’s a novel that can’t be explained but actually has to be read.
I’ve read hundreds of novels, but this is top on my list. It’s the crème de la crème of novels that I’ve read. I personally place this work in the vein of a Charles Dickens. Huh, you say? Yes, in my humble opinion. As I’ve stated and must repeat it again; the plot is beautifully set, with surprisingly contrasting differences between each character and a “can’t wait to read what’s next” feeling.
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by William Peace is an excellent, well-written novel, thought provoking on a serious level, and a beautiful flow from one incident to another. The characters also seem real, not imaginative. I thank the author for sharing this “work” not book, with me, and recommend it to the many readers who enjoy and love reading a good novel. Well done, sir. 5 stars plus!

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.

Four Ways to Launch a Scene

There is a helpful article in the October issue of The Florida Writer with the above title.  It was written by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Her website says that, “Jordan holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the Hutchins School.  She is a former resident of Petaluma, California . . . who is an author, editor and freelance writer.”  She has written three suspense novels, five writing guides and has appeared in: The Atlantic, GOOD, New York Times, New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Writer’s Digest, and many more.

Jordan Rosenfeld

She said: “Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with a narrative summary adding texture and colour in between.  You want to start each scene by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where are my characters in the plot?  Where did I leave them in the last scene and what are they doing now?
  • What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
  • What is my protagonist’s goal for this scene?
  • How will that goal be achieved or thwarted?

Character Launches

“It is generally a good idea to get your characters on the page sooner rather than later. . . . If your character isn’t present by the second paragraph of any given scene, you’re in danger of losing the reader. . . . A scene feels purposeful when you give the character that stars in it an intention, or goal to pursue. . . . Scene intentions ought to be intricately tied to the plot, i.e., your character’s goal – and the unfolding of that goal through actions, discoveries, and explorations your character undertakes that drive the story continually forward.

Action Launches

“Many writers believe that they must explain every bit of action that is going on right from the start of a scene, but narrative summary defeats action. . . . Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. . . . The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything. . . . Here’s how to create an action launch:

  • Get straight to the action
  • Hook the reader with big or surprising actions
  • Be sure that the action is true to your character
  • Act first, think later.  ‘Elizabeth slapped the prince.  When his face turned pink, horror filled her.  What have I done? she thought’

Narrative Launches

“Writers often try to include a narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. . . . When delivered in large doses, narrative summary is a distraction and an interruption.  Yet a scene launch is one of the  easiest places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary . . . so long as you don’t hold the reader captive too long.  Take the opening of an early scene in Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting:  ‘You think you know our story, Nick, but that would imply that I was capable of honesty.  You think our stories are some joint thing, a common narrative on which we, the co-conspirator would agree, but you don’t know anything yet.’  This is almost entirely narrative summary . . . However, we do get the sense of a complicated tale about to unfold, one with secrets and lies – the best kind of story.  Narrative launches should be reserved for the following occasions:

  • When a narrative summary can save time
  • When information needs to be conveyed before an action
  • When a character’s thoughts or intentions cannot be revealed in action

Setting Launches

“Sometimes setting details – like a jungle on fire,or moonlight sparkling on a lake – are so important to plot or character development that visual setting must be included in launch of a scene. . . . Here’s how to create an effective scenic launch:

  • Use specific visual details
  • Allow scenery to set the scene
  • Use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings
  • Show the impact of the setting on the character”

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,