Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the Context of the Ukraine War

Ani Kokobobo has an article which was published on The Conversation website on 6 April 2022 which raises the question of reading the two Russian icons with the war in Ukraine in mind.

Ani Kokobobo is Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.

Ani Kokobobo

She says, “As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being cancelled around the world. 

With the Russian army perpetrating devastating violence in Ukraine – which includes includes the slaughter of civilians in Bucha – the discussion of what to do with Russian literature has naturally arisen.

I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.

You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.

Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”

Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theater where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theater in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.

Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov,” is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognize the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.

Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?

At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fueled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.

Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.

Would an author who, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment,” explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?

I hope that he would, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are pervasive, and many Russians accept them. Many Russians look away.

No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, “Hadji Murat,” which scrutinizes Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.

Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace,” is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.

Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.

After publishing “War and Peace,” Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” originally wasn’t published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish War. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.

“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.

In 1904, Tolstoy penned a public letter denouncing the Russo-Japanese War, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.

In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.

“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement.”

These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.

As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.

And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.

“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.””

Writing Sex Scenes

Sharon Short’s final segment on Point of View hasn’t been published yet, so let’s look at writing sex scenes. Jessica Martin has a piece in Writer’s Digest titled ‘How to Write a Sex Scene Like Nobody Is Watching’.

Jessica Martin is a lawyer by trade, a writer by choice, and a complete smart ass by all accounts. Based in the suburban wilds of Boston, Jess shares her life with a finance geek, a small sass-based human, and a pair of dogs named after Bond characters.

Jessica Martin

Ms Martin writes, “There are some key scenes in your typical rom-com that writers have to nail. Chief among them is the sex scene. But writing one can stir up all sorts of feelings: anxiety, excitement, a bone deep certainty that if you write a bad one, no one will ever let you live it down. It runs the gamut and while every writer has a different strategy, here’s mine.

The name of the game is distance.

First up physical space. To actually write a sex scene like nobody is watching it helps if nobody is actually watching. For me, this means leaving my house because although I have a perfectly good writing space, there’s a six-year-old beastie who likes to barge in and demand to know why caterpillars don’t eat meat. Or whether you can hear a fish fart under water. Kid, I have no idea how to answer that.

This house I speak of is also occupied by two scheming dogs who lie in wait until I’m in a writing groove. They drop their heads on my leg and drool until I have no choice but to submit to the world’s most devastating puppy dog eyes, bursting with longing that only translates into one thing: Hey human, go fetch me a snack, will you?

And then there’s the husband.

I hope this isn’t shocking to anyone here, but I’ve had sex with him. I don’t want to think about him when writing a sex scene, because I’m pretty sure that violates the sanctity of the marriage pact or something—I don’t know, it’s just weird.

In any event, I vacate the house when I need to write a scene that involves the words thrust, pant, or moan. During COVID, there weren’t a ton of options for non-germy solitude, so I wrote the majority of these scenes in the front seat of my car parked in a state forest. Wearing a ratty hoodie and sucking down tea from a thermos for warmth. Hey, I live in New England and the nights are chilly. You know what else the nights were like in that state forest? Decidedly, not private.

What I didn’t realize is that after the park shuts down for the day, it’s apparently a hotbed of illicit activity. As teens swarmed the woods armed with their flashlights and pilfered booze, they would sometimes comment on the weirdo sitting alone in her car and wondering if I was a NARC. So, I’d need to wait until they’d dispersed into the woods like horror movie cautionary tales before I could get down to the good stuff.

OK, so now I’m physically alone. Now I need to be mentally alone.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my boss, who casually mentioned he’d bought 50 copies(!) of my book for our entire legal team. I was incredibly touched but also momentarily panicked as I sputtered that it was a rom-com … and when the room went silent, I blurted out, “There’s a sex scene.”

As every eye in the room turned to regard me, a colleague asked, “What kind of sex scene we talking here?”

“A tasteful one,” I replied archly (or at least nonchalantly. Please let me be remembered as being calm and cool in that moment).

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it before, it was just that interaction finally drove home that someday, somewhere, my husband, parents, kid brother, my actual kid (when she graduates to books without pictures), friends, neighbors, coworkers, former classmates whose Instagram accounts I follow but otherwise wouldn’t recognize, my incredibly bendy yoga instructor and a whole host of others might one day pick up my book and wonder, SO THAT SEX SCENE, IS SHE DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?

