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* James McPherson and Russell Banks on the role of history in a historical novel

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 6, 2014

novel history & cloudsplitter

 

NOVEL HISTORY is a book about writing concerned with the proper place of historical truth in a historical novel. Historians critique a series of novels regarding their historical accuracy, and the novelists get to answer.

I just read the pages dealing with Russell Bank’s CLOUDSPLITTER, comprising first a short essay by the esteemed historian James McPherson and then Banks’ rejoinder.

McPherson, who probably knows every single place where Banks has strayed from the consensus of history, quotes Banks’ Author Notes where he explicitly states that he has altered and rearranged historical events and characters to suit the purposes of his storytelling.

McPherson does not argue with what Banks has done, accepting that the work is a fiction, not an interpretation of history, although he suggests that some of his historian colleagues might not be so forgiving. McPherson says he is quite willing to learn from the “novelist’s license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal fact.”.

Banks responds indirectly by first establishing that the “voice” of the story defines the history that will be heard. “If there is history in a historical novel … it can only exist in the voice that we hear when we read the story.” Then he asserts that the questions the author has in his mind, the questions arising from the history that drove him to write the story, dictate his choice of the “voice” he will use to tell it.

The combination of the author’s questions and the “voice” who answers them will be the “voice of history in the fiction,” in McPherson’s wonderfully generous formulation, the “reality deeper than literal fact.”

What a privilege to read and learn from this dialogue.

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* The Key West Literary Seminar … a spectacular experience

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 24, 2014

Gerritsen, Connelly, Burke, Koryta

Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Alafair Burke, Michael Koryta

The 32nd annual Key West Literary Seminar, called THE DARK SIDE, focused on mystery and crime. The roster of authors included (1st weekend): Gillian Flynn, Sara Parestky, Joseph Kanon, Carl Hiaasen, Laura Lippman, Scott Turow and (2nd weekend): Elizabeth George, Lisa Unger, Lee Child, Malla Nunn, John Banville/Benjamin Black, Thomas Cook, Percival Everett, Kent Krueger, Michael Connelly, Michael Koryta, Tess Gerritsen and James Hall. There were individual presentations and panel discussions, and the chance to meet the authors. Pat and I attended the 2nd week.

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Elizabeth George gave a brilliant keynote address titled “Writing in the Dark, from the Dark, about the Dark.” Later in the week, we had the opportunity to listen to Elizabeth, take her to lunch, and then have her at our home for pizza and to watch the Seattle Seahawks win their way into the Super Bowl. And, by the way, I think her latest – Just One Evil Act – is the best in a great series. I had her autograph her book – Write Away – which is the best book on writing I have ever read.

EG composite

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One of the great things about the KWLS is that the authors are easily accessible and very personable. Here is Pat with several of the many authors we chatted up.

Pat with Unger, Banville, Collins, Child, Hiaasen

Pat with Unger, Banville, Collins, Hiaasen and Child

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On Friday afternoon, we were walking along Duval Street when Michael Connelly – yes, that Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch, Lincoln Lawyer) – came walking towards us. He came over to me and said, “Lew, I have something to show you.” Taking out his cell phone, he thumbed through his photos and showed me a photo of my book The Heretic.

“I found this in my room,” he said. Pat and I had spoken briefly with Michael at a cocktail party the previous night, but I am just dumfounded that he made the connection and then was kind enough to show me what he had found. He is not only a great author, but a very nice man.

Lew & Connelly, Heretic

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With all the well-known names, one of the pleasures of the KWLS is to meet new authors, like Malla Nunn, who writes crime stories set in South Africa. I have started to read Malla’s Let The Dead Lie and it is terrific. So is she. Pat and I spoke with her several times, including lunch together at the seminar’s concluding Conch Chowder Lunch.

Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn

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Added to the excitement of meeting so many great authors were the significant insights I received – from every session – into aspects of my own writing: how the slow building of dread can work even if you know the ending … people want to know the secrets behind the events … seeking out time-specific sensibilities … the private thoughts of historical characters, expressed in historical fiction permits a more illuminating portrayal than the history itself … characters lie (especially if they are the Nazis in the novel I am currently writing) … use, and choose when to reveal, the character’s misconceptions and purposeful lies. Thinking about writing is, for me, the main benefit of the sessions.

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* list of topics in “about writing”

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 12, 2013

These are notes on various writing topics, taken from something I’ve read or based on my own ideas. I find it useful to return to these notes from time to time to refresh the lessons they offer for my writing. They also offer many opportunities for questions and discussion, which I welcome.

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HISTORICAL FICTION 

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* character development … Daniel Silva on Gabriel Allon

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Writers tend to be solitary creatures. We toil alone for months on end, then, once a year, we emerge from our dens to publish a book. It can be a daunting experience, especially for someone like me, who is not gregarious and outgoing by nature. But there is one aspect of promotion I truly love: meeting my readers and answering their questions. During each stop on my book tour, I reserve the bulk of my time for a lively conversation with the audience. I learn much from these encounters-indeed, some of the comments are so insightful they take my breath away. There is one question I am asked each night without fail, and it remains my favorite: “How in the world did you ever think of Gabriel Allon?” The answer is complicated. In one sense, he was the result of a long, character-construction process. In another, he was a bolt from the blue. I’ll try to explain.

In 1999, after publishing The Marching Season, the second book in the Michael Osbourne series, I decided it was time for a change. We were nearing the end of the Clinton administration, and the president was about to embark on a last-ditch effort to bring peace to the Middle East. I had the broad outlines of a story in mind: a retired Israeli assassin is summoned from retirement to track down a Palestinian terrorist bent on destroying the Oslo peace process. I thought long and hard before giving the Israeli a name. I wanted it to be biblical, like my own, and to be heavy with symbolism. I finally decided to name him after the archangel Gabriel. As for his family name, I chose something short and simple: Allon, which means “oak tree” in Hebrew. I liked the image it conveyed. Gabriel Allon: God’s angel of vengeance, solid as an oak.

Gabriel’s professional résumé-the operations he had carried out-came quickly. But what about his other side? What did he like to do in his spare time? What was his cover? I knew I wanted something distinct. Something memorable. Something that would, in many respects, be the dominant attribute of his character. I spent many frustrating days mulling over and rejecting possibilities. Then, while walking along one of Georgetown’s famous redbrick sidewalks, my wife, Jamie, reminded me that we had a dinner date that evening at the home of David Bull, a man regarded as one of the finest art restorers in the world. I stopped dead in my tracks and raised my hands toward the heavens. Gabriel Allon was complete. He was going to be an art restorer, and a very good one at that.

Over my objections, the book was entitled The Kill Artist and it would go on to become a New York Times bestseller. It was not, however, supposed to be the first book in a long-running series. But once again, fate intervened. In 2000, after moving to G.P. Putnam & Sons, my new publishers asked me what I was working on. When I mumbled something about having whittled it down to two or three options, they offered their first piece of advice. They really didn’t care what it was about, they just wanted one thing: Gabriel Allon.

I then spent the next several minutes listing all the reasons why Gabriel, now regarded as one of the most compelling and successful continuing characters in the mystery-thriller genre, should never appear in a second book. I had conceived him as a “one off” character, meaning he would be featured in one story and then ride into the sunset. I also thought he was too melancholy and withdrawn to build a series around, and, at nearly fifty years of age, perhaps a bit too old as well. My biggest concern, however, had to do with his nationality and religion. I thought there was far too much opposition to Israel in the world-and far too much raw anti-Semitism-for an Israeli continuing character ever to be successful in the long term.

My new publishers thought otherwise, and told me so. Because Gabriel lived in Europe and could pass as German or Italian, they believed he came across as more “international” than Israeli. But what they really liked was Gabriel’s other job: art restoration. They found the two opposing sides of his character-destroyer and healer-fascinating. What’s more, they believed he would stand alone on the literary landscape. There were lots of CIA officers running around saving the world, they argued, but no former Israeli assassins who spent their spare time restoring Bellini altarpieces.

The more they talked, the more I could see their point. I told them I had an idea for a story involving Nazi art looting during the Second World War and the scandalous activities of Swiss banks. “Write it with Gabriel Allon,” they said, “and we promise it will be your biggest-selling book yet.” Eventually, the book would be called The English Assassin, and, just as Putnam predicted, it sold twice as many copies as its predecessor. Oddly enough, when it came time to write the next book, I still wasn’t convinced it should be another Gabriel novel. Though it seems difficult to imagine now, I actually conceived the plot of The Confessor without him in mind. Fortunately, my editor, Neil Nyren, saved me from myself. The book landed at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list and received some of the warmest reviews of my career. After that, a series was truly born.

I am often asked whether it is necessary to read the novels in sequence. The answer is no, but it probably doesn’t hurt, either. For the record, the order of publication is The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, Prince of Fire, The Messenger, The Secret Servant, and Moscow Rules, my first #1 New York Times bestseller. The Defector pits Gabriel in a final, dramatic confrontation with the Russian oligarch and arms dealer Ivan Kharkov, and I have been told it far surpasses anything that has come before it in the series. And to think that, if I’d had my way, only one Gabriel Allon book would have been written. I remain convinced, however, that had I set out in the beginning to create him as a continuing character, I would surely have failed. I have always believed in the power of serendipity. Art, like life, rarely goes according to plan. Gabriel Allon is proof of that.

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* Write Away by Elizabeth George

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all of her Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers novels, and marveled at the way a native Californian has been able to capture the nuances of life and police procedure in the UK. I was very excited when I found “Write Away” and was able to learn how she did it.

“Write Away” describes how George goes about the daily task of getting words on paper, and also a variety of techniques that she has found useful. But, for me, the most valuable aspects of the book were her observations about creating character and settings.

Stating that analysis of character is the highest human entertainment, George admonishes authors not to bring a character to a book unless he or she is fully alive before the book begins. Create an analysis of each character, including biographical facts and a full psychological profile. Know each character well enough to understand how he or she will react in the situations which the novel will then pose. Only then can you begin to write your story.

George tells us to reveal characters slowly, allowing the character to effect events and be effected. Show flaws, mistakes, lapses of judgment, and weaknesses. Characters, she says, are interesting in their conflict, misery, unhappiness, and confusion, not in their joy and security. Obvious, perhaps, but so easy to forget when you’re writing.

George’s approach to setting is just as rigorous as her approach to character. Her goal is that each separate location should create an atmosphere and trigger a mood, but cautions that descriptions of place should be part of the narrative and should never interrupt the flow of the story. She visits each place that she will represent, camera and tape recorder in hand, seeing the land, sky, climate, sounds and scents, seeking to feel the emotions evoked by the setting. She works quite hard to describe settings which stimulate the reader’s senses and imagination.

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* techniques

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

“technique” in Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

·     Perry has Charlotte, in her persona as Elizabeth Baranaby, sit quietly listening to conversation and asking herselp a series of questions. This helps the reader keep straight what is known and yet unknown about a complicated plot. Similar to what I did when Detective Watson complied a list of unanswered questions in A Good Conviction.

“technique” in The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

·     John Steinbeck … say dialogue aloud as you write it. only then will it have the sound of speech.  ·     Tennessee Williams … when I write, everything is visual, as brilliantly as if it were on a lit stage. And I talk out the lines as I write.  ·     Samuel Johnson … read over your composition and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.  ·     D.H. Lawrence … they say DHL used to write second drafts and never look at the first  ·     Bernard Malamud … first drafts are for learning what your novel is about. revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.  ·     James Baldwin … painters have often taught writers to see  ·     Francois Mauriac … some writers are greatly preoccupied with technique … they seem to think that a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside … the great novelist doesn’t depend on anyone but himself … a borrowed style is a bad style  ·     Mark Twain … the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug  ·     Truman Capote … a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation  ·     William Styron … I used to spend a lot of time worrying over word order … then I got more and more interested in people … and story  ·     E.M. Forster … very few of us have the power of observing a variety of life and describing it dispassionately. Tolstoy was one who could.

“technique” in Helpless by Barbara Gowdy

Gowdy writes as if she’s on a sinking boat and needs to throw out all the dead weight. The only words that survive are the ones that matter: no extraneous evidence of her research, no long-winded descriptions, no self-indulgent frills of characterization. And the result is a page turner that finds tension … from a review by Chelsea Cain, NYT, 4-29-07

“technique” in The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

·     exaggeration … “tidal waves were continually washing away cities … earthquakes arrived every week … towers fell upon good men and women all the time”  ·     irony … “only the widely read could be said to know they were unhappy.’  ·     irony … “many people would never have fallen in love if they had not heard about it.”  ·     irony … Brother Juniper’s book was declared heretical, and “was ordered to be burned in the square, with its author.” So much for proving that God has a plan.

“technique” in The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

·   use of metaphor reveals a writer’s grasp of life  ·   novels go happiest when you discover something you didn’t know, perhaps a metaphor that startles you even as you are setting it down, a truth that used to elude you.

“technique” in The Instrument by John O’Hara

·     Yank: “Money and I have been strangers all my life.”  effective metaphor, likely to be remembered, and setting the story line of what will happen now that he has money (even though this story line is never effectively developed).  ·     “Somewhat like Byron, he awoke the next morning and found himself famous.” The simile only works if the reader understands the reference, which is not likely.

“technique” in The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

·     important characters introduced late in the story … Varo Borja (46); the girl with green eyes (98, 135, 177); man with a scar (173); Victor Fargas (142). This seems to work ok, except for the unresolved plot issues,  although when reading, it seemed disconcerting to me.  ·     explaining technical matters … the Ceniza brothers tell Corso how a book can be forged. I like the way this was done. It went on just long enough but not too long.

* “technique” in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Character introduction … After beginning with Stiva and Dolly, many other characters, including the major characters, are introduced later: Levin (p.16), Kitty (p.28), Vronsky (p.39,56), and Anna (p.58). If you don’t know differently, you initially think that Stepan and Dolly are the major characters. When other characters are introduced, it’s still not clear who the major characters will be.

I suspect this is not a technique which would work today.

TOLSTOY RIDICULES THE RUSSIAN BUREAUCRACY BY SIMPLY DESCRIBING HOW IT WORKS, WITH NO EDITORIAL COMMENT. HE TRUSTS THE READER TO GET IT.

“technique” in the Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

·   most readers are quick readers, who will stumble and fall on too-complicated prose  ·   the essence of good writing is that it sets an intense mood, then alters that mood, enlarges it, conducts it over to another mood. Every sentence is careful not to poke through the tissue of the mood  ·   finding one’s own manner is elusive. Have I found my manner? my voice? ·   manner comes down to a set of decisions on what word is valuable in every sentence you write. ·   another element of manner is consistency. Toni Morrison can write beautifully for pages, then move along in a pedestrian mode ·   find your own distinctive insights  ·   Henry James had an extraordinary sense of that unforeseen vibration in the almost wholly unexpected. He created a fictional world out of such insight. ·   You must push your writing to find such insight, by constantly asking questions … what would the character do? … why? … the events must be true to the character  ·   Hemingway could not write a good long complex sentence, so he developed a style of short declarative sentences. which seemed to work out pretty well  ·   some writers always write in their own inimitable style (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway) while others (including Mailer) go along in a variety of modes. Matisse always painted in a recognizable mode, Picasso tried a hundred modes before he was done  ·   describe what you see as it impinges on the sum of your passions and intellectual attainments. ·   write as if everything depends on saying what you feel as clearly as you can  ·   do not be afraid to go with the insight provided in an unexpected and happy turn of phrase  ·   use your own crucial experiences as a source for your writing, not directly perhaps, where they may be too special, too intense or too concentrated, but rather by projecting your imagination through the crystal of your experience  ·   if you tell yourself that you are going to write tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You owe it to your unconscious to keep your promise.

“technique” in Write Away by Elizabeth George

·   Talking Head Avoidance Device (THAD) – those elements of a scene that illustrate character or illuminate state of mind in ways other than he said/she said; present the reader a visual element in what would otherwise be only dialogue. Can be anything. Draw from character analysis.  · manipulate language to alter the mood  ·  every sentence in a paragraph should be an amplification of the sentence preceding it, or should address a prevailing topic in some way (???)  ·   paragraphs must be cohesive, and linked together to create a seamless narrative  ·   I develop my outline and write my novels in the order they’ll be read  ·   Note every opportunity for causal relationships to be developed  ·   Write the running plot outline – stream of consciousness  ·   By having as much information as possible before writing the scene, can concentrate on the writing

“technique” in What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

·   jargon … “two sticks short” … this jargon is never directly explained, but indirectly we learn that it is four inches or 30 lines.

“technique” in The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

·  In dramatic literature, the tauter the scene, the more emotionally effective  ·  if the scene is protracted or repetitive, and the (reader) gets ahead of the (story), there’s a slackening of attention; but if the story is too short and underdeveloped, the dramatic experience will be thin, slight, sketchy, forgettable  ·  the goal of the writer is to fully realize his material, to discover the ideal balance between fluidity of narration and background exposition, description, an amplification  ·  the story’s theme is the bobbin upon which the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin (the thematic center), the thread would fly loose  ·  longer fiction (must) involve the reader emotionally  ·  trying always to write beautifully, brilliantly, with originality, can be paralyzing

* metaphor and simile defined

metaphor  1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare). 2.One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol

simile … A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).

