Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thoughts on this week's reading

Some Creative Writing tips:

1) If you have one excellent plot, the fate of Central European Jews in the late 1930s, don't muddle it up with another plot that sort of is and sort of isn't part of the same plot. A sub-plot, with separate characters and issues, that picks up and echoes the main plot via allegorical, metaphorical and metonymic techniques, is quite a different thing and usually works just fine.

2) Telling a story in the second person ('And then you did this, Cecilia, and then you said that, and then I told you such-and-such and then we went home') almost never works. It has no narrative logic and therefore undermines the reader's suspended disbelief, because logically the person being addressed already knows these things, so why does he/she need to be told them again?

Another and perhaps more important reason to avoid this technique is that it is quite alienating for the reader. One character addressing another forms a closed circle of communication about which the shut-out and excluded reader will become grumpy.

Quite quickly.

Which is a bad effect to have on a reader, especially when the reader is a reviewer. I could have done the dishes, tidied the living room, vacuumed all the carpets and gone shopping in the time it took me to read this book.

3) If the key events are that Mimi died and Cecilia gave away her baby (not spoilers; we are told these things in the opening pages), then the reader needs to know fairly early on how and why these things happened, in order to care enough about them to keep reading. Particularly if the reader is being asked to plough through hundreds of pages of mournful, portentous, abstract wittering on, interspersed with detailed yet limp descriptions of landscape and weather.

4) It is absolutely unforgivable to force the reader to plough through hundreds of pages of mournful etc, and then still not explain in the end.

That is all.


Tyler said...

Point (3) kills me. (And so point 4 as well, I guess.) By which I mean, this is precisely the sort of thing that editors/publishers are meant to weed out, isn't it? And yet, book after book is churned out with this sort of error. I must say, I get heartily sick of reading/hearing the pontification of publishers about their "standards" and then having to put up with point 3 in book after book. Why don't they just admit that they publish books for subjective reasons and not by the application of any objective rules? What a nasty little club it is. What a con.

Elsewhere007 said...

Hmmm, well I'm fearful that I'm making mistakes 1 & 4 in the current draft of my script. (One of the teaching points from my workshop at Gopher this year was how well Orwell used the second person.)

Have you yourself thought of writing a bestseller with a chicklit narrative parallelling a WWII/Jewish one? That sounds like the go, from the material you've been reviewing (arguably, Lily Brett has already done this).

(Word verification for this comment is 'catio'. Seems appropriate.)

ThirdCat said...

Yeah, that number 4 has made me tremble a little bit.

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

I agree on all of these, but I can see how some would be easy mistakes to make (although I'm not sure why editors would publish books that make them).

However 2) strikes me as so bleeding obvious that I am constantly amazed that it is ever made. I did once read something written in this mode which was quite good, but only because they had something which would have been brilliant if they'd dropped the 2nd person narration.

Elsewhere007 said...

I suspect that literary editors are under a lot of duress in these heady financial days and the standard of editing isn't as high as it could be.

It's interesting trying to write scripts, as I am these days, because film is so formulaic. That can be stifling, but I sometimes think that maybe anything goes a bit too much in the world of novel-writing: that it's overly 'intuitive' and 'organic', and that more emphasis on basic principles of plot, voice, character, etc, wouldn't go astray.

Ampersand Duck said...

Ooh, looking forward to the actual review!

[DB: fogings: the exponential amount of pre-Christmas worryings you do the older you get]

Helen said...

So, I gather you didn't like it? :-)

(w/v = ablize: as in, the hills around Cranbourne were ablize with the setting sun...)

meli said...

One of Tim Winton's stories in The Turning was in second person, and I think it was magical. I think it worked because it was describing such an intense moment when the protagonist almost does something unbearably horrible, and there is all the tension of the 'almostness', and the use of the second person adds to the sense of disjunction from self, which adds to the tension... a sort of not being able to see clearly, to stand back and get an overview, because you are too close.

That said, I wouldn't want to read a whole novel of it.

Things I'd Tell My Best Friend said...

but but but...we need to talk about kevin.

Rule number one: never try to establish a rule, because somebody clever will come along and break it. and she did, in 2nd person for a whole book and with great aplomb.

and yet still i know what you mean. the things being published, and the things not being published. it's a crazy upside-down world.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, I did say 'almost'. (Excellent example though, well spotted.) And letters are different. The epistolary novel when done well, and in the Shriver it is done brilliantly well, is a different beast. And from memory, she isn't perennially telling the husband things he must already know, in a clumsy attempt to convey narrative information.

I think I may be being misconstrued here. This post is a hyperbolic comment on a very specific novel I'd just finished reading in a state of extreme frustration and boredom, a novel in which all the things I'm saying are hard to make work are done particularly badly.

For example: 3C, I'm sure if you wrote a book in which a woman gave the father of her baby an ultimatum that apparently made no sense -- 'Choose between me and the baby' -- that you would do it with great finesse, and would make sure the reader understood that character's motivation, one way or another, and would not rely on the merest hint of childhood sexual abuse to somehow 'explain' this ultimatum. I mean, que?

I also wasn't meaning to criticise publishers and editors, so much. Tastes differ. Editors get to know the books they're working on very well, and can lose sight of what a new reader might need to have explained in order to be bothered to persevere. If the writing were better, the reader would persevere regardless, for the pleasure of it. -- another place where 3C is out in front.

I know a lot of people think publishing is 'a lottery' or a nasty gaggle of people scratching each others' backs or whatever, but it's not, you know. It's really not. I've seen a lot of what doesn't get published and believe me, the stuff that does is better.

Mindy said...

Well this has put my job envy to rest. Having to read something like that and then write a coherent review on it would destroy my sanity in under a week. I'll continue to read your reviews instead. It's like someone has done all the hard work for me. Probably because they have.

Anonymous said...

(1) worries me.

We are now at the stage when both Jewish & gentile survivors' oral histories are being lost to time & mortality. Although there's a broad communal understanding that Bad Things Happened during that those years, my impression is that it's an abstract knowledge rather than a visceral appreciation of the realities of life in Europe circa 1935-48.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I'm a little concerned that the handful of first-person testimonies may be at risk of being diluted by a plethora of third- & fourth-hand fictionalised accounts.

word verification - 'triedso'. Unbelievable, as KG would say...


Anonymous said...

I think the explanation as to why bad work is published is that publishers have publishing slots they must fill. Therefore they sometimes publish filler.

The irony is that though it wd be short-term commercial & legal suicide to label such books accurately, those books do end up souring the market.

POD - can't wait for it!

You can get away with using the 2nd-person. In short stories it is relatively easy; Orwell does it for weather and urban description in Keep the Aspidistpra Flying.

I think it is possible to do it well for a whole novel, but you have to know what you're doing. I don't think it is inherently any more egregious a convention than 3rd-person omniscience with several plot-strands (e.g. A Most Wanted Man).