While I freely admit to stealing snatches of conversation (especially insults, I love standing behind teenagers in lines), character traits I admire in my friends, and sometimes wholesale shenanigans from my free-wheeling law school days, I draw the line at digging into my own personal cache of sexcapades. Why? Frankly, because I’d like to look that subset of people in the eyes again. Call me a prude, but I like to have a bit of an air of mystery about me. That and I don’t want anyone thinking about my sex faces.

But I’ll peel back the curtain and allow you a peek into my process.

There I am, sitting alone in a car in a dark forest (OK, that sounds creepy, but bear with me) and I warm up by watching YouTube compilations of my favorite on-screen couples. You know the ones, set to angsty music where beloved characters eye each other across a room, a shared smile passing between them. Or maybe it’s that near brush of the lips or a finger tracing a bare collar bone, a shirt goes up and over the head. For me it’s less about what the characters are actually doing and more about that delicious moment of mutual (and completely consensual) commitment to the path of no return, no going back to being friends or enemies or indifferent strangers—it’s on.

Once I’m there, then I imagine my characters, their expressions, their voices, their sex faces (not mine, thank you very much) and what the timbre of their sex scene is. Is it slightly humorous, two people fumbling around knocking stuff over in their jubilant haste to get to one another? Is it full of murmured teasing as one character deliberately seduces the other? Is it rushed but somehow decadent because it’s going down somewhere where any moment our lovers could be discovered?

That’s the feel part.

Then comes the mechanics. I cannot remember where this nugget of wisdom originated, but someone once told me that sex scenes are like fight scenes. Watch the hands. I love this, because it makes me go back and smooth out the scene once I’ve finished with the heady feeling part to make sure it all syncs up. For example, if his pants were carelessly discarded like caution to the wind on the floor a moment ago, as he slides up her body, his hands worshipfully tracing the topography of her hips, then he shouldn’t be reaching for protection in his pocket, right? It has to be in the bedside table or if they’re outside, maybe she’s the resourceful one who still has pants on and whips out the foil packet with a triumphant cry? Details count.

Once I’ve nailed the feeling and true up the details, I break the veil of solitude, I leave the deep dark woods (I’m sure you psych majors are having a field day). I slip back into being a lawyer, a wife, a mother, that person who almost always uses a turn signal when changing lanes. I send the sex scene to my beta readers, then my agent and my editor. I’ll ask them, “This isn’t gross, right?” and that’s usually all I need to feel confident that it’s there.

At least until someone tells me they bought fifty copies of it and they’re giving it to all my coworkers.”

Point of View: How Close?

This is the second in a three part series written by Sharon Short for Writer’s Digest.

Sharon says, “Just how “into” your narrator’s head and heart do you want your readers to be? Do you want them to feel emotionally embedded with your narrator(s)? Or observe your characters’ experiences from afar? What emotional distance (close, far, or a mix) should you strike to achieve the best point of view for your story, novel, or memoir?

The answer, of course, depends on the type of story you’re telling as well as the experience you want your readers to have.

Luckily, you don’t need to know the answer before you begin writing—though it’s fine if you do. Somewhere in the process of drafting and revising, you’ll need to figure out the emotional distance that’s right for your story’s point of view (POV)—and your readers.

Deep POV—or Not?

A common pearl of wisdom is first person is more personal and immediate than third or omniscient—after all, the narrator is telling their story directly to the reader.

Consider this example:

I had to stay late for work, and as I was driving home, I wondered whether mac ’n’ cheese from a box would be OK for dinner, and I hoped that tonight I could finally get my 12-year-old daughter, Stacy, to open up to me. I was distracted and didn’t notice the pickup truck slowing down in front of me until it was too late and I rear-ended it.

Hmm. This feels a bit flat and distant, doesn’t it? The use of linking verbs (“was”), past progressive tense (“was driving”), and verbs that describe emotional and mental processes (“wondered,” “hoped,” also known as filter words) all hold the reader at bay.

Revise into what’s often called “deep POV” with active verbs and emotions to pull your readers into your narrator’s head and heart:

At first, I relaxed as I drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe I could get Stacy to help me—she always opens up when we’re doing a task together. I’d rather hear her prattle on about seventh-grade drama than worry about the water heater repair bill … Boom! Oh, crap. I hit the back of the pickup truck in front of me. If only I could stay focused on what’s right in front of me—whether ledgers or red brake lights.