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* reflections on writing

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

“reflections on writing” in Write Away by Elizabeth George

·   write what you want to write, not what you think is going to sell   ·    write to your passion  ·   write what interests you

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“reflections on writing” by Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art

·     high morals and thorough duplicity, loyalty and deceit, passion and ice-cold detachment … these are the characteristics of a writer  ·     I learned to write by writing  ·    The Naked and the Dead was the work of an amateur, sloppily written, NM took chances  ·     after 3 years of living with the book (Deer Park), I could admit that the style was wrong, and I had been strangling my novel in a poetic prose that was too self-consciously attractive and formal.   ·    working on my 3rd novel, I felt I was finally learning to write   ·    write only what interests you, not what you think will be a best seller  ·     best selling novelists work on big canvases – 40-50 characters and 50-100 years. Most good writers today tend to work on smaller canvases.  ·    best-seller readers want to read and read and read – they do not want to ponder   ·    an editor has to bring in books that will make money. publishing houses are getting depressed about the future of good fiction. when a serious novel by an unknown gets published today, it’s usually because some young editor has made an issue of it … which means some agent made an issue of it to the editor.  ·   how much of history is conspiracy, planned, rational, and how much is simple fuckups?  ·     you put your book out, if you can afford to take the time, only when it is ready   ·     a man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel. anything in him which is lazy, or meretricious (attracting attention in a vulgar manner), or unthought-out, complacent, fearful, overambitious, or terrified by the ultimate logic of his exploration will be revealed in his book. No novelist can escape his own character.  ·    Mailer talking with Gore Vidal: one could not make one’s living writing good novels anymore.  ·    Tolstoy evaded the depths that Dostoyevsky opened, whereas Dostoyevsky, lacking Tolstoy’s majestic sense of the proportion of things, fled proportion and explored hysteria.  ·   for every great writer, there are a hundred who could have been equally great but lacked the courage.  ·     we write novels out of two cardinal impulses – one is to understand ourselves better, the other is to present what we know about others.  ·     there is always fear in trying to write a good book, where the unique element of risk is to your ego  ·     if you’re trying for something interesting or difficult, then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be.  ·    we are all navigating through life. Good novels have a quality that other forms of communication do not offer.  ·     Joyce Carol Oates is willing to dare terrible humiliation.  ·    if there is no afterworld … then existence is indeed absurd.  ·     under the Nazis, an evil of true murderousness took over an ordinary people – the most decent, hardworking and clean people in the world and led them into despicable and extraordinary acts … suggesting that the unconscious is truly a place of hideous ambushes and horrors. Evil has dimensions. Evil is mysterious. It is not, as Hannah Arendt would say, banal  (Drearily commonplace and often predictable; trite).  ·     it is arrogant to assume that we can determine our own moral value. The novel is the best form for developing our moral sensitivity … our depth of understanding rather than our rush to judgment.  ·     morality, when subtle, brings proportion to human affairs. Tolstoy is a great writer – maybe he is our greatest novelist – because no other can match his sense of human proportion. We feel awe supported by compassion when we read Tolstoy. We are in the rare presence of moral evaluations that are severe yet ultimately tender.  ·     Picasso kept changing the nature of his attack on reality. I find it most interesting in my writing to keep making a new attack on the nature of reality.  ·     you cannot have a great democracy without great writers. If great novels disappear, as they are in danger of doing, we will be that much further away from a free society. Novels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy. (If citizens read them ·     a novel at its best is the most moral of art forms, exploring the interstices of human behavior, the terrible complexities of moral experience and its dark sibling, moral ambiguity. There are no answers. There are only questions.  ·    the novelist may be better equipped to deal with the possibilities of a mysterious and difficult situation than anyone else, since he is always trying to discover what the nature of reality might be, asking ‘how and what is the nature of this little reality before me?’ … asking all the impertinent questions we often avoid in our real lives … dealing with life as something not eternal and immutable, but rather half-worked, seeing the world which was always before us in a manner different from the way we had seen it the day before.  ·  in the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, it was taken for granted that you could learn more about life by reading their novels than you could from your own personal experience.  ·     writers aren’t taken seriously anymore, because we haven’t written the novels that should have been written, works which could have helped to define America.  ·     I have always felt that The Old Man and the Sea was one of Hemingway’s failures. The old Cuban was never tempted to cut the fish loose, so Hemingway never had to find a reason for the fisherman to say ‘I’ll hold on.’ Not enough of a character had been created to answer such a question.

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“reflections on writing” by Joyce Carol Oates in The Faith of a Writer

·   And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one (Virginia Wolfe, diary)  ·   Art springs from the depths of the human imagination – idiosyncratic, mysterious   ·   Ecstatic bouts of inspiration  ·   The writer has probably based his prose style upon significant predecessors  ·    Inspiration taken from a predecessor is usually accidental   ·   If you hope to be a writer, you must read  ·   The writer reads, and asks: why this title? Why this opening scene? This opening sentence? This language? This pacing? This detail, or lack of detail?  ·    Is this story significant enough to have warranted the effort to write it? To read it? Is it original? Convincing? Am I changed in any way by reading it? Have I learned from it?

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* scenes

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

missing “scenes” in Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

·     Some of the most interesting scenes in Scaramouche are the ones that aren’t there.   ·     Sabatini often skips the scene you expect to see. None of the duels, except that with the Marquis, are portrayed. Thus Sabatini avoids what would be repetition and holds the reader’s anticipation of a dueling scene until the last and most important.   ·     Andre-Louis’s entrance into Paris in the midst of chaotic street fighting is also not shown. How did he get past the guards? Did anyone question him? Likewise, the leaving of Paris, first by the Marquis, then by Andre-Louis with Aline and Mme. de Plougastel, become past events, never shown “live.” … Why?   ·     One also looks in vain for a real love scene between Andre-Louis and Aline where either’s emotions are shown rather than merely stated or even hinted at.

“scenes” in The Instrument by John O’Hara

·     Ch 3 begins with a long transitional narrative (over 2 pages) telling what has happened in the few months since Ch 2 ended. This is lazy. It would have been more effective to work whatever was essential into the ensuing action.   ·     O’Hara’s abrupt transitions to new immediate action work much better. “They were in Boston.” “The New York opening was an ordeal and a delight.” “The house was at the edge of the village of East Hammond …”

“scenes” in The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

·     exposition … long, detailed descriptions and lists of old books, which the reader can’t possibly read and absorb. what is the purpose?  ·     transitions … the reader is suddenly transported from Fargas’ home in Portugal to Paris, with no transition. The details of this change of scene are presented later (187-88). Does this work? It’s a technique similar to what Tolstoy does repeatedly in Anna Karenina.

“scenes” in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

sequence of scenes in Ch 22-29 (the horse race)  ·  Vronsky sees Anna at Peterhof. She tells him she is pregnant. ·  Vronsky leaves, returns to Petersburg and prepares for the race. ·  He sees Karenin arrive at the racetrack but avoids looking at Anna, who is also there. ·  The race is run. Vronsky breaks the horse’s back. The horse is shot. ·  Tolstoy then makes an abrupt return to earlier that day. Karenin is in his office, thinking of Anna and Vronsky. A doctor tells him he is not well, needs to relax. ·  He drives to Peterhof to see Anna. They speak past each other. She invites him to come back for dinner, even though Vronsky is also coming. ·  Karenin and Anna go separately to the racetrack. ·  Karenin watches Anna as she watches Vronsky. ·   the race progresses (again, we already know what has happened) ·  After the race, Anna knows Vronsky has fallen but not if he is alive or dead. Karenin three times takes her arm and insists on taking her back to Peterhof. ·  In the carriage, he says, “I am obliged to tell you that your behavior has been unbecoming today.” ·  Anna tells Karenin that she loves Vronsky. “I am his mistress. I can’t bear you. You can do what you like to me.” ·  Karenin says he expects a strict observance of the “external forms of propriety.” He will decide what measures to take and will “communicate them to you.” ·  At Peterhof, Anna learns that Vronsky is unhurt. “So he will be here tonight. What a good thing I told him (Karenin) everything. Thank God everything’s over with him (Karenin).” ·  The next scene does not pick up with Vronsky coming to Peterhof, but switches abruptly to Kitty in Moscow.

“scenes” in Write Away by Elizabeth George

·   Every scene MUST advance the plot, advance a subplot, develop character, or address theme. If not, toss it!  ·   Every scene MUST contain some degree of conflict  ·     Dramatic narration – omniscient narrator gives us the facts of what occurred. No dialogue. ·     Summary narration – quick, economical, not fully explored  ·    Fully rendered scene – allow the reader to be a witness to the activities of the characters or an eavesdropper on their conversations  ·     in PD James, A Taste for Death, two characters appear for only one scene, passing on valuable information. This adds verisimilitude, as opposed to simply reporting the information. ·     partial scene interrupting dramatic narration  ·     Every scene must have conflict.  Begin at the low point, let the tension rise to a climax, then provide a resolution which propels the entire novel forward.  ·    not every scene must be formed identically. ·   Alternative scene formulation: motion picture, sound vs sight, present-past-present, plunging in  ·   motion picture: set the scene, move to a narration of action, hit the dialogue  ·    sound vs sight: begin with dialogue (not explained first), back off to set the scene, then return to dialogue  ·    present-past-present: start the scene in real time, stop the scene and go back to previous action to bring the reader up to date (summarizing that action instead of a fully rendered scene), then return to real time  ·     plunging in. start with a character in thought or action and go with it.

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* historical fiction … Blending Fiction and History: What Works? What Doesn’t? by Paula Fleming

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

I was inspired to write this month’s column when trying to read an execrable novel of historical fiction. The history had to do with the Irish rebellion of 1916 and the events leading up to it. The fiction mostly concerned the development of two repressed Irish Catholics’s sex lives. The history was well researched and well interpreted. The fiction, however, was not well executed.

Upon giving up about halfway through the book, I did some thinking about blending history and fiction. After all, such blends are a major part of the fantasy/science fiction field, even constitution their own subgenres, historical fantasy and alternate history. Romance and mystery, and SF/F crossovers with these genres, often use historical settings as well. I asked myself: what approaches make such blends riveting, and what approaches turn out clunkers?

Most, if not all, of the following points apply to any blending of history and fiction, regardless of which subgenre it comes under.

Setting

Most SF and fantasy has a setting other than the here and now, so we’re used to communicating unusual environments to our readers. Using historical settings involves two further considerations.

How familiar is the reader with the historical era? If you’re writing for an American audience, then it’s reasonable to assume that your readers have a basic grasp of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. However, even broadly educated readers may not be familiar with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the widespread famine in the 1930s Soviet Union, and the Belgian declaration of independence from Austria in 1789.

The less familiar your readers are with your setting, the more “explaining” you’ll have to work into your story. A few readers will be experts on your setting, but don’t worry about them. They will understand that most people aren’t familiar with these people, events, customs, and locations, and they will be patient as the story brings them up to speed. On the other hand, don’t be in too big a hurry to explain everything. SF/Fantasy readers are notably willing to wade deeply into a story without understanding a lot about the world, as long as it’s a good story and as long as how the world works is revealed eventually. We SF/fantasy fans are also willing to learn about people, places, and events we’d never heard of before, so don’t shy away from “obscure” (obscure to most of your readers — not, obviously, obscure to the folks involved) history.

How much detail should you provide? Lots. It’s as if you were setting your story on another planet, except that, ironically, you probably have to provide more detail. When reading about another planet, the readers only need to know enough about the world to understand the story. In historical fiction, however, the readers are seeking the special joy that comes from participating, albeit vicariously, in real events in real places with real people. It’s fun to walk down a medieval London street in a Church processional or to give a speech in the Roman senate. Why is it so much fun? Because we’re getting a chance, in effect, to time travel. So don’t stint on the description — it’s at least half the fun.

Plot

You have some choices here, but whatever you do, your story must involve the characters as key players. If they’re mere bystanders to events, even exciting events, then we readers won’t be exciting. Just as in every other story, our protagonists must have opportunities to make decisions, take actions, and reach epiphanies (or fail to do so).

One choice is to choose an interesting era but involve your characters in a made-up “event” that never made the history books for some reason. Such an “event” must dovetail with whatever is in the history books. Pat Murphy’s Nadya, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep are examples of this approach. Outside of SF/fantasy, Bernard Cornwell works well with this approach in his Napoleonic and American Civil War series. In his books, his protagonists usually do play key roles in major historical events, typically on very crowded canvases where their intrusion isn’t noticeable. He sometimes assigns them a role played by other, real people (with apologies to the historical personages in the back of the book) and sometimes makes them the cause of an event that historians can’t explain (e.g., Robert E. Lee’s strategy being found by the North wrapped up with some cigars in a field).

Another choice is to change history and go forward from there. The catalyst for change can be outside intervention. For instance, in Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, South African racist whites travel back in time with advanced technology to create a Southern U.S. in which they can live. In his WWII series, aliens attack Earth just as the war is turning against the Axis powers. Alternatively, the story can assume that an event that went one way simply went another, as in Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood, in which Socrates fled Athens and survived, setting off a chain of events that led to America being colonized by Islamic Africans.

Yet another choice is to use an historical era as a guideline but depart freely from it. For example, Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series takes place in a thinly disguised medieval England, where Catholic ritual and magic are one and the same but the types of political intrigue and warfare feel very familiar. Likewise, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart series happens in a world that is clearly medieval-to-Renaissance Europe, Middle East, and Africa — complete with Jews, Romany, and invading Germanic tribes — but where the dominant European religion is polytheistic, the gods intervene, and some magic works.

Dialog

Good rules of dialog still apply. We never want to write dialog the way people really talk — it’s nearly incomprehensible. When we convey dialect, we should use a light touch to keep the text readable and so as not to parody our characters. In historical work, the dialog shouldn’t be too historical — a few thees and thous go a long way. Likewise, just as with any other kind of story, we don’t use dialog to infodump. Characters carry on conversations. They do not speak essays at each other to edify the reader, nor do they tell each other things they already know. “Hey Bob, the Romans have been dominating us for decades.” Bob: “Yeah, but a lot of men have joined the legions and done well.” Gaah!

Point of View

Handling point of view (POV) in historical work can be challenging. The character of the period does not notice the same things we would notice. Deirdre the medieval mage will not think, “No one in the crowded inn had bathed for a month, and the place reeked of body odor.” Unless mages have different bathing habits than other people, Deirdre smells just like them, and people have always smelled that way to her. We wouldn’t think, “We entered the crowded nightclub, and everyone was wearing clothes. There was fabric everywhere.”

At the same time, it’s exactly those indigenous details, the ones that create the historic period, that our readers want (see “Setting” above). So what to do? If Deirdre has just come in from outside, her nose will get used to the smell of lots of bodies in the same way that her eyes will adjust to the dim light. She would remark that. She won’t think about bathing habits, because that’s just a given, but she might feel a sense of comfort from the smell of people. She might, for example, remember sharing a bed with her four sisters growing up and how close and safe their bodies smelled around her.

Research

Plenty has been written elsewhere about researching historical settings. I’ll just say this: if you want to write fiction but find yourself writing a history book instead, stop and reevaluate your approach.

Resources

Here are some further resources on blending history and fiction.

Paula L. Fleming’s science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin’s Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing’s Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. A graduate of the Clarion Workshop, Paula maintains a speculative fiction market listing (updated quarterly). By day, she’s a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband.

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* historical fiction … Reading and Writing Historical Fiction by Sue Peabody

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

First published in The Iowa Journal of Literary Studies (1989):29-39.

Return to Sue Peabody’s hompage.

When I was hired as a temporary library employee a few years ago, my supervisor asked me during the job orientation, “Do you know the difference between fiction and non-fiction?” I stammered, tongue-tied for a few moments, until I realized that she was asking a simple yes-or-no question, not demanding an air-tight philosophical definition. I finally responded, “Yes, I do,” but I was left with the lingering suspicion that I had lied.

This paper is a tentative exploration into the genre that spans the liminal territory between fiction and non-fiction, the historical novel. For the purposes of library classification, the historical novel is shelved with other fiction. But its placement is ambiguous. Many commentators observe that the general public is more likely to learn about the past from historical fiction than from “straight” history (e.g., Tebbel; Aiken). Some writers, such as Gore Vidal, will go so far as to say that their fiction is “fact.” Finally, recent techniques of literary criticism have made some readers, beginning with Roland Barthes and Hayden White, question the boundaries that separate history from fiction. History’s status as an independent genre seems to be threatened by modern notions of relativism. Historical fiction, with its ambiguous relationships to both history and fiction, might be a good starting place for an analysis of the claims of both kinds of writing.

For the purposes of this essay, I have limited my analysis to what might be called “high brow” historical fiction of the 1980s. By “high brow,” I mean historical fiction written for a predominantly college educated readership. In this essay I will not attempt to deal with the sub-genre of historical romances. This Is not because I think that problems raised by this form are uninteresting. Indeed, a study of the reading and writing of the so-called “bodice-rippers” and their uses of history, could prove fascinating. Rather, I have decided to omit this more popular literary form because of the relative difficulty of obtaining statements from authors and readers about their respective processes.

To analyze the creation and reception of the contemporary historical novel, I have studied statements by readers and authors of historical fiction — in interviews, reviews, letters and essays — about the processes of reading and writing.’ I have paid attention to what reviewers feel are the successes and failures of individual works, for these statements show us their criteria of judgement. I have listened carefully to their overt discussions of the differences between history and fiction, and I have queried authors about what they feel those differences are. The conversation between readers and writers shows that there are three overlapping areas of concern. One of these is the contrast between what might be called the historian’s efforts to illuminate and the novelist’s proclivity to conceal. Another issue is the supposed ability of the successful historical novel to “make the past come alive.” Finally, there is the relationship between these issues and the question of narrative point of view.

