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Instant Test Of a Good Fiction Writer

November 1, 2009 1 comment

Step 1: Write down on a piece of paper, in no more than 15 words, what you think is your purpose as a writer, what you try to achieve when you’re writing.
EAP
Step 2: read the following, from Edgar Allen Poe:

“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If he is wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.

“If his very initial sentence tends not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

“As by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

Poe was saying this: the reader wants to feel emotion, and it is the writer’s job to create that emotion through their writing and the structure of their work (whatever kind of writing, theatre or music it may be). Note the crucial point: We are concentrating on the reader’s emotion, not the writer’s. What you feel is unimportant, except in that it is the basis what makes you write.

Step 3: Look at what you wrote on your piece of paper. If it was something about how writing does something for you, a form of self-expression, maybe, rather than something aimed at the reader’s emotion, go back to Step 1. 😉

Step 4: Download a copy of Michael Allen’s (free) The Truth About Writing and discover how your writing can serve your purpose in a much more controlled an understandable way.

Step 5: Start a new novel.

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Categories: Technique Tags: , ,

Post-Modern Humour

October 30, 2009 1 comment

All for...

Yes, I know it’s a contradiction in terms.

Many more erudite writers than me have pointed out that post-modernism precludes humour, because it stems from the comforting myth of “inclusivity” — that we are all the same in a happy, sharing and cooperative world. [Cue: Sing “We Are The World”].

Humour, of course,can only exist in the interstices between people’s characters, habits and attitudes; humour is a way of looking at differences, while post-modernism seeks to eliminate those differences from human nature, in a doomed attempt to create New Serious Man.

Post-modernism, then, is life without humour, as expressed through the language of political correctness. We may think it’s funny when we hear that the singing of ‘White Christmas’ has been banned for fear of giving offence to coloured people, but our amusement only lasts as long as it takes for us to realise that they are grimly serious.

The humour in post-modernism, almost by definition, can only be unconscious.

And so we read that the UK’s Health and Safety Executive has banned children from playing the game of conkers, a charge which they deny: “This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth,” said an agency spokesman — sorry, spokesperson. It is fair to assume that this individual knew subconsciously that a “conker” is in fact the same as a chestnut, and the association stuck in his mind when preparing his response.

Of course, if it were deliberate humour, the individual will long since have been reprimanded for ‘trivialising an important issue’.

But it points out that we have to be careful, when writing, to be aware of our tendency to subconsciously cling on to words. I notice in my own writing that similar adjectives, which I happen to like that day) appear in successive paragraphs much more often than they should.

Would you rather be yourself or Dan Brown?

September 21, 2009 2 comments

Most writers will never receive critical approval or fame. But suppose you could choose one or the other? Would you like to create masterpieces which are not appreciated (until you’ve died, probably) or would you like to earn scads of cash for turning out dross?

The latter, according to experts, is where Dan (Da Vinci Code) Brown finds himself. I have no idea how many millions of books he has sold, and I don’t have the desire to research the matter.

According to Edinburgh University professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum: “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”

Sour grapes? I don’t know. But it raises the question: what exactly is bad writing, especially if millions of people seem to like it. Was Jacqueline (Valley of the Dolls) Susann a bad writer? Archer? Rowling?

Anyway, the Daily Telegraph newspaper has picked out a list of Brown’s clumsiest bits of writing, and there is certainly stuff in there we’d all be wise to avoid.

As Professor Pullum said: “It has the ring of utter ineptitude.”

Categories: Technique Tags: ,

Starting is the hardest part of writing

September 21, 2009 2 comments

I was recently interviewed by Romanian writer and blogger Voicu Mihnea Şimăndan, who asked me several questions about my approach to writing. The questions really made me think, which is all to the good, and my answers are posted here.

Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: ,

Rowling along: truth in writing

Flicking through my old clippings, I came upon an interview which J.K. Rowling gave to a British newspaper some while back.