Same information and then some—we know more about the narrator’s relationship with her daughter and financial worries, get a sense of her personality, and are right there with her when she rear-ends the truck.

This works just as well with third person:

At first, Donna relaxed as she drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe she could get Stacy’s help—the kid always opened up when they did a task together—and Donna would rather hear her daughter prattle on about seventh-grade drama than …

Notice how this deep POV and third person combination feels more distant than the deep POV and first person combination, but a lot closer than the initial example of first person.

But what if you want the reader to feel distant from Donna? Perhaps she’s a stiff, uptight character who doesn’t let anyone easily into her feelings. That’s fine—but it doesn’t mean you need to revert to verbs and filter words that describe, rather than show, experience. A less distracting way to create distance is to use active verbs, eliminate immediate thoughts and feelings, and stick to the facts of the narrator’s situation:

Reviewing another set of expense ledgers meant I left work late, but by then, traffic was light. Dinner would be late. Mac ’n’ cheese would be sufficient. Stacy could help make it. That would mean listening to the kid talk about seventh-grade drama. Suddenly, I crashed into the back of the pickup truck in front of me …

Every writer I know finds that being a writer is an emotional experience. Oh, we all try to be practical when talking about our experiences in public—focusing on craft techniques or business practices.

But when talking with trusted writer friends, we admit writing is an emotional endeavor—both as we create, and as we put our work out into the world.

While creating, you might get so into your work that the characters and situations become real. I’ve both burst out crying while writing a particularly moving scene and laughed aloud at my characters’ hijinks. (I’ve had family members catch me in such moments and ask, with some worry, for reassurance that I do know I’ve made up these characters and their situations. Well, sure. But, that’s beside the point. They feel real to us!)

That’s a great kind of emotional closeness to your work. It’s part of the joy of creation, after all, and though experiencing this as you write won’t ensure that every reader will feel the same way, it surely shows you’re on the path to creating something that is visceral and authentic.

On the other hand, when it’s time to revise, emotional distance becomes your ally. That hilarious scene that had you in stitches as you wrote it? If it’s slowing the pace of your story, it may need to be shortened—or even cut altogether. (But save it in a different file! Outtakes can be bonus material for readers in the future, or worked into new pieces.)

Then, dear writer friend, there’s the emotion of putting our work out into the world—perhaps sharing it with a trusted writer group, or submitting to agents or editors, or having it published for readers to enjoy (or, alas, sometimes not.)

Depending on our personalities and the reactions our work receives, emotions can run the gamut from joy and excitement (woo hoo, I have a request for my writing or my writing group loves my new scene!), to despair (I’ll never find a home for this story), to anger (how could a reviewer or writing group member say that about my work?).

Let yourself process all of those emotions but discipline yourself to hold back on expressing them. (Well, except if you have great news. That you can shout from the rooftops!)

Remember that setbacks are temporary. Not every piece of writing will please every reader; you’re not writing to please everyone anyway. Remind yourself that if you receive a pass on your work that it’s the work that’s being rejected—not you.”

Point of View Myths 1

Sharon Short, a Writer’s Digest columnist has three pieces on Point of View (POV). Her first is choosing the right point of view for your story.

Sharon Short is the author of 12 published novels, most recently in her Kinship Historical Mystery series, which she writes under her pen name Jess Montgomery. The Hollows is the most recent title in the series, published by Minotaur Books and inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925. Set in the Appalachian region, the series draws on themes of workers’ rights and women’s roles, and has garnered several awards.

Sharon Short

“POV is the principle that pulls together every other element of your prose. You might have a compelling premise, interesting characters, beautiful writing, and great pace. But if the POV is not right, the reader will sense something is off as if it’s ice cream curdling in the bowl.

Intimidating? Yes. But this and the next two “Level Up” columns will focus on POV: busting myths, exploring emotional distance, and examining the element of time for first, third-limited, third-multiple, or omniscient POVs. (Though it’s often used in advice columns such as this, second is rarely used in prose, so I’m setting it aside.) My hope is that the three columns will give you a mini POV tool kit to apply to your project.

POV Myths—Busted!

First-person POV is the easiest!