Although I might start with any of these, let me begin with the issue of illumination versus concealment. I begin with the assumption that the historian’s objective is to shed light on the past “as it really was.” Historians may disagree profoundly with one another about what actually happened, and why things happened that way, but they generally agree that their purpose is to find out, and reveal to others, as nearly as possible, the “truth” about the past (e.g., Veyne, 11). A typical historical narrative tells its readers what was the case and why it was the case. A historical account does not attempt to hide things from its readers. The notion of suspense does not enter into the reading or writing of an historical work.

This is a marked difference from the conventions of contemporary historical fiction. Novels such as Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Toni Morrison’s Beloved create an atmosphere of suspense that compels the reader to follow the narrative to the conclusion, where a secret is revealed. The Name of the Rose is a detective mystery set in the Middle Ages. The question “whodunnit?” is what propels the reader through all 502 pages. The secret in Beloved concerns the title character and her relationship to the other characters in the book. The convention of secrets is so strong in this book that two reviewers, Rosellen Brown and Margaret Atwood, refused to give a complete description of the plot so that they would not spoil it for their readers.

The suspense present in these two novels is not immediately apparent in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, where the ending, Lincoln’s assassination, is presumed to be known in advance by the reader. A subtler sense of secrets, however, is in operation here. Vidal hides little jokes, to delight the knowing reader, such as the fictitious character “William de Touche Clancy” who appears in Vidal’s other novels. One reviewer who spotted Clancy observed:

(Vidal] insists that the character is fictional, [but] those who know him will point to the similarities in all but promiscuity, syphilis and homosexuality to one of Vidal’s deadly enemies. (Edwards)

We are still left to wonder, “Who is Vidal’s enemy?” Part of the pleasure of reading is unlocking this personnage à clef. John Vernon plants a similar secret in his novel, La Salle, to be discovered by readers who are “in the know.” Toward the end of the book is a play-within-the-novel written by the character La Salle for his colonists to perform. Vernon writes that:

On page 151 of the novel, the first two lines of La Salle’s play are taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem #870…. And the name of the minstrel ill the play, Eliym, is an anagram of Emily. These are the little jokes that novelists play. (Letter)

The librarian of Umberto Eco’s labyrinthine library is Jorge of Burgos (after Borges, the contemporary novelist who has described a similar library in his fiction). One reviewer also spotted a paraphrase of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus in The Name of the Rose. In the novel, the quotation is attributed to “a mystic from Germany.” Discovering these little jokes is one of the sophisticated reader’s pleasures in fiction.

A pleasure that is perhaps unique to the reading of historical fiction (as opposed to purely imaginary fiction) is the reader’s ability to identify the author’s sources. My friend, Beth Nachison, an avid reader of historical fiction, told me that this is one of the qualities she

enjoys:

When I’m reading a historical novel in a period that 1 know something about, it’s always a treat if I can read something and say, “Aha! I know where they got that!2

Historical fiction, unlike history, is not constrained to cite its sources with footnotes in the text. Thus the reader experiences the pleasure of discovery when she finds something familiar.3 A fiction writer who borrows too heavily from source material, however, may be castigated for being unable to “digest his material, to integrate it into his book” (Hoffman). One reviewer found this to be such a problem with Vidal’s Lincoln that he could no longer call it a novel.4

Thus, on several levels, the writer of historical fiction may hide things from the reader, whose pleasure is partly derived from discovering them for himself. This discovery makes the reader feel intelligent, “in the know.” Historians, by contrast, “illuminate” the past and their readers learn from the text. The explanatory aspect of history is part of the historian’s method of illumination. Historians recount certain facts and events in their writings and offer explanations of these events. The expectation that a text will explain the past is so prevalent among historians that they sometimes look for historical arguments in works of fiction. One reviewer (a biographer) wrote that Toni Morrison’s Beloved “means to prove that Afro-Americans are the result of a cruel determinism” (Crouch). The passage he cites as an example reads more like a character’s internal stream of consciousness than any kind of “proof.” Another reviewer of Lincoln, a historian, refers twice to Vidal’s “argument”:

The book Lincoln does not make a case for that cosmopolitanism of the old South, but it does clearly argue that an old order was swept away by the Civil War. (Edwards 38)

The delivery of (the Gettysburg address) is one of the brightest, hardest gems of the book and Mr. Vidal vigorously supports his argument that the text was a little different from the common form now regurgitated. (Edwards 40)

Again, Vidal does not set out to “argue” anything. The novel depicts the old South being swept away and shows that the text of the Gettysburg address differs from its present version. Another historian totally misunderstands the literary device in which the story is told from the various characters’ points of view and attributes those characters’ statements to Vidal himself (Current; see also Vidal’s response). I shall return to this question of point of view later.

Fiction writers operate under the dictum, “show, don’t tell.” The need to explain an event in the story is seen as a failure of the novelist’s art. For example, a friend’s novel-in-progress concerns a detective in 1902 who is sent to a small town in Iowa to collect evidence against a saloon operating in violation of the state prohibition laws. In the end, a mob of townspeople chases the detective into the prairie in the dead of winter where he nearly dies of exposure. I asked my friend, Scott Hewitt, if he would need to explain in the novel why the townspeople attempted to lynch the detective. He responded:

It should be obvious. The explanation is the events leading up to that. There’s no narrator’s voice in this story. There are only the voices of the people. The explanation is what happens before that that leads up to that…. A fiction writer

dramatizes it happening. I’m not explaining because all the events are right there in living color explaining why, that is, how something happened, and why it happened. (Interview)

Both the historian’s misunderstanding, above, and Hewitt’s account of the lack of explanation in fiction raise the question of narrative point of view. Before I take up this topic, I want to discuss another one of Hewitt’s remarks: that fiction places the events “right there in living color.”

* * * * *

… [The pleasure of historical fiction is] not so much to see where [history and fiction] melt, but to try to make the past “live again” to use a trite phrase. To take all these dead facts — the kings and battles and details of shipping cargoes — and to put people into them; wind their springs and let them walk around (Nachison).

This book [Lincoln] illumines what I had thought a familiar chapter of history, recaptures and fleshes out a remarkable man and his contradictions. (Whitehead)

Eco has set into motion — fantastical though that motion may be — a piece of an old tapestry. (Birkerts)

Readers of historical fiction bring several criteria of judgment to the reading of a historical novel. Foremost among these is that the historical novels should provide accurate, convincing portraits of the people of the past; in short, it should “make the past live.”5 Reviewers fill their assessments with words and phrases like “recreates,” “sets into motion , and “fleshes out.” What is this quality of “bringing to life” and how does the historical novel do it?

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle urges orators to make use of metaphor because of its capacity to render a scene “before our eyes.” He says that metaphor makes the hearer “see things”: “By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things in a state of activity.” According to Aristotle, metaphor has the ability to give “metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of the activity that they convey” (Rhetoric 1410:10-13; 1411:24-26).

But the most important function of the metaphor, Aristotle says, is to help get across new ideas to one’s listeners:

We all naturally find it agreeable to get hold of new ideas easily: words express ideas, and therefore those words are the most agreeable to us that enable us to get hold of new ideas. Now strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from the metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh. (Rhetoric 1410: 10-13; emphasis added)

Metaphor, suggests Aristotle, is an effective way to make the strange familiar, to help us learn new ideas easily. There is a striking similarity between Aristotle’s discussion of metaphor and readers’ and writers’ expectations of the historical novel. For example, Vernon remarks in his letter about La Salle:

I wanted to show what the pictures we see in textbooks of early explorers (with their clean faces, elaborate costume, shining weapons, neat flags, natives in rows — all idealized and antiseptic) don’t show — the lice, the fatigue, the continual closeness of death, the dysentery, the cold, the discomfort, the loss of orientation, the dirt, the grease for a meal three times a day, the annoyance, the boredom, the hunger, the fear, etc.

At least one motive for writers of fiction, then, is to give a convincing portrait of the people, ideas, and circumstances of living in the past.

This corresponds to another reason for reading historical fiction. Besides the pleasure of discovery discussed above, some readers find that the historical novel satisfies the desire to learn something about the past. Beth Nachison told me that she sometimes reads a novel about an unfamiliar historical period to get acquainted with the important characters and issues before she turns to the academic historical writings. Similarly, reviewers often mention the capacity of historical fiction to instruct readers about the past.6

The historical novel acts, in some ways, as a metaphor for the past. Through the novel, the past is portrayed as a visual scene, a drama, which the reader can understand. The past is animated in a way that conventional history is (apparently) unable to do. Richard N. Current, reviewing Vidal’s Lincoln (rather unfavorably) suggests why this may be true:

Though aiming at objectivity or authenticity, a historian or biographer sometimes misses because distracted by thoughts of literary effectiveness…. [T]here may be a temptation to emulate the novelist to the extent of presenting occasional scenes in lifelike detail. For each detail, perhaps no more than a single source can be found, and to depend on that one source is to violate the historiographical requirement of two or more independent witnesses. This requirement accounts for much of the dry-as-dust quality that the work of academic historians is presumed to have: they are constrained to write what amounts to the lowest common denominator of the widest variety of sources. (87)

This passage links together several important notions: “literary effectiveness” has the potential to undermine objectivity or authenticity; the novelist presents scenes in “lifelike detail”; the historian operates under a constraining requirement of confirmation of sources; and finally, this requirement creates the “dry-as-dust” quality of academic historical writings.

This passage is especially interesting because it highlights two important differences between history and fiction: the use of “historical detail” and the question of point of view. I will address the notion of “historical detail” first.

Hewitt, in the course of writing his novel, has run into the problem of the authenticity of historical details:

Those kinds of details create a sense of background “texture” which, in fact, very much inform the plots, and themes, and characters. You can’t have a really real character in 1902 unless that character is really aware of what someone would be aware of in 1902: everything from what kind of shoes you wear to how you do your crops in the summer. (Interview)

At other times he stresses that he would like to ignore the background “texture” (at least in his first draft) and concentrate on “doing the job of fiction,” but to do so would be to threaten the believability of his novel. The background texture is intimately caught up in the themes, setting, and characterizations of his novel. Hewitt, unlike Vidal, has some leeway in that all his characters are imaginary and thus not tied to specific documents of the past, but he worries that the wrong details will undermine the atmosphere of authenticity that his novel strives to produce. This dilemma has caused him to think about alternatives to the historical novel:

I’ve thought about making it a contemporary novel because at times the problem of historical detail has been such a large one that I’ve thought, “Well, maybe I should just make it now.” But that wouldn’t work because I like the idea of this town being really isolated — these people are really out there on their own…. There are no telephones there. There’s no electricity; there’s hardly anything. It’s a bunch of farmhouses scattered around in the same general area. (27)

The background details of turn-of-the-century rural society are necessary for Hewitt’s themes of isolation. The stark, empty landscape of the Iowa winter is a metaphor for the still emptiness of mind that his main character seeks. The themes of emptiness and purity recur in the symbolic details Hewitt has selected for his narrative.

One of the ways that historical fiction connects the present to the past is through theme. One reviewer objects to the themes of Beloved that , at may be clearly recognized as prevalent concerns in our own present culture:

The book’s beginning clanks out its themes. . . There is the theme of black women facing the harsh world alone. Later on in the novel, Morrison stages the obligatory moment of transcendent female solidarity. Then there is the sexual exploitation theme. (Crouch 42)

In The Name of the Rose many readers recognize familiar issues of the present in Eco’s rendition of the past.

In the fate of the monastery and library, the 20th century reader may see reflected his own apprehensions as to the future of his world and his culture, and, in the failure of Brother William’s chain of reasoning, his own inability to order history. (Hartley 39)

… [i]ts title, The Name of the Rose, states one of its central themes, the troubling relation of names and things, language and reality…. Throughout the novel the fourteenth and twentieth centuries are not so distant mirrors of one another. (Ahern)

Through this notion of theme, then, the historical novel posits the similarities between the past and the present.

The metaphor joins together two otherwise dissimilar things by virtue of their shared attributes. According to Aristotle:

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is a sign of true genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars. (Poetics 1459:5-8)

Paradoxically, John Vernon asserts that his novel also attempts to make experience “come alive” not. by rendering it familiar, but by making it strange:

I wanted to do what all fiction should do: to renew our acquaintance with experience by de-domesticating it, by making it strange again. History seems the perfect field in which to do this: it too must be cleansed of stereotypes and made strange again, it we are ever to succeed in re-imagining it again. (Letter)

His statement is ambiguous; it implies that fiction should render not only the past strange but the reader’s present as well. According to Merle Rubin, this is also an effect of Eco’s novel. The narrative strategy of The Name of the Rose makes its readers aware of the newness of scientific thinking:

For many of us, heirs to the Enlightenment, the process by which we formulate and test hypotheses seems “only natural.” It is anything but. By setting his story at a time when other forms of thought prevailed, Eco re-creates a sense of the difficulty and challenge of the method we take for granted.

Hence, this metaphorical quality of the historical novel has the capacity both to render the past familiar and to make the present seem strange. Its “animation” derives, in part, from its ability to reveal the apparent similarities between the past and the present.

A striking similarity between the novels I read for this essay is that each is written from the point of view of one or more characters within the story. The convention of telling a story from a point of view other than the author’s is not new or surprising in fiction. In academic historical writing, however, this convention is unheard of. Indeed, if one were to try to write a work of history from a point of view that differed substantially from the author’s, it would no longer be called “history,” but fiction. One can imagine the furor that such an attempt would raise within the discipline.7

This is not to say that authorial voice of a historical text is somehow “authentic,” or devoid of convention. In fact, the relative uniformity of syntax and style of historical writings (when compared to fiction) suggests that the historical narrative voice is an artificial construction designed for different purposes than fictive narrative voices. Certain conventions of historical narrative restrict the historian’s point of view. For example, it must appear impartial and objective (avoiding frequent use of the first person). A fiction writer has more freedom: she can choose to tell the story through an omniscient third-person narrator (similar to the historian’s), through a single character from the story, or through several characters (as in the epistolary form of La Salle).

Hewitt suggests that the ideal of fiction is for the narrative to erase the sense of an author entirely. He recalls Annie Dillard’s work, Living by Fiction:

where she talks about … some of the greatest works of literature, in which ideas have completely disappeared into objects; where there’s a certain tension in things that is so perfect that you can’t figure out “what the author is trying to say” because the author isn’t there. The author has completely disappeared. This idea of ideas completely disappearing into objects means that there are no explanations, there is only exactly what you see in the story. And in the great works those ideas, those explanations, are embodied in those objects. In other words, the writer has picked his symbols, picked his objects, because they’re the best possible ones to suggest those explanations. (Interview)

For Hewitt, in an ideal piece of fiction things seem to speak for themselves. Things that speak for themselves require no explanations, no author.

Perhaps point of view is the most important difference between history and historical fiction. A work of history must be written from a point of view that represents the actual author’s. The author’s voice tells the reader what happened and why it happened. Without this association between the actual historian and the narrative perspective of the text, the historian could not be held responsible for her argument. Her argument constitutes her identity as a historian in the academic community. Without it, she ceases to exist for the discipline. In historical fiction, the writer may tell the story from the point of view of real or imaginary characters, thus appealing to the reader’s imagination. When this is done well, the past appears to “live” and the present is made strange. Historical novels function structurally as a metaphor, joining the past with the present, and the reader with the author, emphasizing their mutual similarities and differences. Perhaps professional history also functions metaphorically, but its disciplinary conventions and rhetorical structures seem to weaken the vividness and immediacy that we find in the best historical fiction.

NOTES

1. The interviews and reviews focused primarily on six works: Gore Vidal’s Lincoln; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Toni Morrison ‘s Beloved; John Vernon’s La Salle; Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings; and Scott Hewitt’s novel-in-progress, February, 1902. Certain publications have been especially useful for my purposes. The reviews published in the New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, Encounter, The New York Times Book Review, and the Christian Science Monitor tend to be lengthy, in-depth discussions of most of the novels in question.

2. Beth has read over two hundred historical novels and is currently writing one of her own. She was extremely helpful to me as I researched this paper.

3. Something similar occurs in a work of history when the author refers to other literature in the field by its subject, but without citing it directly in a footnote. A reader who is familiar with the literature may feel satisfied to recognize a reference that would pass over a less initiated reader’s head. But if this goes too far, it can be considered plagiarism. The historical novelist, by contrast, is expected to borrow from the historical record without citing her sources.

4. “A novel it isn’t, if by a novel one means a work of the imagination, a piece of fiction, a fable, a story, an invention” (Hoffman).

5. These views are so pervasive that a single novel can be judged by different readers both to have and lack these qualities. For example, compare: “Vidal makes famous names — Seward, Chase and his ever-scheming daughter, Kate, McClennan and Grant, Sumner — come believably alive” (Michaud 1146) and “. . . the father and daughter who appear in [Lincoln] are not nearly as engrossing as the real items. By the same token the spidery, conniving Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, is a pale copy of the original” (Hoffman 744).