For anyone unfamiliar with the name, Ms Rowling is an English writer of popular children’s books, which have achieved considerable success.
HP

You may say what you like about Ms. Rowling’s prose (and many people have — Stephen King, while giving a generallly positive review of one of her books, commented that Rowling “never met an adverb she didn’t like”) but she developed the ability to know when she was writing stuff that was worthwhile.

In her early writing career, Rowling said of herself: “I’d never tried to get anything published because I just knew when I would reread it that it wasn’t good enough.

Then she hit upon a new story idea, allegedly on a train from Manchester to London, which gives passengers plenty of time to think. The idea, about a kid called Harry Potter who goes to a school for wizards, felt absolutely right to Rowling: “It was the first time I really, really believed in something I’d written,” she said.

How true. To write anything believable, we have to believe in it ourselves. Stephen King said: “If you begin to lie about what you know and feel while you’re down there, everything falls down.

The ability to know when we’re writing insipid crap is invaluable, and so we must always be aware of that nagging voice that tells us we could be doing better.

I write as much crap as anybody else,” said one author (I’ve forgotten exactly who). “The difference is, my crap ends up in the waste-paper basket.

Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: ,

Putting humor into words (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I made some general points about humour in fiction writing.
Genuine
Humour must:

  • be about people, be people-based
  • have purpose
  • ring true

In particular, what Ricky Gervais calls “decapitated jokes” do not represent humour in fiction and nor do anecdotes.

One other key point in writing humour is that the author must be absent. My axiom is that bad writing draw attention to the writer and good writing draws attention to the story and nowhere is this more evident than in humorous writing.

There is an almost irresistible inclination on the part of authors to try to be funny — after all, we are trying to amuse our audience — and this often leads us into imposing ourselves in our stories, to their severe detriment.

The British comic writer David Nobbs acknowedged this in an interview when he was asked what he felt his failings as a young author had been:

Getting the jokes in and showing people how clever I was and therefore occasionally failing to be clever most dismally.

Nobbs’ best comedy writing is seamless; you never get the impression there is an author there at all, so you stay absorbed in the story. The humour is all generated by the characters, most famously the troubled and put-upon Reginald Perrin, whose view of the world is so slanted that he can hardly help being funny.

We need to separate the creation from the creator, as science-fiction author Ray Bradbury observed: “The one important thing I have learnt over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking oneself seriously. The first is imperative and the second disastrous.

Similar successes are Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and A.P Herbert’s A.J. Wentworth B.A, neither of which contain a single joke but are enormously funny and entertaining, with all the humour generated by the range of believable characters. And in the pursuit of humour, characters must remain believable, or their power is lost.

As the American poet Marianne Moore suggested, as an author “you must put believable toads in your imaginary garden.” And for the toads to be believable, they must have a basis in reality.

The professional speaker David Brooks advises: “The best stories to tell have two unique characteristics. They must be real, and they must be your own.”

That leads to a second point; how to make real events and those you have made up appear to be part of a seamless work. I offered some ideas on this in an interview I did recently.

Another insight was offered by the TV presenter and writer James May, who said: “I will recognise the strangeness of genuine fact when I read it.

It’s a neat point; truth is often funnier than fiction, in a not-easily definable way. We therefore have to make our fiction real, and our realities into fiction.

Our aim must therefore be to create something containing, as Francis Bacon said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Some ideas on how achieve that in the next part…..

Putting humor into words (Part 1)

The world is sometimes thought to be divided into those people who have a sense of humour, and those don’t. Laughter is universal among human cultures, and so we could perhaps infer from that thet everyone has a sense of humour.
road sign

In fact, surveys show that most people think they possess a sense of humour, although other people are slower to spot this characteristic in them.

For example, many people who can remember, and faultlessly trot out, hundreds of standard jokes are usually rather dull people; the same can be said for relentless narrators of anecdotes, who seem to have a story for every occasion. As the late columnist Jeffrey Bernard once wrote: “Anecdote is not a form of conversation.”