In first-person POV, the weight of the entire piece rests in the voice of the narrator—for 300 pages or longer for book-length works! Don’t do yourself, or your work, the disservice of thinking of first POV as easy simply because of the “I” pronoun. Each POV has its own challenges. And sustaining a distinctive, strong voice for the narrator’s POV for the entire work is the challenge in first. Of course, if done well, this is also the charm of first.

But … First-person POV is simply the narrator telling the story!

No, you, as the writer are always the invisible narrator in any work of prose—even first-person POV. You are always in control of the story. In first-person POV, you allow one character (at a time—even working in first, you can still have multiple narrators) to narrate the story in his, her, or their voice.

Well, first is the only way to use a deep POV.

It may seem easiest to have a deep POV (sharing of thoughts, emotions, reactions) in first, but the drawback of that seeming simplicity is the temptation to overshare. Or to share in a way that feels either false or overwrought. And you can certainly have deep POV in third as well. (More on deep POV in the upcoming column on emotional distance.)

That’s all right. Third-person POV is more high concept anyway!

Every novel, story, memoir, or essay must be driven by a guiding concept—the heart of the piece. High concept simply means the premise of the piece can be described succinctly (in a few sentences) in a way that intrigues and incents readers to want to read the full work. Fulfilling that promise depends on getting all the elements just right—including POV. Of course, examples of high concept third-person POV novels abound, but high concept first-person POV novel examples include The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or the bestselling thriller The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. It’s hard to imagine those first-person POV examples working as well in third person.

You can only have multiple POVs in third person, though.

Again, that depends on the story. Hank Phillippi Ryan’s novel Her Perfect Life alternates between third-person limited and first-person POVs. This works because the main character (third-person limited POV) needs to keep her distance from the public, while the first-person POV character, who works for the main character, has many opinions that we might have—until we get to know the main character. In Heather Webber’s South of the Buttonwood Tree, two first-person POV characters trade off narration of the story—and third-person POV anecdotes are interspersed throughout. By the end, the narrative lines all braid together to create a complete story tapestry.

No one writes omniscient anymore, and besides, isn’t it the same as head hopping?

Omniscient differs from multiple POV in that the latter strictly relegates each POV to a section or chapter. And it differs from head hopping—the confusing effect of jumping from one character’s thought to the next character’s thought—by switching perspectives based on which character’s reaction is the most important in a given moment. Usually, that also means that we stay in one character’s POV for a sentence or paragraph, rather than hopping from one character’s head to the next in the same sentence. An excellent example of omniscient POV mastery is Louise Penny, who uses this POV in her Chief Inspector Gamache novels.

Changing POV is as simple as changing pronouns.

This is a common myth—that if somehow first-person POV isn’t working, then switching to third-person POV is as simple as replacing all the “I’s” with “She, he, they,” or a name. But it’s not that simple. Proper POV depends so much on emotional distance and time—more on those elements in the next two columns.

What’s Your POV, Dear Writer?

Now, take a moment and consider your POV about your own work—and your writing life.

What are the myths you might have given into?

  • This is my first novel—so it has to be in first-person POV.
  • I’ve never written in third POV before because it feels too hard. (Or similar fear for first or omniscient POVs.)
  • I’m used to this particular POV, so I’d better stick to it.

Part of the joy (and yes, pain, but hopefully more joy than pain!) of any creative endeavor is experimenting and pushing yourself to grow.

If you’ve always written in first-person POV, try a short story or flash fiction in third. Or if you’ve always written in third, try writing an essay in first.”

J K Rowling on Writing

On her website, J K Rowling has a page in which she answers the question, “Do you have tips for others trying to write?”

Ms Rowling says, ” I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing.

I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:

Reading

This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

Discipline

Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.

Resilience and humility

These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Courage

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

Independence

By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”

Sex in Literature?

There is an article in Literature News dated 18 December 2020, written by an anonymous subscriber, which struck me as being quite indicative of the times. The article is subtitled: ‘Yes, it used to be classic but now it’s mostly crass!’

I have edited the article which appears below:

“Modern literature in English, the books published after 2010, mostly, have been popular because of many factors that have affected the sensibilities, choices, preferences and ideals of the masses. However, for a certain group of readers, increasing obscenity in casual literature is also a reason that has increased their interest in literature, frequency in buying and reading books and also took them away from what we can call sensible and meaningful literature. Well, all of it, most of the times, comes down to the description of sexual and intimate moments in literary work. For example, works like Fifty Shades of Grey have taken it too far, when we talk about the international literary horizon.