6. See, for example, Blue 32, Turner667, Birkerts 38, Brown 419, and Bloom 3.

7. The hostile reaction of some historians to Vidal’s novel seems to derive in part front Vidal’s assertion in the afterward that, “All of the principal characters really existed, and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and doing . . .” (Qtd. in Current 79). Had Vidal stuck with his subtitle, “A Novel,” it is doubtful that he would have raised such a ruckus with the historians but his statement here encourages historians to judge him by the narrower rhetorical standards of their own field.

WORKS CITED

Ahern, John. Rev. of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Commonweal 110 (1983): 597.

Aiken, Joan. “Interpreting the Past: Reflections of an Historical Novelist.” Encounter 64 (May 1985): 37-43.

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 1984.

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 1984.

Atwood, Margaret. Rev. of Beloved, by Toni Morrison. The New York Times Book Review 92 (13 Sept. 1987): 1, 49-50.

Birkerts, Sven. Rev. of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. The New Republic 189 (5 Sept. 1983): 38.

Bloom, Harold. Rev. of Ancient Evenings, by Norman Mailer. New York Review of Books 28 April 1983: 3.

Blue, Adrianne. Rev. of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. The New Statesman 108 (28 Sept. 1984): 32.

Brown, Rosellen. Rev. of Beloved, by Toni Morrison. The Nation 245: 418-2 1.

Crouch, Stanley. Rev. of Beloved, by Toni Morrison. The New Republic 197 (19 Oct. 1987): 42.

Current, Richard N. “Fiction as History: A Review Essay.” Journal of Southern History 52 (1986); 77-90.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

Edwards, Owen Dudley. Rev. of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. Encounter 64.1 (Jan. 1985): 36-40.

Hartley, Anthony. Rev. of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Encounter 62 (March 1984): 39.

Hewitt, Scott. February, 1902. Unpublished.

Hewitt, Scott. Personal interview. 20 March 1988.

Hoffman, Nicholas Von. Rev. of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. The Nation 238 (1984): 744.

Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. Boston: Little, 1983.

Michaud, Charles. Rev. of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. Library Journal 109 (1984): 1146.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Nachison, Beth. Personal interview. 22 March 1988.

Rubin, Merle. Rev. of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Christian Science Monitor 2 Dec. 1983: B6.

Tebbel, John. Fact and Fiction: Problems of the Historical Novelist. Lansing: Historical Society of Michigan, 1962.

Turner Edith. Rev. of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Commonweal 110 (1983): 667.

Vernon, John. La Salle. New York: Viking, 1986.

Vernon, John. Letter to the author. 18 March 1988.

Veyne, Paul. Writing History. Trans. Mina Moore Rinvolucri. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984.

Vidal, Gore. Lincoln: A Novel. New York: Random House, 1984.

Vidal, Gore. National Press Club Luncheon broadcast on National Public Radio. 16 March 1988.

Vidal, Gore. Response to Richard Current. The New York Review of Books 28 April 1988: 56-58.

Whiteland, Phillip. Rev. of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. Listener 112 (27 Sept. 1984): 31.

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* process … an interview with Elizabeth George … Demystifying the writing process

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

http://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com/interviews_articles.htm

Elizabeth George is fascinated by the dark side of human nature. In her psychological mysteries, she examines the landscape of the human heart and its many motivations for murder. Her lengthy tomes are full of suspense, peopled with fascinating characters, and are all about not only whodunit but, more importantly, why?

All 14 of the Detective Lynley mysteries in George’s bestselling series are set in England, a country she fell in love with when she visited there as a teenager. Indeed, readers are often surprised to learn that George is an American, so richly detailed are her settings in the English countryside, so attuned is her ear to regional accents, and so clear is her understanding of contemporary British society.

George’s longtime fans have come to know and love her recurring cast of crime-solving characters. Handsome and aristocratic Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his rough-around-the-edges working-class assistant Barbara Havers first made their appearance in A Great Deliverance in 1988. The book begins with the discovery of the body of a decapitated farmer and his daughter sitting nearby with an ax at her side, saying, “I did it. And I’m not sorry,” while a horrified clergyman looks on.

It was a far cry from the first mystery George tried to publish. “Too old-fashioned. Detectives no longer take all the suspects into the library and reveal the truth to them,” is what she heard from one editor who rejected her work. She took the advice to heart—and took her writing in a new direction, creating intricate plots, complex characters, a gritty reality and landscapes as visual as a Constable painting.

George killed off a much-loved character in a recent novel, With No One as Witness. The heinous act raised an angry outcry from readers. “I think readers were unprepared for the depth of their emotion,” George said. “People were devastated by the death of that character, just as the characters in the book were devastated.”

In her latest novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, she examines the events leading up to the horrific crime in her previous book, although, as is often the case in an Elizabeth George novel, things in the end are not really what they seem.

The themes vary, but the constant in each book is the enormous amount of meticulous research that goes into it. George travels often to England where, with camera and tape recorder in hand, she searches out settings and landscapes for her novels.

Back home, she goes through an incredibly detailed process of writing, a process that she shares in amazing detail in her nonfiction book Write Away.

I talked with George about mysteries and the writing process when she stopped in Milwaukee on a recent book tour.

You approach writing in a very organized, methodical way. Can you talk a little about the process of writing?

I developed a complicated process to demystify writing. I do think everybody needs to develop a process that works for them that will demystify or “deterrify” the process.

If I were to begin a novel thinking that somehow I was going to have to create on a blank computer screen a 600-page rough draft, it would be very frightening, and I’d probably never be able to do it. So I created a structured, step-by-step approach to writing that appeals to my organizational side, the left side of my brain, and as I apply myself to each step in that structured approach, I do it in such a way that it triggers the right side, the creative side, of my brain.

For example, when I’m creating my characters, I do it in a present tense, right brain, stream-of-consciousness fashion, throwing onto the page everything that pops into my mind until I feel I am heading in the right direction with that character. It’s very much a physical feeling.

When it comes to writing, I never listen to my mind; I always listen to my body. I’ve learned to trust that feeling right in my solar plexus.

You talk a great deal about the craft of writing. What do you mean?

It’s important for beginning writers to learn the craft, the basics, of writing. You can’t teach somebody to be a creative artist, to have talent or passion, but you can teach somebody craft. Whether they can apply it in an artistic fashion, well, that’s in the hands of the gods. But they can certainly learn what the craft of writing is.

How do you begin to write a mystery? How much do you know from the start?

When I begin a mystery, I know the killer, the victim and the motive. From that, I develop what I call an expanded story idea. It answers all the questions of who, what, when, where and why.

Then I develop a generic list of characters of everyone who is in any way involved in the story—for example: the killer; victim; detective; suspect one, the milkman; suspect two, the postman; etc. First, I give them generic titles, then I name the characters, and then I create them.

Only one character is created to do something specific —and that is the killer. I have no idea what the rest of the characters in the book are going to do until I actually start creating them. As I create them, they begin revealing to me who they are, how they fit into the story, and they give me an idea of what the theme is going to be and what the subplots will be, as well.

You are an American writing about England. How can you do it so well and in such detail?

First of all, I never write about a place I haven’t been to. I make sure that if there is any description in my novels, I have actually been there and walked in that place.

Somebody asked me recently how I managed to describe the early morning run that one character, Elena, takes in For the Sake of Elena just before she is murdered.

She said, “I’ve been in Cambridge, and I just could not believe how you managed to capture the nuance of that run.”

And I told her that I got up at that same hour of the morning, and I walked Elena’s run all the way to the point where she is murdered, and I noted all the sensory details along the way. So it’s not like I’m looking at a map at home in the U.S., just trying to imagine what might be on that route. I can’t do it that way. I always go to every single location that’s been described in any of my books.

I’ve never been able to describe things by just cooking them up out of my imagination. I have great respect for people who can do that, but it just does not work for me. I have to see the world and notice the telling details of that world, and then carry on from there.

When did you begin writing?

I have always felt compelled to write. When I began reading the Little Golden Books as a 7-year-old, I knew that I wanted to write one, too. I wrote tiny stories like that in the beginning. Now, writing is a really important part of my mental health regimen. It keeps me centered psychologically, and it’s a good way for me to fight depression.

Is writing a real discipline for you, like a job?

Yes, but it is never a chore for me. Writing is something I do because I really love doing it. When I’m working on a novel, I keep a regular schedule, just as if it were a job. I get up early in the morning and do my writing for the day as soon as I’ve worked out. I write five pages a day, five days a week, when I’m working on the rough draft of a novel, regardless of where I am. If I am skiing with my husband for a week, I take my computer with me. I get up early and do my writing and then do my skiing afterwards.

Where do you write?

I write wherever I happen to be. When I’m on a book tour, I’ve got my computer with me and I write in whatever hotel room I happen to be in … or I write on the airplane … or I write in the lounge as I’m waiting for the airplane. When I am at home, I work in my study.

What advice do you have for beginners?

Sometimes it is all about dismissing the committee in your head that might be telling you that you’re no good, that you don’t have any ideas, that you’re not creative. They might be your parents, your high school teachers, the person who wouldn’t go to the prom with you. You have to remember that they are part of the past, and that they don’t determine your future. And writing has to be important to you. It comes down to what I call “suit up and show up.” … A lot of writing is simply showing up and doing the work day after day.

You’ve said that you don’t suffer from writer’s block. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because I do so much preliminary work. I always have a stack of resource material to look at to get me out of a situation that might be dicey. I have my character analyses to remind myself who these people are, what is going on with them and the things that trigger them. I have my running plot outline that shows me essentially what the next scene is going to be. I have my step outline that shows me the causal relationships between the scenes.

So when I’m actually sitting in front of the computer, doing the rough draft, I know where the scene is going, I know who is in it, I know what point I’m trying to make, I know where I’m heading … and that allows me to experience the beauty of manipulating language in writing, which is what I really love to do.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had difficult days writing, because I have—days where I might spend eight hours and be stumped, but [mystery writer] Sue Grafton once said to me something that was very helpful. I was having trouble doing something, and she said to me, “If you know the question, you know the answer.”

And then I once heard Jeff Parker [crime-fiction writer T. Jefferson Parker] speak at a conference, and he said, “If your story stalls out on you, you’ve played your hand too soon.” And those two things have been very liberating for me. So I haven’t experienced that really scary blocking of creativity.

Why do you keep a journal while you’re writing a book?

It was something that I started doing when I read John Steinbeck’s book Journal of a Novel. He wrote that journal while he was writing East of Eden. … What I discovered is that it is yet another tool to demystify the whole process—because I write what’s going on, not only in my life but also in my writing life—my worries, my fears, my anxieties, my concerns, my triumphs, whatever. I document them on a daily basis.

Then, when I’m doing the next book, I begin by reading a day in the journal of the last book, and then I write in the new journal, and that allows me to see that I’ve been through it all before, I got through it, it was OK … and I’ll get through this as well, so it’s a great tool.

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writing notes … beginnings

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

* “beginning” in Old Man by William Faulkner

  • Faulkner takes 4-5 pages to introduce two convicts who are never named; only then does the story begin …
  • “It was this second convict who, toward the end of April, began to read aloud to the others from the daily newspapers”

* “beginning” in Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Here’s how Flynn did it, scene by scene:
  • SCENE 1. special op craft filled with Navy SEALS approaches an island in the Philippines, heavily armed, mission unstated; foreboding hook at end of scene: the mission has been fatally compromised by someone from their own country.
  • SCENE 2. Mitch Rapp is enjoying the last day of his honeymoon; he is high-up CIA, they were married in the White House; he leads teams of commandos on secret and dangerous missions; he has scars; no hook at end.
  • SCENE 3. back to the SEALS;  mission explained: recue hostage US family; many details as they leave the support boat, rubber launch to the island, deploy; then they are attacked with major force; call in backup and evacuate; lose two men.
  • SCENE 4. another boat in Monte Carlo; the assassin named David gos to meet his Arab sponsor, five hours early; insists that the man be awakened.
  • SCENE 5. CIA HQ; Dr. Irene Kennedy, Director of CIA and Rabb’s direct boss, is furious that leaks have compromised the mission and caused two deaths; she knows who leaked, and is planning to make this information public; hook: Rabb is the only man in DC who can do the job.
  • It works for a thriller; can it work for a historical novel?

* “beginning” in Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

  • the prologue is set in 1832, whereas Chapter One is set in 1752-53.
  • In the prologue an old plantation slave from Carolina (which is where we later learn slaves captured in the settlement were to be taken) talks of a Liverpool ship and his white father (later we know this is Paris) who was a doctor on the ship. I totally forgot about this prologue until I reached the epilogue. So … was it necessary? helpful? distracting?
  • there is, in effect, a second beginning: Book Two on page 397, begins in 1765, a gap of 12 years. This creates a need for extensive flashbacks, which are inserted at different places in the second story. This works very effectively to create suspense and a desire to know what happened in the intervening years.

“beginnings” in Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett starts with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”
  • the first chapter begins with Faber. The first clue to his identity as a spy is … “Faber watched such things – he was considerably more observant than the average railway clerk.”
  • in the first chapter, Faber kills his landlady, packs his transmitter, and moves on. We now know he is a German spy.

“beginnings” in Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • first lines … “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure …”
  • a great opening, characterizing Andre-Louis and raising a question not answered until the very end of the book.

“beginnings” in Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • first line … “Police station, sir!” takes you right into the story.
  • the first hook (p2) is the opening of a 3 year old burglary case. why? why now?
  • the old case involves “the delicate question of a woman’s reputation, a distinguished victim from a powerful family, and treason”
  • this case was first introduced as a burglary; soon we find out (p3) that it’s a murder as well … the reader’s interest is heightened.

“beginnings” in The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Joan Didion … What’s so hard about the first sentence is that you’re stuck with it.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez … One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph. In the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.
  • Philip Roth … I often have to write a hundred pages or so before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. That then becomes the first paragraph of the book. Underline all the sentences, phrases, words that are alive. write them on one piece of paper. There’s your first page. the “aliveness” sets the tone.

“beginnings” in The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

  • opening sentence It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.” the precise time convinces the reader of the reality of what’s taking place. By not naming him, the reader wants to know who is being executed. And, since the reason is not given, why … from Stein on Writing

“beginnings” in The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • first sentence … “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below” … specificity provides verisimilitude.
  • the fact that the “finest bridge” collapsed suggests something out of the ordinary, some unseen hand. (Stein)

“beginnings” in The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • O’Hara’s first two chapters (50 pages) are a nice setup … Interesting characters are introduced, the primary event takes place (the production of Yank Lucas’ play), and a whole range of expectations of interesting story line are established.
  • There has been no mention of what the “instrument” is.
  • first paragraph … “Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. … when the water boiled over … extinguished the flame … the odor of gas … Jiggs knocked on the door.”
  • NOTE: I read The Instrument because Sol Stein quoted this first line in his Stein on Writing. Would that Mr. Stein had commented on the rest of the book.

“beginnings” in The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • opening scene. man hanging … is it suicide or murder?
  • the connection to Dumas Three Musketeers is very well done.
  • opening line. “The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall.” … a powerful visual image

“beginnings” in Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Open up the story by asking dramatic questions (but do not answer)
  • primary event – that which gets the ball roiling in the novel
  • you can begin at the beginning, before the beginning, or after the beginning (permits non-linear narrative … back stories)
  • In A Great Deliverance, the novel starts with a priest on a train, going to London, reacting to some important (but not revealed) event that we will later learn was the primary event of the story
  • Opening scene either possesses or promises excitement, intrigue, conflict, foreshadows problems; establishes atmosphere, place, some characters (not necessarily the main characters)
  • must hook the reader (first task is to keep the reader reading)
  • Follett – Key to Rebecca – opening scene introduces but does not identify character, shows aspects of the character’s behavior that are intriguing, mysterious
  • can use the opening to establish place by specific memorable details – atmosphere, mood, tone
  • the opening can be used to illuminate theme or plot or place
  • or to illustrate the agendas of characters

* “beginnings” in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • opening sentence … “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • From which we know that this is going to be a story about unhappy families (more than one).
  • opening scene … Tolstoy starts (p.1) with the Oblonskys, Prince Stepan (Stiva) and Princess Darya (Dolly), who are not the main characters.
  • Q: Are there successful examples in more modern novels of this use of secondary characters to begin the story?

* “beginnings” in What Makes Sammy Run – Budd Schulberg (1941)

  • first paragraph. “The first time I saw him, he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick.  Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.”
  • Brilliant. Tells a lot about Glick and also about Manheim.
  • first chapter. 28 pages. Sets the stage beautifully. Gets right into the story. Conflicts established. Sets reader’s desire to know more. Great beginning.

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* theme

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 27, 2012

Old Man by William Faulkner

  • “nobody told them for what or for why”
  • this convict does not control his life in any meaningful way; the tragedy is that he clearly could, he has enormous capabilities, but he has no concept that this is possible for him;
  • he is stuck within an almost feudal sense of his place in the world, unchangeable.
  • “things had moved too fast for him”
  • but he will respond to whatever happens (and much does happen), stolidly plowing on, showing great creativity but only to accomplish the task he has been set, not to improve his own lot in life;
  • “he thought quietly, with a sort of bemused amazement, Yes, I reckon I had done forgot how good making money was. Being let to make it” … and later … “Then he would retire himself, he would take a last look at the rolled bundle behind the rafter and blow out the lantern and lie down as he was beside his snoring partner, to lie sweating (on his stomach, he could not bear the touch of anything to his back) in the whining ovenlike darkness filled with the forlorn bellowing of alligators, thinking not, They never gave me time to learn but I had forgot how good it is to work”
  • among the few times in the story where Faulkner leads the reader to think what might have been for this convict, with all his talents and determination, but for one stupid mistake when he was 19 years old.
  • and at the end … “Yonder’s your boat, and here’s the woman. But I never did find that bastard on the cottonhouse.”
  • “All right,” the convict said. “If that’s the rule.” So they gave him ten years more and the Warden gave him the cigar and now he sat, jacknifed backwards into the space between the upper and lower bunks, the unlighted cigar in his hand while the plump convict and the four others listened to him.”