These are not the sort of people who are likely to write humorous books; their humour is received, not self-generated, and contains no originality. By contrast, people who spontaneously generate humorous material tend to possess one inherent characteristic — the ability to laugh at themselves. To be able to view the world as absurd, it is necessary to be able to view ourselves as absurd, or what we possess is not a sense of humour, but megalomania.

But what is the basis of humour and how can we best transport it to the written word? A great many serious thinkers have considered the conundrum that is humour. What is funny? Do we all find different things funny, or is there a common theme underlying humour?

The Canadian author and psychologist Stephen Pinker describes humour as an “anti-dominance mechanism”; we laugh with other people in our group and laugh at an adversary whom we wish to strip of their assumed superiority.

Humor is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or a superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and other members of the high and mighty,” he wrote in his book How the Mind Works.

The corollary is, Pinker says, that we engage in banter with our friends to show that we can use this mechanism with them in a non-threatening way.

Kidding is a precision instrument for assessing the kind of relationship one has with a person. You don’t tease a superior or a stranger, though if one of you floats a trial tease that is well received, you know the ice is breaking and the relationship is shifting towards friendship. And if the tease elicits a mirthless chuckle or a freezing silence, you are being told that the grouch has no desire to become your friend (and may even have interpreted the joke as an aggressive challenge.)

People
When it comes to writing, this theory of humour translates to one important point. We laugh at people, not things. And we laugh with people. Humour is a people-based business. So any attempt at written humour must bear this basic truth in mind.

In the first place, it means not throwing in humorous material, or a piece of coruscating wordplay, if it doesn’t fit the story.

British comedian and writer Ricky Gervais wrote: “I’ve seen so much stuff that’s been ruined by writers’ getting carried away with getting a good joke in. We threw jokes on the floor if they made someone look too clever or undermined the story.

In similar vein, talking about his TV writing, Gervais wrote: “You can’t just have decapitated jokes. Then what you’ve got is a sketch show.

Another universal truth about humour is that it has to be true to be funny. Again, this relates back to the notion that we laugh at people, not things. If we cannot make the connection between the humour and real life, if the humour doesn’t ring true, it fails. One of the problems for humour writers is precisely that real life is funnier than our imaginations.

Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the British comedy shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, said: “After we wrote each episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up.

Jay added, about a particularly humorous episode: “I can’t tell you where, I can’t tell you when and I can’t tell you who was involved; all I can tell you is that we knew that it had actually happened. That’s why it was so funny. We couldn’t think up things as funny as the real things that had happened.

This is undoubtedly true. We only have to look at the depths of idiocy (and consequent humour) on websites like E-mails from Crazy People or Failblog, to see that real life has reserves of humour that far outstrip the imagination of the poor author.

The final requirement for humour is that it must have a purpose. Humour without purpose takes us back to the joke-telling and lengthy yarning genre or the “decapitated jokes.” The purpose can be satire, or the humour can operate in its own right to construct character and environment in a novel.

It can even work as a plot device. Talking about the writing of the British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said he tried to make the most important plot moments the funniest in the show, to disguise the plot and make it less visible.

In the episode Communication Problems, the plot turns on a bet that Cleese’s character (Fawlty) has made, and this is wonderfully created (but obscured) by a hilarious dialogue of misunderstanding between Fawlty and his hapless Spanish waiter Manuel.

Humour must be about people, must have purpose, and it must ring true. Humour is not just jokes and stories. Plus humour is usually predicated on an us-versus-them basis, “us” pricking the ego of “them“. The controversial Dutch cartoonist, Gregorius Nekschot, sums this last up as: “Harmless humor does not exist.

He may be right, but humour can vary from the gentle (P.G. Wodehouse, David Nobbs or Garrison Keillor) to the harder-edge satire of Tom Sharpe and Carl Hiaasen, to work like Nekschot’s own, which many people consider deliberately offensive.

But all of these forms of humour need to be well treated and well crafted in order to stand up in a book, a topic I’ll discuss next.

(to be continued)

Categories: Humour, Technique Tags: , , , ,