“I want to f*** your mouth, Anastasia, and I will soon,” his voice is hoarse, raw, his breathing more disjointed.”

This comes from E. L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the extract below may be said to be something more:

“Keep still,” he orders, his voice soft but urgent, and slowly he inserts his thumb inside me, rotating it around and around, stroking the front wall of my v*****. The effect is mind-blowing—all my energy concentrating on this one small space inside my body. I moan.”

So, anyone can read, the intimate moments have become intense (in the literature of the day) and their descriptions have become raw, direct and even more than what could actually be. And this may be called a sudden outburst because mainstream literature has been filled with such works by the novelists who have taken it to the next level while describing the sexual scenes. Authors have begun providing a special set of readers with what cannot be exhibited even in the inline content platforms.

“He kissed my nipples. He moved up and kissed my collarbone. He kissed my chin and then my lips for several minutes. He tugged at my panties. My heart beat fast. Was I really going to get fully naked in front of a man?”

There are many new authors who are coming up with even ‘better’ versions, even more explicit details. It makes things aroused for a moment or two, an hour or two and may meet the sexual fantasies of readers (especially teenagers and youths for whom things are all new). However, in this process, what we forget is ‘fiction’ and the target readers of these authors seldom judge such books on merits. Problem for none and a win-win situation for the novelists.

In those days, when the authors like Lawrence and Hardy tried to portray sexual actions on the pages of their novel, things were very different and everything was almost ‘beautiful. Things were suggestive, narrated wonderfully and also felt good to read. This may be coming out of my bias for classics and against the modern nonsense which is served in the name of realism. However, you can realise more if you read these lines by Lawrence which detail a scene of love-making between Paul and Miriam in Sons and Lovers:

“She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.”

And you can feel the sentiments in the extract below but you cannot find that obscenity:

“And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her.”

Now, the readers may have their say on what they want to enjoy and to which extent. There is nothing that I would ask them to leave or accept. However, as a critical thinker, I find modern description of love-making rather elaborated to the naughty sides of our conscious. It is, however and somehow, doing great with the time.”

I agree with the sentiments of the writer. For me, literary fiction (as distinct from generic fiction) should employ the imagination of the reader. When characters engage in love-making, it is enough to set the scene and concentrate on revealing the emotions of the couple. This defines their relationship. ‘Mechanical’ details of the interaction, while possibly of peripheral interest to the reader, distract from an understanding of the relationship.

Review: Freezing Order

I bought this book on a whim, knowing nothing about Bill Browder or his earlier best seller, Red Notice. Browder is an American-born, British financier who made his name and fortune in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian companies were being privatised.

Bill Browder

Starting with $25 million in seed capital, he was able to grow Hermitage Capital to $4.5 billion in assets held. In 2005, Browder was blacklisted from Russia as a ‘threat to national security’. He claimed that his activist investor work was interfering in the flow of money between corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen accomplices. In raids by corrupt Russian officials in 2007, the corporate seals of Hermitage were stolen, allowing the thieves to apply for and receive a corporate tax refund of £230 million. Remaining in Russia to look after Hermitage’s interests, Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, charged with tax evasion and died in prison after mistreatment. In retaliation, Browder persuaded the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which provides for Russian human rights activists to be sanctioned. A similar act has been passed by the European Union and other countries. Browder testified that President Putin is “the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world”, building a fortune by threatening Russian oligarchs and getting a 50% cut of their profits. He said, “I estimate that he has accumulated $200 billion of ill-gotten gains from these types of operations over his 17 years in power. He keeps his money in the West and all of his money in the West is potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation. Therefore, he has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.”

The book covers the period 2008 to 2018, but it begins with Browder’s attempted arrest in Madrid in 2018 by Spanish police on a politically motivated Interpol arrest warrant which indicated that Browder was wanted in Moscow for ‘fraud’. At the time, he was in Madrid to meet with Spain’s top anti-corruption prosecutor. Through the rest of the fast-moving book, one is introduced to dozens of corrupt Russian officials and intermediaries, their actions and their photographs. There are many instances of Russian citizens who die under suspicious circumstances after becoming a threat to the official Russian line. One also meets the sleazy Western lawyers and intermediaries, who will do whatever Russia asks in exchange for a big payday. During his travels to testify and to promote the Magnitsky Act, Browder had to deal with constant interference, kidnapping threats, honey traps, defamation, threats to his family, and counter suits. Russian officials often turned the truth on its head to counter a threat. For example, a claim was made that Browder was actually the one who arranged the $230 million tax refund and took the money. Russian laws are ignored and contravened by officials.