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • Andre-Louis begins as a supporter of Privilege, since this is how he was raised.
  • His initial support for Equality and Freedom is borrowed from his murdered friend, but not believed, and initially, his real-life impassioned political oratory is all an act.
  • Later, as an actor, he surprisingly becomes more real, interjecting purposely provocative lines, which he apparently believes, into the play.
  • As a politician, he comes to believe that a new constitution will indeed save France from the tyranny of Privilege, but then comes to see that the tyranny of the resulting anarchy is even worse.
  • Sabatini, a historian before he became a novelist, has thus woven an evolving historical point of view (his own?) into his adventure story, giving it a higher premise than it would otherwise have.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • in her 9th novel in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, Anne Perry achieved her breakout novel. She did this by raising the stakes, so that the action in the story mattered in a larger sense.
  • From this point on in the series, Inspector Pitt is removed from routine homicide cases and assigned instead to cases of special sensitivity and political import (issues such as Irish independence, anti-Semitism, the Church of England’s crisis over Darwin’s theory of evolution) … taken from Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass 
  • the old case involves “the delicate question of a woman’s reputation, a distinguished victim from a powerful family, and treason” …
    • so we know that this case involves a broader scope than just a detective story
    • although, as the story develops, the aspect of treason is never presented in a way that I could feel the future of the Empire was at stake, and in the end, there was no treason at all. It seems to me if you’re going to use treason as a hook, it should turn out to be as important as first implied.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • Does God have a plan?
  • Brother Juniper’s efforts to prove this were burned (and we later learn, so was he). Perhaps Br. Juniper’s massive effort to “prove” God’s plan was in itself evidence of his own doubt that such a plan really existed. Why else burn the proof?
  • Dona Maria reflects the doubt of the theme in her own fears. “God is indifferent.” Then she expresses the hope and reinforces the tension of the plot. “But soon a belief in the great Perhaps …”
  • Dona Maria … “I can do no more. What will be, will be … She had a strange sense of having antagonized God by too much prayer.”  This sets up the conclusion, where others (Dona Clara and the one “who had formerly been an actress”) fill Pepita’s intended role.
  • Manuel “tore open the flesh on his knee,” leading to an infection from which he soon dies. An event, a twist in the plot, which ultimately leads Esteban to the bridge.
  • the Perichole gets small-pox, her “beauty had passed,” and she had “never realized any love save love as passion.”

******

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* technique

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 27, 2012

* metaphor and simile defined

  • metaphor  1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare). 2.One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol
  • simile … A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Perry has Charlotte, in her persona as Elizabeth Baranaby, sit quietly listening to conversation and asking herself a series of questions. This helps the reader keep straight what is known and yet unknown about a complicated plot.
  • Similar to what I did when Detective Watson complied a list of unanswered questions in A Good Conviction.

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • John Steinbeck … say dialogue aloud as you write it. only then will it have the sound of speech.
  • Tennessee Williams … when I write, everything is visual, as brilliantly as if it were on a lit stage. And I talk out the lines as I write.
  • Samuel Johnson … read over your composition and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
  • D.H. Lawrence … they say DHL used to write second drafts and never look at the first
  • Bernard Malamud … first drafts are for learning what your novel is about. revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.
  • James Baldwin … painters have often taught writers to see
  • Francois Mauriac … some writers are greatly preoccupied with technique … they seem to think that a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside … the great novelist doesn’t depend on anyone but himself … a borrowed style is a bad style
  • Mark Twain … the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug
  • Truman Capote… a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation
  • William Styron … I used to spend a lot of time worrying over word order … then I got more and more interested in people … and story
  • E.M. Forster … very few of us have the power of observing a variety of life and describing it dispassionately. Tolstoy was one who could.

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy

  • Gowdy writes as if she’s on a sinking boat and needs to throw out all the dead weight. The only words that survive are the ones that matter: no extraneous evidence of her research, no long-winded descriptions, no self-indulgent frills of characterization. And the result is a page turner that finds tension … from a review by Chelsea Cain, NYT, 4-29-07

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  •  exaggeration … “tidal waves were continually washing away cities … earthquakes arrived every week … towers fell upon good men and women all the time”
  • irony … “only the widely read could be said to knowthey were unhappy.’
  • irony … “many people would never have fallen in love if they had not heard about it.”
  • irony … Brother Juniper’s book was declared heretical, and “was ordered to be burned in the square, with its author.” So much for proving that God has a plan.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • use of metaphor reveals a writer’s grasp of life
  • novels go happiest when you discover something you didn’t know, perhaps a metaphor that startles you even as you are setting it down, a truth that used to elude you.

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • Yank: “Money and I have been strangers all my life.”
    • effective metaphor, likely to be remembered, and setting the story line of what will happen now that he has money (even though this story line is never effectively developed). 
  • “Somewhat like Byron, he awoke the next morning and found himself famous.”
    • The simile only works if the reader understands the reference, which is not likely.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  •  important characters introduced late in the story … Varo Borja (46); the girl with green eyes (98, 135, 177); man with a scar (173); Victor Fargas (142).
    • This seems to work ok, except for the unresolved plot issues, although when reading, it seemed disconcerting to me.  
  • explaining technical matters … the Ceniza brothers tell Corso how a book can be forged.
    • I like the way this was done. It went on just long enough but not too long.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • Character introduction … After beginning with Stiva and Dolly, many other characters, including the major characters, are introduced later: Levin (p.16), Kitty (p.28), Vronsky (p.39,56), and Anna (p.58).
  • If you don’t know differently, you initially think that Stepan and Dolly are the major characters.
  • When other characters are introduced, it’s still not clear who the major characters will be.
    • I suspect this is not a technique which would work today.
  • Tolstoy ridicules the Russian bureaucracy by simply describing how it works, with no editorial comment. He trusts the reader to get it.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • most readers are quick readers, who will stumble and fall on too-complicated prose
  • the essence of good writing is that it sets an intense mood, then alters that mood, enlarges it, conducts it over to another mood. Every sentence is careful not to poke through the tissue of the mood
  • finding one’s own manner is elusive.
  • manner comes down to a set of decisions on what word is valuable in every sentence you write.
  • another element of manner is consistency. Toni Morrison can write beautifully for pages, then move along in a pedestrian mode
  • find your own distinctive insights
  • Henry James had an extraordinary sense of that unforeseen vibration in the almost wholly unexpected. He created a fictional world out of such insight.
  • You must push your writing to find such insight, by constantly asking questions … what would the character do? … why? … the events must be true to the character 
  • Hemingway could not write a good long complex sentence, so he developed a style of short declarative sentences. which seemed to work out pretty well  
  • some writers always write in their own inimitable style (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway) while others (including Mailer) go along in a variety of modes. Matisse always painted in a recognizable mode, Picasso tried a hundred modes before he was done
  • describe what you see as it impinges on the sum of your passions and intellectual attainments.
  • write as if everything depends on saying what you feel as clearly as you can
  • do not be afraid to go with the insight provided in an unexpected and happy turn of phrase
  • use your own crucial experiences as a source for your writing, not directly perhaps, where they may be too special, too intense or too concentrated, but rather by projecting your imagination through the crystal of your experience
  • if you tell yourself that you are going to write tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You owe it to your unconscious to keep your promise.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Talking Head Avoidance Device (THAD) – those elements of a scene that illustrate character or illuminate state of mind in ways other than he said/she said; present the reader a visual element in what would otherwise be only dialogue. Can be anything. Draw from character analysis.
  • manipulate language to alter the mood
  • every sentence in a paragraph should be an amplification of the sentence preceding it, or should address a prevailing topic in some way
  • paragraphs must be cohesive, and linked together to create a seamless narrative
  • I develop my outline and write my novels in the order they’ll be read
  • Note every opportunity for causal relationships to be developed
  • Write the running plot outline – stream of consciousness
  • By having as much information as possible before writing the scene, can concentrate on the writing

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  •  jargon … “two sticks short” … this jargon is never directly explained, but indirectly we learn that it is four inches or 30 lines.

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

  • In dramatic literature, the tauter the scene, the more emotionally effective
  • if the scene is protracted or repetitive, and the (reader) gets ahead of the (story), there’s a slackening of attention;
  • but if the story is too short and underdeveloped, the dramatic experience will be thin, slight, sketchy, forgettable
  • the goal of the writer is to fully realize his material, to discover the ideal balance between fluidity of narration and background exposition, description, an amplification
  • the story’s theme is the bobbin upon which the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin (the thematic center), the thread would fly loose
  • longer fiction (must) involve the reader emotionally
  • trying always to write beautifully, brilliantly, with originality, can be paralyzing

 ******

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* suspense & tension

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 27, 2012

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • the concluding scenes are full of tension, both political and personal, as Andre-Louis’s life is made clear to him, at age 28, for the very first time. The personal melodrama is fully submerged into the action, and it is the action which reveals it.
  • who shall appear after the duel? is a question Sabatini uses twice.
    • Andre-Louis’s appearance at the Assembly after his first duel is brilliant … “his place was vacant … very few ever expected to see him again … they saw him enter, calm, composed, and bland … M. le President, my excuses for my late arrival … I have been detained by an engagement of a pressing nature. I bring you also the excuses of M. de Chabrillane. He, unfortunately, will be permanently absent from this Assembly in future.”
    • the second instance of who shall appear? transforms a dramatic tension into a comedy of errors. Aline, terrified for Andre-Louis, rushes to the scene of the duel with Mme. de Plougastel, sees the Marquis appear first in his carriage, thinks Andre-Louis is dead, and faints. The Marquis stops to help her. Andre-Louis now drives past, incorrectly interprets Aline’s condition to her concern for the Marquis, and angrily keeps on going.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Pitt’s first meeting with Ballarat ends with a high degree of tension. “He (Pitt) went out with his mind seething.” This tension is immediately relieved. “Then the cold air hit his face …” The next scene introduces Pitt’s children anticipating Christmas eve.
  • Veronica: “We too are taking up our lives again.” Mrs. York: “You are.” Mrs. York’s tone was charged with emotion, but … Charlotte could not define it … a warning of some sort?
    • Something is there. We want to know what it is. We want Charlotte to figure it out so she can help Pitt and he won’t be as furious with her as we expect him to be. The reader wants to know something and will keep hooked until it is revealed.  
  • Mrs. York: “Family responsibilities are something one never grows out of, nor is one able to escape them.” … Charlotte had the sudden, intense feeling that the two women disliked each other, perhaps even more than that … Charlotte believed they were speaking of something quite different, and for all the tension between them and the underlying violence, they understood each other perfectly.”
    • But the reader will not understand until almost the last page in the book.  
  • Pitt and Charlotte are conducting separate investigations of the same crime, but not sharing the information. This creates tension in the reader, who wants them to share.
    • I think Perry relieved this tension too soon, allowing them to share their information when it could have been sustained longer.

 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • in the first paragraph, it was “unthinkable” that the bridge should break.
    • This suggests a hidden reason. I began to think very early on that the bridge did not fall by accident, that perhaps someone cut the ropes. I was looking for a character in the story to commit this act, which didn’t happen, unless God, having a plan for all of us, is ultimately that character. The narrator never openly states his conclusion on this point (which would be ‘preaching’ in the literal sense), but the ending suggests it.
  • Brother Juniper “knew the answer … there was no element of doubt … he merely wanted to prove it” But we’ve already been told that Br. Juniper did not know everything.
  • by revealing 3 of the people who perished in the bridge disaster, but not the other two, Wilder creates a tension (who dies?) that is not resolved until well into the book.
  • the Abbess “had felt not only the breath of old age against her cheek, but also a graver warning” (the lack of a successor) …
    • foreboding establishes tension … will she accomplish her life’s work? This question is never again addressed until the final pages of the story, when it is resolved. 

 The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • Yank describes Jiggs. “To this man Yank Lucas owed his life, and he suspected that the man was not going to let him forget it. He was afraid of the man, his brutishness, his low-grade guile.”
    • This is a potentially useful thread of suspense, which O’Hara does almost nothing with.  ·     potential suspense is relieved too quickly.
  • many suspense threads have been started in the first two chapters.
    • Will Yank fuck Zena, and if he does, will it be for PR purposes or something real? (hackneyed plot line now, but maybe not in 1967)
    • How will Jiggs interfere with Yank’s rising success?
    • Will Walton screw Yank, or vice versa?
    • What conflict will emerge between Walton and Payne? between Yank and Payne?
    • Will Zena dump Payne? Will Peggy (the agent) prove a reliable ally for Yank?
    • And, underlying all else, how will Yank change as he becomes famous and rich? Will he remain the “sweet” person that Peggy says he is?
    • Will Zena turn out to be as described?
  • None of these threads are pursued in any suspenseful way. 
  • Ellis to Yank: “already Barry is kind of afraid of you, and he never was of me.”
    • Good setup, but nothing ever done with it.

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • foreboding … “That was the first time he ever scared me.” The sentence appears before Sammy’s words which provoked it, which follow, in which Sammy tells Manheim he doesn’t want the help which has just been offered, that the route Manheim suggests for him, which is the only way within Manheim’s power to help him, is far from matching Sammy’s ambition. “No thanks.”
  • the hook … “What makes Sammy run?”  bartender: how should I know?  “But I’ve got to know.”
    • Why does Manheim have to know? Is there something in what Sammy does that he wishes he could also do? Is he jealous? Manheim’s statement “I’ve got to know” seems intended to make the reader also want to know, to establish the hook for the rest of the book.
  • “My old lady at a musical show?” This unanswered question suggests a family situation that is going to play a role in the story. The fact that it is unanswered makes the reader want to know something. Keep reading!
  • “The first sure sign of Sammy’s growing up …”   a hint of what’s to come. Keep reading!
  • “but some day …” Sammy has a much more clear idea of his future than does Manheim, who is never revealed to have any driving ambition, at least not to make money, which . Thus ends Chapter 1, with a premonition of what’s to come.
  • “Sammy Glick was teaching me something about the world.” A blatant role reversal, recognized early by Manheim, and suggesting to the reader that Sammy has something to teach all of us about the world. Later Manheim says … “when it came to knowledge of Sammy Glick I was still in the first grade.”

 Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • suspense needs to be created; suspense initiates wants in the reader – the reader wants to know what’s going to happen
  • a writer achieves suspense by making the reader care about something
  • putting a character at risk heightens suspense
  • confrontation creates suspense, either physical, psychological, or emotional
  • suspense is created by a scene in which a momentous discovery (a new piece of information) is made which propels the story forward, perhaps in a new direction
  • characters working against time creates suspense
  • Make partial disclosures creates suspense
  • Suspense is that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them
  • A novel has suspense only when it contains characters the reader cares about
  • Give the character an intention – suspense: will he carry it off?
  • If reader cares about character, will anticipate problems he’s going to face
  • Create suspense by making a promise to the reader at the beginning of a novel
  • Don’t play out your hand too soon!
  • Anticipation in the reader adds to suspense 
  • making long term promises to readers (through foreshadowing, or by placement of dramatic unanswered questions) creates suspense
  • clues are pieces of information which, if correctly interpreted by the reader, lead him to solve the case in advance of or along with the detective
  • red herrings are items planted in the story to deceive the reader
  • readers should have no way of telling whether they are seeing a clue or a red herring
  • the detective cannot ignore what the reader sees as real clues. This puts the reader ahead of the story, knowing more than the detective knows, and destroys the suspense

 ******

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* surprise

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 27, 2012

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Charlotte asks if Pitt has “any interesting cases.” The expectation is that Pitt will discuss his new case, as it is implied he has done in the past. But instead, he says, “No. An old case that will go nowhere.” Charlotte persists, “Nothing?” Pitt responds, “Nothing.”
  • This is surprising. Why does Pitt pass up the opportunity to discuss his case? Perhaps it suggests that this case is different from the others. We sense that his surprising response will have consequences. And it does. Charlotte eventually drags it out of him, and then she sets off, without telling him, to do her own investigation into his case. Would she have kept this from Pitt if he had not been withholding with her? 
  • It is a huge surprise when Pitt is arrested for the murder of the prostitute. It is even more surprising that Ballarat won’t lift a finger to help him. And it is the most surprising that, while Pitt languishes in prison, Charlotte and Emily solve the case without him.

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • Were there any significant surprises? No.
  • It was clear in Chapter 1 that Sammy would steal other people’s work and promote himself. That’s what he did until the end of the book.
  • Did Sammy Glick ever do anything out of character? No.
  • The details of what he did, and who he did it to, were of course unknown at the end of Chapter 1, but the path he was to follow was predictable, and there were no deviations from that path.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • two surprises at the same time … “He’s dead,” and that it is the green-eyed girl who tells Corso.
  • However, why this happens as it does is never made clear.

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* setting

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • many outstanding descriptions of places.
  • One of the best, of the villa M. Kercadious’ brother’s villa on the heights of Meudon, is combined with a political statement regarding the excesses of the nobility
    • “Andre-Louis crossed the threshold of that great room, softly carpeted to the foot, dazzling to the eye … immensely lofty … festooned ceiling … overwhelmingly gilded … what was customary in the dwellings of people of birth and wealth … Never, indeed, was there a time in which so much gold was employed decoratively as in this age when coined gold was almost unprocurable, and paper money had been put into circulation to supply the lack … if these people could only have been induced to put the paper on their walls and the gold into their pockets, the finances of the kingdom might soon have been in better case.”

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • “the curtains seemed to be without the usual faded marks which the sun so quickly made in blues, which meant they were not above a season old.”
  • this tells us about the place, the financial circumstances of the owner, and the perception of the viewer, all in one sentence.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • research and know each of the separate locations
  • use settings to create atmosphere, trigger mood
  • Show a character in his setting; the individual setting for each character
  • Setting can be a contrast to the events that occur within it
  • choose your settings so that each is a place that you want to know about
  • Writing about a place should involve all the sensory impressions
  • Rendering a setting requires details to bring it to life
  • Descriptions of place and character should be part of the narrative, accomplished without interrupting the flow
  • consider the concept of landscape, by which I mean the broad vista; not only the setting but also the emotions evoked by the setting
  • Invite the reader to own the landscape
  • Go to the place: see the land, the sky, climate, weather, sounds, scents, wildlife
  • the objective is to stimulate the reader’s senses and imagination

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* scenes

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • Some of the most interesting scenes in Scaramouche are the ones that aren’t there … Sabatini often skips the scene you expect to see.
    • None of the duels, except that with the Marquis, are portrayed. Thus Sabatini avoids what would be repetition and holds the reader’s anticipation of a dueling scene until the last and most important.
    • Andre-Louis’s entrance into Paris in the midst of chaotic street fighting is also not shown. How did he get past the guards? Did anyone question him?
    • Likewise, the leaving of Paris, first by the Marquis, then by Andre-Louis with Aline and Mme. de Plougastel, become past events, never shown “live.” … Why?
    • One also looks in vain for a real love scene between Andre-Louis and Aline where either’s emotions are shown rather than merely stated or even hinted at.

Les Miserable by Victor Hugo

  • Robertson Davies … there can be a 90 page digression about something which happens to interest Hugo.
  • When is he ever going to get on with the story?
  • But the story is so good, and Hugo writes so fascinatingly about his odds and ends that you can’t stop.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • pages and pages of narrative scenes. Charming in 1924 when written, perhaps not so much now.
  • Very well written but no immediacy.

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • Ch 3 begins with a long transitional narrative (over 2 pages) telling what has happened in the few months since Ch 2 ended.
  • This is lazy. It would have been more effective to work whatever was essential into the ensuing action.
  • O’Hara’s abrupt transitions to new immediate action work much better.
    • “They were in Boston.”
    • “The New York opening was an ordeal and a delight.”
    • “The house was at the edge of the village of East Hammond …”

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • exposition … long, detailed descriptions and lists of old books, which the reader can’t possibly read and absorb. what is the purpose?
  • transitions … the reader is suddenly transported from Fargas’ home in Portugal to Paris, with no transition. The details of this change of scene are presented later (187-88). Does this work?
  • It’s a technique similar to what Tolstoy does repeatedly in Anna Karenina.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Every scene MUST advance the plot, advance a subplot, develop character, or address theme. If not, toss it!
  • Every scene MUST contain some degree of conflict
  • Dramatic narration – omniscient narrator gives us the facts of what occurred. No dialogue.
  • Summary narration – quick, economical, not fully explored
  • Fully rendered scene – allow the reader to be a witness to the activities of the characters or an eavesdropper on their conversations
  • in PD James, A Taste for Death, two characters appear for only one scene, passing on valuable information. This adds verisimilitude, as opposed to simply reporting the information.
  • partial scene interrupting dramatic narration
  • Every scene must have conflict.  Begin at the low point, let thetension rise to a climax, then provide a resolution which propels the entire novel forward.
  • not every scene must be formed identically.
  • Alternative scene formulation: motion picture, sound vs sight, present-past-present, plunging in
  • motion picture: set the scene, move to a narration of action, hit the dialogue
  • sound vs sight: begin with dialogue (not explained first), back off to set the scene, then return to dialogue
  • present-past-present: start the scene in real time, stop the scene and go back to previous action to bring the reader up to date (summarizing that action instead of a fully rendered scene), then return to real time
  • plunging in. start with a character in thought or action and go with it.
******

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* POV and voice

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • omniscient narrator, able to show the inner feelings of all the characters
  • at least once the narrator speaks in his own voice … (beginning of Ch 3) … “Faber … Godliman … two-thirds of a triangle that one day would be crucially completed by … David and Lucy”
  • the narrator thus provides a foreshadowing, setting the stage and piquing the reader’s interest.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • an omniscient narrator, who sometimes interjects into the story … “nor can I discover …”

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Perry gets us into the heads of all three of her major characters – Pitt, Charlotte and Emily – and the omniscient narrator POV allows this easily and smoothly.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • the narrator is omniscient, knowing things that were not known at the time
  • this narrator, who is never introduced to us, gains our trust when he says that what the people of Lima have come to believe about Dona Maria is not true, and “all real knowledge”
  • also when he corrects Dona Maria’s impressions of the Perichole … “It was … untrue …”
  • in the conversation (p 24) between Dona Maria and the Perichole, the narrator reveals the inner thoughts of both.
  • the Abbess has “fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization.” The idea is the modern role of women, and the way it is disclosed reveals the perspective of the narrator, and places him in the 20th century.

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • O’Hara uses an omniscient narrator.
  • Had he used 1st person (Yank) he would have been forced to write a far more interesting story.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • inconsistent narrator.
  • How can Boris Balkan, the knowledgeable narrator of the Dumas part of the story, continue to function as narrator after the April 1 meeting of the Club Dumas, when the story now switches totally to the other narrative, in which he is not involved and knows nothing?
  • the narractor seems to be a minor character who interacts with Corso, so he is really telling the story from what Corso has told him. Why not have Corso narrate in 1st person? I wonder if Perez-Reverte thought of doing it that way.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • must be clear about point of view in each scene
  • Objective viewpoint ·  writing is journalistic, like a reporter; provides facts, but not thoughts and feelings of characters – tough to carry off well
  • objective narrative can create an aura of intrigue about a character or a situation – precisely because the reader does not know inner thoughts or feelings, but it also minimizes the reader’s intimacy
  • Omniscient viewpoint. · Must be adept to remain truly omniscient and not just slip in and out of different characters points of view
  • the omniscient narrator knows, sees, hears all  ·  the narrator enters into the mind of every character
  • the viewpoint of the narrator is not necessarily that of the author
  • the omniscient narrator is a story teller; the reader sinks into the story; the narrator is not confined to the time or place of the individual scene (like a reporter would be) but can provide history about the characters as well as what’s in their hearts and minds
  • Character viewpoints … Reveal only what the chosen character would see, know, think, feel in each scene in which the character is participating
  • First person … Stay with one narrator throughout the novel … be in that character’s head and none other. Terrific intimacy, authenticity. BUT this one character must be in every scene, which is a challenge to plotting
  • Shifting first person. Multiple first character viewpoints. Each section or alternating chapters told by a different first person narrator. Challenge: each “I” must be utterly distinct
  • Shifting third person. NOTE: no viewpoint shift within a scene
  • can combine first person with shifting third person (that’s what I did in A Good Conviction)
  • too many narrators slows down the pace of a novel
  • the narrator can be reliable or a devilishly clever liar, likable or not

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • The entire story is about Sammy Glick, but everything is told through the eyes of Al Manheim. When something occurs that Schulberg wants the reader to know, but Manheim wasn’t there, he has the person who was there (usually Glick) tell Manheim what happened. These sections are in italic.

Write Away by Elizabeth George (voice)

  • voice is the tone that comes through the narrative when the point-of-view character is on stage
  • voice comes from the character analysis you’ve created; if you’ve designed characters who come to life, highlighting the salient aspects of their personalities allows their voices to emerge
  • a character’s voice comes from his background, education, position in society, personal and family history, prejudices and biases, inclinations and desires, belief system, what he wants for his life, his agenda in an individual scene, his arching purpose, his core need
  • voice: use of language, vocabulary, attitude
  • we’re inside his head, living the scene through him
  • attitude reveals character
  • reader can recognize connections to a character or can recognize that the character is very different (curiosity piqued?)

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • in the 1st person, you gain immediacy but lose insight, because you can’t move into other people’s heads.
  • in the 3rd person, you are God, ready to see into everyone’s mind, enter into every character’s consciousness.
  • 1st person cannot be as free as the separation between author and protagonist offered by the 3rd person.

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* plot

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Flynn has a number of plots boiling simultaneously, with uncertain outcomes in each. He switches among these actions, leaving every scene with a hook.
  • This is standard fare for a thriller; how will it work for my Heretic sequel?
  • What makes it a more complicated approach in a historical novel is the number of names and other information (beyond plot), which without great care can confuse and discourage the reader.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett’s purposeful ping-pong structure alternating between the characters forced him to slow down to show (in his words) “how the protagonists were reacting to each other’s moves,” and to include more enriched attention to “character, landscape and emotion.”
  • It surely worked.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Pitt asks one very short question after another, each one 2-5 words. This not only shows his investigative style, it moves the background process swiftly along.
  • Perry frequently alternates family scenes with investigative scenes, breaking the tension, showing more of what Pitt cares about

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Ernest Hemingway … I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader. Anything you know, you can eliminate. But … if you omit something because you don’t know it, there’s a hole in your story.
  • James Baldwin … the goal is to write a sentence as “clean as a bone”
  • Georges Simenon … I cut adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You have a beautiful sentence – cut it.
  • Elie Wiesel … I reduce 900 pages to 160 … writing is more like sculpture where you remove … you eliminate in order to make the work visible … there is a difference between a book which is 200 pages from the beginning and a book of 200 pages which began as 800 pages … the pages you remove are really there – only you don’t see them

Old Man by William Faulkner

  • the central action of the story introduced by an innocuous question … “can you fellows paddle a boat?”

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • Scaramouche is more driven by plot than by character. It is an exciting adventure story, tracing a vow of revenge from one improbable escapade to another.
  • The pace, usually rapid, is slowed from time to time by philosophical and political ruminations on the changes occurring in France at the time of the 1789 Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
  • This transforms the story, raising its level of importance, since what the characters do impacts these epic historical events.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • having both sisters (Charlotte and Emily) take on different hidden personas was not credible for me.
  • In a “Society” where everybody knows everybody, it seems unlikely that either could get away with it, let alone both.
  • But Perry is such a good story-teller that I allowed a “suspension of belief” and did not allow my incredulity to interfere with the tension that these subterfuges produced.
    • Perry has Charlotte, in her persona as Elizabeth Baranaby, sit quietly listening to conversation and asking herself a series of questions.
  • This listing helps the reader keep straight what is known and yet unknown about a complicated plot.
    • Similar to what I did when Detective Watson complied a list of unanswered questions in A Good Conviction.

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • E.L. Doctorow … as the book goes on it becomes inevitable … choices narrow … the thing picks up speed
  • Truman Capote … what I am trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter’s evening
  • Isak Dinesen … I start with a kind of feeling of the story I will write … then come the characters and they take over, they make the story
  • John Irving … how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? how can you introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up?
  • Norman Mailer …generally, I don’t even have a plot … my characters engage in action, and out of that action little bits of plot sometimes adhere to the narrative (I don’t believe him, he’s just shooting off his mouth)
  • John Mortimer … the plot and discipline of the crime novel save it from terrible traps of being sensitive and stream-of-consciousness and all that stuff … life is composed of plots
  • James Thurber … we’ve got all these people (in our story), now what’s going to happen … I don’t know until I start to write and find out … I don’t believe the writer should know too much of where he’s going
  • William Kennedy … if I knew at the beginning how the book was going to end, I would probably never finish … I knew Legs Diamond was going to die at the end of the book, so I killed him on page one

 The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • we never get to know what’s actually in either of Yank’s plays. O’Hara provides scant detail, probably because he never thought it through himself.
  • Yank uses the people in his life to feed the characters in his plays, which could have been very interesting, if we had been allowed to see it happening.
  • BIO NOTE: John O’Hara received high critical acclaim for his short stories, more than 200 of which appeared in The New Yorker. But it was mainly his novels, though mostly of dubious literary merit, that won him the attention of Hollywood. Their focus on ambition, class conflict, money, troubled marriages, and promiscuity was the stuff of film melodrama in mid-20th century America.
  • These plots seem trite and barren today, all surface and no depth.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • plots should not insult reader’s intelligence, no holes, characters who are real
  • create subplots that illustrate the same theme through different situations
  • every scene advances either the plot or one of the subplots (or it doesn’t belong)
  • using a piece of information from the character analysis, twist the story one more time
  • keep aware of what the reader knows or doesn’t know at each point in the story
  • work with your characters to design the plot
  • Plot is what characters do to deal with the situation they are in
  • the primary event – that which gets the ball roiling in the novel
  • Events must be organized with an emphasis on causality
  • The first event (scene) triggers the event that will immediately follow it
  • High drama results from: direct conflict between characters, discovery, revelation, personal epiphany
  • Plot must have climax, and climax itself must have a climax
  • Post climax comes resolution – tie up loose ends, illustrate the nature of the change that has occurred in the characters
  • Open up the story by asking dramatic questions (but do not answer)
  • I always know the end in advance
  • subplots arise out of a novel’s theme, mirror the theme
  • you need to end every story you begin
  • theme – the basic truth about which you are writing. ·   you may not know the theme in advance, but it will emerge (???)
  • the writer’s object is to keep the reader reading
  • if a plot is essentially believable, it can sustain a suspension of belief
  • every story needs plot points, critical moments when events change (the plot and send it in a new direction)

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • a novel is most alive when one can trace the disasters which follow victory or the subtle turns that sometimes come from a defeat.
  • to know what you want to say is not the best condition for writing a novel.
  • novels go happiest when you discover something you didn’t know: an insight into one of your more opaque characters, a metaphor that startles you even as you are setting it down, a truth that used to elude you.
  • our love of plot comes from our need to find the chain of cause and effect that so often is missing in our own existence
  • I look to find my book as I go along. Plot comes last.
  • I no longer make up a master plan before I begin a novel. some of my best ideas come because I haven’t fixed my novel’s future in concrete.
  • I want to keep the feeling that I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
  • I prefer a story that develops out of the writing.
  • Characters (who are alive) need to fulfill their own perverse and surprising capabilities.
  • I don’t do my research too far ahead of where I am in the novel.
  • if you get a good novel going, you have a small universe functioning, living in relation to its own scheme of cause and effect.
  • Planning too carefully makes it almost impossible for one of your characters to go through a dramatic shift of heart.
  • the artist seeks to create a spell … a feeling that he knows something deeper than his normal comprehension … a sense of oneness
  • both artists and scientists are trying to penetrate into the substance of things
  • coincidences occur … exciting us with a livid sense that there’s a superstructure about us, and in this superstructure there are the agents of a presence larger than our imagination.
  • stories bring order to the absurdity of reality.
  • In analyzing novels, consider each major character, and describe where he was at the beginning of the story, where he ended up, and how he got there.
  • Jorge Borges has a magical ability to put plots through metamorphoses, thus posing the difficulty of comprehending reality.
  • writing a novel is creating a world, God-like, presumptuous, intoxicating, never comfortable.
******

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* pace

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • even though it’s a short novel (117 pages), the story seems to drag, as long narrative scenes regarding Esteban and Uncle Pio are added.
  • What does this all have to do with the collapse of the bridge, and with Brother Juniper, who has totally disappeared from the story?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • the way Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina communicates immediately that this is not a novel about pace, but will proceed in a leisurely manner to wend its way through the lives and relationships of the many characters.
  • Anna Karenina is widely regarded as the best novel ever written. So I’ve read over 400 pages, with another 400 to go, and I’ve had enough.
  • The story is slow, boring even, with very little happening, and characters that are not gripping.
  • Actually, it’s one long slow soap opera.
  • Tolstoy’s descriptions of places are remarkable. His interior monologues are often revealing, although too frequent and too long for my taste.
  • Bored, I have put Anna Karenina aside to be picked up later NOTE: it’s been four years and I haven’t

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* historical fiction

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett starts with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”
  • the high stakes of blowing the deception plan are emphasized several times … Godliman: “If one decent Abwehr agent in Britain gets to know about Fortitude … we could lose the fucking war.”
  • But of course we know that D Day was successful and we didn’t lose the war. Follett creates tension about an event where we know the actual outcome, ie that Faber cannot succeed.
  • this is much like Forsythe in Day of the Jackal (published in the early 1970s, before Eye of the Needle), where we know that De Gaulle was not murdered by a sniper but are carried into great tension anyway.
  • Perhaps the tension is maintained because we don’t know if Faber will fail, or if he will succeed but Hitler doesn’t act on his knowledge.
  • However, we are told repeatedly, by Hitler himself, that he will be guided by Faber’s report.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • The occasional insertion of the narrator’s voice into the story, and the reference to supposed actual documents (Andre-Louis’s Confession, playbills, newspaper articles) add historical credibility to the fictional adventure.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Perry provides the timing of the story by giving the date of the burglary to be re-investigated – “about three years ago – October seventeenth, 1884, to be precise.”
  • “star-glazing” is explained … a burglar’s technique … what this does is add verisimilitude, and give the reader confidence that the author knows the period she is describing.
  • this technique can be overdone, if it appears that the author is just showing off her knowledge.   ·
  • Perry has Emily read real novels published in the time frame of the story. A good way to reinforce that time frame.
  • Perry explains terms that a modern reader could not be expected to know.