As one reads the book, the reader feels that he is reliving what happened in real time. There is minute-to-minute detail of crucial events and the play of emotions.

After reading this book, and observing the events in Ukraine, I believe that the Kremlin and Putin are a major threat to Western democracy and the welfare of the Russian people.

Writing Backstory

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website written by Jenna Kernan in which she says, “How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough?”

Jenna Kernan

‘Bestselling author Jenna Kernan writes gripping domestic thrillers. Her 2021 release, A Killer’s Daughter, won the bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards in the popular fiction category and her next release, The Adoption, arrives in May 2022 and features a couple whose adoption goes from blissful to terrifying when a dark secret and menacing stranger threaten the baby.’

Ms Kernan says, “My upcoming domestic thriller, The Adoption, has a complicated backstory. That got me thinking how best to weave all those interesting, life-changing events from the past into the book. These experiences proved pivotal in the thriller, but how to reveal the past for the biggest punch in the present?

1. Don’t relate more than the briefest backstory in the first chapter because you need to create momentum, and backstory will stop progress dead. Too much too early can halt the main plot. Also, the reader won’t care about all those details until you’ve established empathy for and curiosity about your protagonist.

2. Do avoid dropping a block of backstory as introspection, where the protagonist is deep in thought. Consider dribbling in backstory, drop-by-drop, like a drip coffee maker. I know of one popular author who writes out the entire traumatic experience of each protagonist in real time, including dialogue. After she has this all-important, pivotal, life-shaping, worldview-shifting scene, she breaks it into tiny pieces and inserts it as internal thought at critical times in the first half of the story. It works and keeps the narrative moving. So, consider breaking up the flashback and weaving it into several scenes for greater impact.

3. Don’t forget that introspection is only one way to introduce backstory. Other options are dialogue and action.

4. Do use actions to present core beliefs forged in the past. Does your character repeatedly check the front door lock as they recall a traumatic experience with a home invasion?

5. Don’t skimp on the use of discourse to reveal backstory. A conversation or argument is an interesting way to reveal a character’s past. Dialogue amps up the conflict more effectively than a slap. Who can forget the plot shifting backstory dialogue, “Luke I am your father?”

6. Do show a character holds a certain mistaken core belief because of a past trauma or life-shaping event. Such backstory details can make irrational actions believable. In fact, if you want a character to adopt a particular conviction, creating the right past experience is critical. Your characters come to situations holding certain core beliefs and assumptions and will respond accordingly. A person attacked by a strange dog might assume all big dogs are dangerous unless additional life-experiences oppose this belief and cause the character to change, for example, by meeting several lovely, gentle big dogs.

7. Don’t make the backstory more compelling than the forward story. The backstory creates the character’s worldview, their belief system, and the mistaken belief which will change as they experience their journey. But the past isn’t the story, or it should be told in real time.

8. Do consider using a flashback for a longer backstory incident which relates to the forward narrative. Some writers avoid flashbacks, others use them to great effect.

9. Don’t create details which do not affect the narrative or aren’t needed to understand the story or your protagonist’s motivation and beliefs. Remember, not everything which happened in a protagonist’s past applies to the main plot. If there is no dog in your story, you don’t need to have the protagonist mention he hates them unless this is the reason for the fight with his dog-loving girlfriend.

10. Do relate backstory naturally, avoiding contrived reveals. You know, those scenes when one character explains something which another character already knows for the sole purpose of disclosing this information to the reader. “Remember when we were attacked by that bear, and it tore your arm off?” The reader might be thinking, “Oh, so that’s how that arm came off!” and then, “Wait a minute, that other character should definitely know that without being reminded.” Two characters talking about stuff they clearly already know is an awkward way to deliver backstory, so avoid it when possible.

11. Don’t let anyone tell you backstory shouldn’t be in your story. It might well be the most important part of your characterization.

12. Just do be conscientious about how, where, and why you include backstory.

This all very good advice. Backstory can be vital to a vibrant story, if just enough is revealed. Too much becomes a distraction. I should add that there is another way to tell backstory apart from introspection, dialogue and action. It can also be told through research on the Internet or the media.