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • John Irving … I begin by telling the truth, by remembering real people … but the people aren’t quite interesting enough … I exaggerate … soon I’m on my way to a lie
  • Graham Greene … one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels … one must imagine what one does not know, but what is imagined should be consistent enough with what is known so that it is believable to a knowledgeable reader

The Scarlet City & In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse

  • This frustrating historical novel, first published in Holland in 1952, opaquely treats the early 16th century: the machinations of papal and imperial forces have divided all of Italy into scheming factions, and mercenary soldiers gather to sack Rome.
  • Haasse ( In a Dark Wood Wandering ) chooses a nonlinear approach: various historical figures alternately narrate a series of complicated events. This structure bleeds the narrative of its intrinsic drama.
  • critical episodes invariably take place offstage, characters enter and exit abruptly, and the single-minded concerns of the individual protagonists overshadow the central action.
  • Those who don’t know much about this thorny patch of history will be thoroughly adrift; on the other hand, anyone familiar with even a snippet of the works of the figures incarnated here will chafe at Haasse’s shallow and simplistic interpretations.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • the specific date (Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714) and number of people who die (5) in the first sentence adds versimmilitude. (Stein)
  • Wilder chooses to have a 20th century narrator for a story set in 1714. Why? What does this accomplish? Does it makes the story seem true?

comments on “historical fiction” by author David Liss, who writes historical fiction

  • Like pretty much everything else in the universe, historical fiction can be divided into two categories.
    • On the one hand are books that use real historical events and people as a springboard for the author’s imagined events and people.
    • On the other hand are novels that limit their scope to characters and events from the archives.
  • I strongly favor books of the first kind and shy away from the second.
  • History — fortunately — tends to make for great history. Reality, however, does not necessarily make for great fiction.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • Ancient Evenings, a book about ancient Egypt, took 11years to write
  • if a novelist can take actual people who are legendary figures and invent episodes for them that are believable, he has done something fine.
  • the trick in doing a historical novel is to digest your research (before writing your fiction based on it)
  • in researching ancient Egypt, I felt I knew things that the average (historian) didn’t – not more about the details, but more about the underlying reasons for what was done
  • both the historian and the novelist are engaged in writing fiction, making an attack on the possible nature of reality
  • there is an inevitable slipperiness to most available facts … when we think we are approaching reality, we are only writing a scenario to comprehend it, a hypothesis that seems correct until new evidence subverts it.
  • Trust the evidence of your senses until they are revealed as inadequate, tricked or betrayed – then refine them
  • history in Mailer’s view seems quite like the process of scientific discovery; I think he’s right.

******

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* endings

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • the ending, which I will not reveal, is, in my view, too quickly rendered, not quite believeable, and has nothing to do with the main theme of the book
  • However … it was also a total surprise which tied together all of the unexplained threads that have puzzled the reader, and in Perry’s sure hand it actually worked quite well.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • the Abbess “had felt not only the breath of old age against her cheek, but also a graver warning” (the lack of a successor) … foreboding establishes tension … will she accomplish her life’s work?
  • This question was never again addressed until the final pages of the story, when it is beautifully resolved.
  • Soon we shall all die, we are told, and memory of us “will have left the earth.”
  • But the “love will have been enough,” and all “impulses of love return to the love that made them,” ie to God.
  • beautiful last sentence … “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • Yank has not grown at all, remaining the same totally self-absorbed (but honest) person he was when the story started. There was never any reason to feel any emotion towards him.
  • Yank has used other people and when he had gotten what he could from them, he moved on.
  • So we are left with Yank Lucas, writer of plays, incapable of feeling emotion except in the characters his talent (his “instrument” ?) creates for the stage. Hollow.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • at the end of the book, there are major unresolved issues, which are not even acknowledged by Perez-Reverte.
    • Who is the green-eyed girl?
    • Why does she follow Corso and help him?
    • What happens to Varo Borja, who has committed murders but is not (yet) sought by the police?
  • Is this effective? I find it frustrating. Did I miss something?
  • what seems like two unrelated stories are intertwined and become a single story, then end up to be two separate stories. Perez-Reverte is playing with the reader, which angers me.
  • I came to the end of the book with great anticipation that the threads would be tied up and then felt great disappointment when they were not.
  • At the end of the book, there is an implication that the Ceniza brothers did in fact forge a page, at Corso’s request, thus preventing Varo Borja from achieving his contact with the devil. This page was never shown or mentioned before, or if it was, I missed it. There must have been a better (more clear) way to present this, so perhaps the author wanted it to be unclear, maybe to be thought of long after finishing the book.
  • But he leaves unexplained why Corso would have thought to have the page forged, and for what purpose, at the point in the story when this would have been done?  Another frustrating aspect of the ending to this book.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • I look to find my book as I go along.  Plot comes last.
  • I want my conception of my characters to be deep enough that they will get me to places (which I did not plan) and where I have to live by my wits.
  • If the characters stay alive, and keep developing, the plot will take care of itself.
  • Is there a problem if the reader senses that the author doesn’t know how the plot turns out?

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • I always know the end in advance
  • after the climax comes resolution – tie up loose ends, illustrate the nature of the change that has occurred in the characters
  • you need to end every story (ie, every sub-plot as well) you begin

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • I expected more. I’m not sure what, but more.
  • It’s hard to imagine Sammy upset with his runaround wife for very long.
  • Upset at younger men nipping at his heels, for sure, but for poking his wife, I don’t think so.
  • He didn’t love her, and he would get over the embarrassment, probably find a way to turn it to advantage.
  • He’s not happy. He’s never going to be happy. But ‘happy’ wasn’t ever his goal. Money and power were his goals.
  • Sammy was never portrayed as introspective enough to understand and be upset at what his life had become, and since he did not ‘grow’ over the course of the book, we never got a sense that his original goals might have changed or even be questioned.
  • We sense the incompleteness of his life, but does he?
  • Perhaps Schulberg was too close to the film industry and some of its major players to go any further than he did in dramatizing the essential emptiness of the success driven life.
  • I never cried for Sammy Glick.
******


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* writing notes … don’t do …

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

  • the “dream” the writer creates for the reader must be continuous; avoid interruptions and distractions which force the reader to stop thinking about the story and start thinking about something else

Les Miserable by Victor Hugo

  • Hugo gives in to the temptation, common in writers of historical fiction (including myself), of “showing off” his research. I studied it, I think it’s interesting, so I’m going to tell you everything I know.
  • This is a serious mistake, certainly for me, but even for Victor Hugo. (see ‘The Year 1817’ p. 119)

Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • the reader is suddenly transported from Fargas’ home in Portugal to Paris, with no transition.
  • The details of this change of scene are presented later (187-88).
  • Does this work?  I don’t think so.
  • It’s a technique similar to what Tolstoy does repeatedly in Anna Karenina.
  • Ah, crticizing Tolstoy – heresy!
    • NOTE: since making these comments four years ago, I have become less critical of suddent transitions, perhaps because I think I have learned to use them
  • long, detailed descriptions and lists of old books, which the reader can’t possibly absorb and likely will not read. What is the purpose?

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

  • avoid anything that distracts from the reader’s experience even momentarily
  • don’t over-characterize a minor character, making the reader think he is more important than he is; select one memorable characteristic that distinguishes this character from the rest of humanity and let it go at that
  • don’t present characters who are either all good or all bad. It’s not believable.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • avoid preaching
  • avoid dealing with too many ideas at once

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • The moment you moralize in your novel, your book is no longer moral.  It has become pious, and piety corrodes morality.
  • Don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions

******

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* dialogue

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Constable Lowther speaks in a heavy dialect, which is difficult to understand. The only reason this works is that he is a minor character, so you can struggle through.
  • If Pitt spoke that way, it would be a good reason to put the novel down.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • A character’s dialogue illustrates opinions, personality, education, economic background, attitudes, beliefs, superstitions, pathology
  • Wield dialogue as a way of banishing doubt from the reader’s mind
  • Dialogue can foreshadow events that will not take place until well into the story
  • relationships take on life through dialogue
  • natural speech isn’t fluid. Writing like that would be virtually unreadable
  • Dialogue needs to seem natural even when it can’t be
  • syntax reveals character: pedantic speech, casual speech, uneducated speech
  • a character may have a signature word (or expression)
  • each character has a distinctive way of using language
  • dialogue needs to be concise
  • dialogue should never be obviously expository
  • dialogue is not supposed to be the way people talk all the time
  • dialogue can reveal subtext – what the characters are really talking about beneath what they appear to be talking about
  • to offset the direct nature of dialogue with minimal (or no) subtext (St. James and Deborah often speak directly, trusting each other), which would become repetitive and tedious, you need to have other scenes in which the dialogue is rich with subtext (Lynley and Helen rarely speak directly and often speak at cross purposes)
  • a lot is going on, and much of it is not expressed
  • subtext colors the scene. People don’t always say what they really mean. They don’t always state their thoughts and feelings directly. Sometimes they talk around a topic
  • fancy tag lines such as snarl, moan, whine, growl (instead of said, asked, answered, replied) call attention to themselves. EG discourages using them at all. The reader will know if someone is snarling without obvious words to say so
  • Adverbs can add a degree of precision, but draw reader’s attention to how the line is said rather than what is said
  • Junk words. Use them only if they illustrate character. Otherwise delete.
  • Suggest dialect rather than using full dialect. The reader will get it.
  • In a long speech, maintain attention by showing other characters’ reactions, gestures.
  • Interrupt the speech with a moment of thematically related action – sound of voices, wind against the windowpane, song on the radio in car which passes by.
  • Intersperse some physical thing into the stream of dialogue (may reveal character, contain important information, be a metaphor)
  • Indirect dialogue is a summarized form of dialogue, told in narrative style, which alters the pacing of the scene, compresses the dialogue while still allowing the reader to know that it was lengthy.
  • after writing dialogue, evaluate it. Does it add tension? Demonstrate conflict between characters? Reveal some aspect of the character speaking or listening?
  • Would some of the dialogue be more effective as indirect rather than direct?
  • If the dialogue isn’t essential, get rid of it!

******

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* conflict

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • The entire story is a series of obstacles for Andre-Louis to overcome.
  • Every other character exists mainly to create such obstacles.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • “Ballarat disliked Pitt and resented his manner, which he considered insolent.”
  • we know early on (p3) that Pitt’s boss doesn’t like him, and we sense why. This enmity between the two turns out to be of real significance as the story unfolds.
  • Charlotte explains to Radley how she will investigate Pitt’s case. “But will Pitt approve?” … “Thomas won’t have to know.” This is conflict coming big time.
  • However, when Pitt finds out what Charlotte has been doing, he is so appreciative of what she has learned  that he expresses no anger. I found this to be unrealistic.

 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • between Dona Maria and her daughter Dona Clara, who “barely glanced at the letters.”
  • between the twin brothers Manuel and Esteban over Manuel’s love for the Perichole.
  • between the Perichole and Uncle Pio, as she grows too much a lady to be seen with the man who had everything to do with her success.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • plots must have conflict
  • Events occur as the conflict unfolds
  • Conflict is a form of collision
  • Conflict can be created by resistance against a character’s desires. Resistance can come from within the character himself, from nature
  • Conflict adds tension to the novel
  • The story’s conflicts are reflections of the theme
  • Put your characters into conflict
  • Look for subplots (which provide opportunities for conflict) based on character’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Characters are interesting in their conflict, misery, unhappiness, confusion; not their joy and security
  • what does the character do when under stress?
  • conflict is what brings characters to life and makes them real for the reader
  • Put the character to the test by putting him into conflict; he then springs to life, forced to make a decision, to act on that decision
  • create a situation where the characters are bonded together and are unable to escape being in conflict with each other; then “heat” the situation
  • conflict is a character’s will in collision with something else
  • a character’s inner conflict will show that he is real
  • conflict works best when it is rising conflict, builds over time, reveals more facets of character as incidents occur
  • Every scene must have conflict.  Begin at the low point, let the tension rise to a climax, then provide a resolution which propels the entire novel forward.
  • foreshadow future conflict with the present dialogue
  • after writing dialogue, evaluate it. does it add tension? does it demonstrate conflict between characters?

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* character development

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Characters must be given the opportunity to become the object of our emotions.
  • In Executive Power, Vince Flynn gives Mitch Rabb a terrific triumphal scene (p. 319) to match his outsized, outrageous character.
    • Rabb barges into  a meeting of the National Security Council and first berates, then arrests the Assistant Secty of State whose email had caused the failure of an attempted hostage rescue and the deaths of two commandos.
    • Realistic? Probably not, but who cares.
  • The hero has been heroic, and his triumph in Washington is more important, for this reader, than his previous triumph on the battlefield.

Old Man by William Faulkner

  •  “nobody told them for what or for why”
  • this convict does not control his life in any meaningful way; the tragedy is that he clearly could, he has enormous capabilities, but he has no concept that this is possible for him; he is stuck withn an almost feudal sense of his place in the world, unchangeable.
  • “things had moved too fast for him”
  • but he will respond to whatever happens (and much does happen), stolidly plowing on, showing great creativity but only to accomplish the task he has been set, not to improve his own lot in life;
  • “he thought quietly, with a sort of bemused amazement, Yes, I reckon I had done forgot how good making money was. Being let to make it” … and later … “Then he would retire himself, he would take a last look at the rolled bundle behind the rafter and blow out the lantern and lie down as he was beside his snoring partner, to lie sweating (on his stomach, he could not bear the touch of anything to his back) in the whining ovenlike darkness filled with the forlorn bellowing of alligators, thinking not, They never gave me time to learn but I had forgot how good it is to work”
  • among the few times in the story where Faulkner leads the reader to think what might have been for this convict, with all his talents and determination, but for one stupid mistake when he was 19 years old.
  • and at the end …
  • “Yonder’s your boat, and here’s the woman. But I never did find that bastard on the cottonhouse.”
  • “All right,” the convict said. “If that’s the rule.” So they gave him ten years more and the Warden gave him the cigar and now he sat, jacknifed backwards into the space between the upper and lower bunks, the unlighted cigar in his hand while the plump convict and the four others listened to him.”

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Faber is of course the villain. But he is also patriotic, enormously competent, and capable of feelings, which he must repress in order to carry out his mission. He is an wonderful lover, which he could not be if he were truly without feeling, no matter how much he will not allow himself to express it.
  • This complex character must be admired even as we hate and fear him. A remarkable achievement.
  • Lucy starts out as a dominated young woman, who chooses to escape to her father-in-law’s island rather than live among people. But in her relative solitude, she develops an unexpected resolve, and when facing the ultimate challenge, she rises to it.
  • Is what she does believable? Maybe not, although in wartime people do extraordinary things.
  • In any case, Follett portrays this larger-than-life character in a way that arouses the reader’s emotions as we root for her to succeed against overwhelming odds.
  • The final scenes and epilogue drew tears from this romantic reader, always a sucker for melodrama.
  • Godliman (what a name! I’d like to know where Follett found it) is the enabler of the story, providing the narrative links that eventually lead Faber to Lucy.
  • But how much better to provide these through an interesting character than through narrative prose. Godliman’s growth from nebbish professor to razor-sharp spycatcher is done a little quickly. We can believe it, but we would like to know more about him. Perhaps as #3 character, he doesn’t warrant more attention.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • Andre-Louis is clearly a larger-than-life character. We meet him as an obscure attorney representing Privilege, but, enraged by the murder of his friend, he embarks on a succession of spectacular careers.
    • He becomes a political orator, with a message he does not believe.
    • Forced to go underground, he hides in plain sight as the actor Scaramouche in a traveling cast of players.
    • When his own actions destroy that career, he becomes a fencing master, inventing new techniques that later become the standard.
    • Later, he is a member of the National Assembly drafting the constitution for the new republic of France.
  • Through all of his many incarnations, Andre-Louis controls his feelings with an iron determination, and we never really learn what he’s all about. Whatever he is feeling for Aline is never revealed. He is not given to introspection.
  • M. de Kercadiou, Andre-Louis’s godfather to Andre-Louis: “Why can’t you express yourself in a sensible manner that a plain man can understand without having to think about it?”
  • But Andre-Louis always hides his feelings behind a veil of sarcastic humor and his self-imposed rigid Stoicism, of which he is so proud. he says many times that he is not a man of action, but this is not true. He exists almost solely through his actions, not his thoughts, and surely not his feelings.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • the characterization of Inspector Pitt begins on the first page, through the eyes of the sergeant … “He did not meet the sergeant’s conception of a senior officer … downright scruffy … the man let the force down. Still, the sergeant had heard Pitt’s name and spoke with some respect.”
  • Is Perry writing for readers who have read the previous books, or for the reader who has not read any of the Pitt series? She must accommodate both.
  • Pitt feels guilty at taking the case from another man, and uncomfortable with his evasive poking around … we have an immediate (p2) sense that we are dealing with a man of exceptional integrity
  • “Mobray took a deep breath and sighed slowly. “The elder Mrs. York was a remarkable woman …” This begins the characterization of Mrs. York, who turns out to be a lot more sinister than Mobray’s infatuation would suggest.
  • Pitt’s interrogation technique changes from simple questions to complex, and he immediately trips up the Foreign Service officer he is questioning. We are impressed that he is a skillful detective.
  • “Ballarat … was the antithesis of the disheveled Pitt, whose every garment was at odds with another …”
  • Charlotte is first mentioned on p17. Her first words are “Any interesting cases?” If the reader is familiar with the series, this would be in character with earlier stories. If not, it serves to set her character and an important aspect of their relationship in just 3 words.
  • Emily, who will be such a major player in this story, is briefly mentioned, but not truly introduced until p29. The initial characterization of her starts out as a description, from Emily’s perspective, of her recently murdered husband George, but evolves in a few sentences into a self-characterization of her feelings for George, her wisdom, her intolerance for injustice, and her evolution into someone more like Charlotte – opinionated, quick to anger, and a fighter against “all she perceived to be wrong” even if “sometimes hasty.” A perfect setup, in one paragraph, for the role Emily will play.
  • “Jack Radley entered … casually dressed … his tailor was clearly his chief creditor … his smile … those remarkable eyes.” All this from Emily’s POV tells us about Radley and Emily’s feelings for him. Next page: “his eyelashes still shadowed his cheek.” Another reference to his eyes, his individualizing feature.
  • Mrs. York. They are discussing the winter art exhibit at the Royal Academy, and Charlotte says she does not paint very well. “I had not supposed you to enter a work, Miss Barnaby, merely to observe.” Nasty! We don’t like Mrs. York.
  • Pitt’s persistence is shown in his relentless pursuit of leads, even after so many of them turn prove unproductive (at least for now).

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Eudora Welty … You can’t start with how people look and speak and behave and come to know how they feel. You must know exactly what’s in their hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on the stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much all at once; simply the right thing at the right moment.
  • Samuel Butler … the Ancient Mariner would not have taken so well if it had been called The Old Sailor.  ·     Kurt Vonnegut … make your characters want something – right away
  • E.M. Forster … human beings have their great chance in the novel
  • John Gardner … the first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters
  • Lillian Hellman … I don’t think characters turn out the way you think they are going to turn out
  • Aldous Huxley … fictional characters are much less complex than the people one knows
  • William Kennedy … what moves you forward to the next page is wondering why he or she acted in this particular way … what’s most interesting is not the plot … the character does something new, and then the story begins to percolate
  • Norman Mailer … what’s exciting is the creative act of allowing your characters to grow … to become more complex … then a character becomes a being, and a being is someone whose nature keeps shifting
  • Francois Mauriac … you may start with a real person, but he changes … only the secondary characters (undeveloped, the ones who don’t grow) are taken directly from life
  • William Styron … I try to make all of my characters “round” … it takes a Dickens to make “flat” characters come alive
  • William Trevor … fiction writers remember tiny little details, some of them quite malicious
  • Norman Mailer … one’s ignorance is part of one’s creation. If you’re creating a character whose knowledge of a subject is spotty, then perhaps your own spotty knowledge is a plus (I don’t think so).

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • Dona Maria – characterized both by the derision of Perichole and the theater audience, and her own unawareness of what is happening, and then immediately after by her sad (pathetic) letter to her daughter
  • Pepita – first characterized by her kindness to Dona Maria in the theater
  • Pepita’s letter, read by Dona Maria, is her first attempt to express herself to the Abbess, “her first stumbling misspelled letter in courage.” Pepita tears up the letter, and soon sets out with Dona Maria for the bridge. The Abbess will never know Pepita’s first steps of growth toward the mature personality the Abbess has worked so hard to create.

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • in the dialogue … Jiggs to Yank … “I never saw such a miserable, ungrateful bastard in my whole life.”
  • O’Hara has characters ask each other questions.
    • Jiggs to Yank: “are you a writer?”
    • Ellis Walton (the producer) to Yank … “Where is your home town?” (Ellis asks this out of nowhere) … “What do your people do?” … “Have you ever been married?” … “What was your wife like?” … “Why did you happen to marry her, if you don’t mind my asking?” (finally, Ellis realizes that his questions are intrusive … but he keeps on asking) … “And what finally broke it up?”
  • This is a lazy dubious approach to characterization
  • New characters are often introduced first in the conversation of other characters. Yank and Ellis Walton discuss (and begin to characterize) Zena Gollum, David Salmon, and Barry Payne before we meet them.  c
  • haracterization is provided through the eyes of a minor character (only possible with an omniscient narrator) … “The porter sized him up …”
  • Yank’s self awareness: “I’m a genius now, but ten plays from now I may not even be good.”

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perer-Reverte

  • characterization of Lucas Corso … brilliantly presented over a long period of time …  a mercenary of the book world … talking fast … getting his hands dirty … a prodigious memory … canvas bag on shoulder (a recurring image) … steel rimmed glasses … untidy fringe of slightly graying hair … facial expressions of a rabbit (never got this … who knows what a rabbit’s facial expressions are like?)
  • THINGS NOT TOLD IN INITIAL DESCRIPTION: tall or short, lean or heavy, handsome or not.
  • bottomless pockets of his coat … appears fragile yet solid as a concrete block … features are sharp and precise, full of angles … alert eyes … ready to express an innocence – dangerous for anyone who was taken in by it … seemed slower and clumsier than he really was … looked vulnerable and defenseless … later, when you realized what had happened, it was too late to catch him … an oblique, distant laugh, with a hint of insolence … a laugh that lingers in the air after it stops …  attractive to women. … (Corso would) say something casually, as if he had no opinion on the matter, slyly goading you to react … (getting you) to give out more information (than you had intended).
  • NOTE: the adverbs are the key words. Who says don’t use adverbs?
  • thin and hard like an emaciated wolf (ie, he is a hungry hunter)… a well-trained, patient wolf.
  • but then, Corso’s actions are not consistent with character. Corso has been beautifully presented as dangerous both mentally and physically, someone who is not what others see him to be.
  • This is excellent, but I’m not sure the author has then had Corso act in a way consistent with these characteristics. He acts weak and unsure, he is as often manipulated as he is the manipulator.
  • glasses and canvass bag as props. Corso often takes his glasses off. his vision is then limited to vague outlines. He is inseparable from his canvas bag. I found myself wondering what he would do if he were ever disconnected from either, and this does happen, on the bridge in Paris. However, the green-eyed girl retrieves both objects for him before too much damage is done.
  • I think more could have been done with that, given all the build up.
  • As with the resolution of major plot details, Perez-Reverte does not finish what he has started in the way of characterization. Why?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • Karenin … a pathetic character, unable to act in furtherance of his own wishes, but motivated only to avoid being embarrassed by his professional and social associates.
  • Stiva has no money. Tolstoy shows this, when Dolly asks him for money for clothes for the children … “Tell them I’ll pay.” The reader knows he won’t. He is spending his money to buy a necklace for his actress girlfriend.
  • “I haven’t stopped thinking about death,” said Levin. “It’s true that it’s time to die. And that everything is nonsense. … Once you understand that you’ll die today or tomorrow and they’ll be nothing left, everything becomes so insignificant … So you spend your life diverted by hunting or work in order not to think about death.”
  • Q: How does Tolstoy have Levin adjust these depressing thoughts to marry Kitty and have a life? A: he sees Kitty and instantly reverses everything.
  • Characters do this often in this on-going soap opera.
  • from Mailer – The Spooky Art  … Tolstoy is a great writer – maybe he is our greatest novelist – because no other can match his sense of human proportion. Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our lives only when it is severe – when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum is probably a little more good than awful.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Analysis of character is the highest human entertainment
  • Human character is the greatest of puzzles
  • what we take away from a good novel is the memory of character
  • Characters effect events and events effect characters
  • Real people have flaws; no one wants to read about perfect characters
  • Characters who make mistakes, have lapses of judgment, experience weakness, are interesting
  • We want to cheer when the character (finally) comes into her own
  • Characters learn from unfolding events
  • A character is (best) revealed slowly by the writer
  • characters are interesting in their conflict, misery, unhappiness, confusion; not their joy and security
  • begin with a name; names can suggest anything to the reader (personality traits, social and ethnic background, geography, attitude)
  • Names influence how a reader will feel about a character
  • Create an analysis of each character, facts, a full psychological profile
  • Do not bring a character to a book unless he or she is alive before the book begins
  • Create your characters in advance; use personality quirks and telling details; know your characters, who they are, how they’ll react
  • constantly ask yourself questions about what each character would do in the situation in which he finds himself
  • become the character’s analyst
    • understand your character’s core need
    • What does the character do when under stress? (generally the flip of the core need)
    • delusions, compulsions, addictions, denial, illnesses, self-harming behavior, manias, phobias
    • what is the character’s attitude toward sex, what is his/her sexual history
    • What does the character want in the novel?
  • As you write, frequently refresh your memory about your characters
  • the behavior of a character is rooted in who that characters is and what has happened in the scene (and before)
  • we all suffer from guilt, fear, worry, doubt
  • a character’s inner conflict will show that he is real
  • rising conflict, built over time, reveals more facets of character as incidents occur
  • at the climax, the character stands before the reader fully revealed
  • a reader can bond with a character if there is something in common
  • Every character has two landscapes: (1) external, (2) internal
    • External landscape: select details which will resonate with the reader
    • Internal landscape: emotions, wants, needs, reflections, speculations, obsessions
  • Allow characters to reflect – reveal what’s in their heads
  • characters in a novel are more interesting if they have lives outside the (action of) the novel, before the novel was written, and after.
  • We admire characters who face and prevail over situations we ourselves have experienced, who unflinchingly examine themselves, learn from their mistakes, meet challenges with courage

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • Glick is characterized mainly through Manheim’s observations, and only rarely by his own words or actions. ·   simile … “he would come back to me panting, like a frantic puppy retrieving a ball.”  ·   “one stupendous talent, his ability to blow his own horn.” So the die is cast for the rise of Sammy Glick.
  • “You know what, Mr. Manheim, these are the first brand-new shoes I ever had.” Whenever Sammy calls him Mr. Manheim, that is a signal that he is making an important statement.
  • Sammy’s obsession with shoes is a continuing motif, which is not explained until Manheim learns about Sammy’s family, and the too big, hand-me-down shoes (from his older brother) he had to wear as a young boy, and which were often a source of humiliation to him.
  • Sammy grew in superficial ways, ie, he became more successful, but his character never changed significantly. Nor did Manheim’s.
  • At the end of the book, both were essentially the same as at the beginning … which is perhaps less interesting than if they had changed
  • Miss Rosalie Goldbaum. A character introduced so Sammy can throw her aside, which the reader knows instantly will happen.
  • Julian Blumberg. Another schlub for Sammy to throw aside? Not quite, because Julian has something Sammy will continue to need, the ability to write.
  • Julian is from a background similar to Sammy’s, and offers a contrasting development, taking a moral position to his own detriment in a way that surely Sammy could never do. Who is happier in the end?
  • Julian Blumberg and Kit Sargent each play their roles in the plot, but neither was allowed to realize the emotional pull that might have been possible. We were never inside their heads so we didn’t have the opportunity to really care about them, although the things that happened to them would have permitted such caring if Schulberg had wanted to go in that direction.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our lives only when it is severe – when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum is probably a little more good than awful.
  • an author needs to ask himself constantly if he is being fair to his characters.
  • we are relatively unfamiliar with the cunning of the strong and the stupid. We tend to know too little of how the world works. those who do real work tend not to write, and writers who explore the minds of such men approach from an intellectual stance that distorts their vision.
  • I should  seek to apply what I know about political power, finance, and management to my portrayal of Lorenzo de Medici. Imagine how he feels about what he does, or does not do.NOTE: I was in the middle of writing The Pope’s Conspiracy.
  • never be satisfied with (the way you are presenting) any of your characters, even when they have come alive for you. unless your characters keep growing through (their response to) the events of the book, your novel can go nowhere that can surprise you.
  • if the character does not grow, there is no place to go but into the plot
  • the creative act of allowing (demanding?) your characters to grow is the real excitement of writing. Your characters become as complex as real people. But what if they don’t grow, and you don’t bring out the beauty you initially perceived.
  • if you get a good novel going, you have a small universe functioning, living in relation to its own scheme of cause and effect. Planning too carefully makes it almost impossible for one of your characters to go through a dramatic shift of heart.
  • don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions.  
  • protagonists are always moving between choices, while the author monitors those decisions.
  • there are points in the course of fashioning a character where you recognize that you don’t know enough about the person you are trying to create. At such times, I take it for granted that my unconscious knows more than I do.
  • any person studied in depth will prove fascinating.  
  • In analyzing novels, consider a major character, and describe where he was at the beginning of the story, where he ended up, and how he got there.

******

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* beginnings

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Old Man by William Faulkner

  • Faulkner takes 4-5 pages to introduce two convicts who are never named; only then does the story begin …
  • “It was this second convict who, toward the end of April, began to read aloud to the others from the daily newspapers”

Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Here’s how Flynn did it, scene by scene:
  • SCENE 1. special op craft filled with Navy SEALS approaches an island in the Philippines, heavily armed, mission unstated; foreboding hook at end of scene: the mission has been fatally compromised by someone from their own country.
  • SCENE 2. Mitch Rapp is enjoying the last day of his honeymoon; he is high-up CIA, they were married in the White House; he leads teams of commandos on secret and dangerous missions; he has scars; no hook at end.
  • SCENE 3. back to the SEALS;  mission explained: recue hostage US family; many details as they leave the support boat, rubber launch to the island, deploy; then they are attacked with major force; call in backup and evacuate; lose two men.
  • SCENE 4. another boat in Monte Carlo; the assassin named David gos to meet his Arab sponsor, five hours early; insists that the man be awakened.
  • SCENE 5. CIA HQ; Dr. Irene Kennedy, Director of CIA and Rabb’s direct boss, is furious that leaks have compromised the mission and caused two deaths; she knows who leaked, and is planning to make this information public; hook: Rabb is the only man in DC who can do the job.
  • It works for a thriller; can it work for a historical novel?

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

  • the prologue is set in 1832, whereas Chapter One is set in 1752-53.
  • In the prologue an old plantation slave from Carolina (which is where we later learn slaves captured in the settlement were to be taken) talks of a Liverpool ship and his white father (later we know this is Paris) who was a doctor on the ship. I totally forgot about this prologue until I reached the epilogue. So … was it necessary? helpful? distracting?
  • there is, in effect, a second beginning: Book Two on page 397, begins in 1765, a gap of 12 years. This creates a need for extensive flashbacks, which are inserted at different places in the second story. This works very effectively to create suspense and a desire to know what happened in the intervening years.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett starts with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”
  • the first chapter begins with Faber. The first clue to his identity as a spy is … “Faber watched such things – he was considerably more observant than the average railway clerk.”
  • in the first chapter, Faber kills his landlady, packs his transmitter, and moves on. We now know he is a German spy.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • first lines … “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure …”
  • a great opening, characterizing Andre-Louis and raising a question not answered until the very end of the book.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • first line … “Police station, sir!” takes you right into the story.
  • the first hook (p2) is the opening of a 3 year old burglary case. why? why now?
  • the old case involves “the delicate question of a woman’s reputation, a distinguished victim from a powerful family, and treason”
  • this case was first introduced as a burglary; soon we find out (p3) that it’s a murder as well … the reader’s interest is heightened.

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Joan Didion … What’s so hard about the first sentence is that you’re stuck with it.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez … One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph. In the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.
  • Philip Roth … I often have to write a hundred pages or so before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. That then becomes the first paragraph of the book. Underline all the sentences, phrases, words that are alive. write them on one piece of paper. There’s your first page. the “aliveness” sets the tone.

The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

  • opening sentence … It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”
  • the precise time convinces the reader of the reality of what’s taking place.
  • By not naming him, the reader wants to know who is being executed. And, since the reason is not given, why
  • … from Stein on Writing

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • first sentence … “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below” … specificity provides verisimilitude.
  • the fact that the “finest bridge” collapsed suggests something out of the ordinary, some unseen hand. (Stein)

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • O’Hara’s first two chapters (50 pages) are a nice setup … Interesting characters are introduced, the primary event takes place (the production of Yank Lucas’ play), and a whole range of expectations of interesting story line are established.
  • There has been no mention of what the “instrument” is.
  • first paragraph … “Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. … when the water boiled over … extinguished the flame … the odor of gas … Jiggs knocked on the door.”

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • opening scene. man hanging … is it suicide or murder?
  • the connection to Dumas Three Musketeers is very well done.
  • opening line. “The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall.” … a powerful visual image

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Open up the story by asking dramatic questions (but do not answer)
  • primary event – that which gets the ball roiling in the novel
  • you can begin at the beginning, before the beginning, or after the beginning (permits non-linear narrative … back stories)
  • In A Great Deliverance, the novel starts with a priest on a train, going to London, reacting to some important (but not revealed) event that we will later learn was the primary event of the story
  • Opening scene either possesses or promises excitement, intrigue, conflict, foreshadows problems; establishes atmosphere, place, some characters (not necessarily the main characters)
  • must hook the reader (first task is to keep the reader reading)
  • Follett – Key to Rebecca – opening scene introduces but does not identify character, shows aspects of the character’s behavior that are intriguing, mysterious
  • can use the opening to establish place by specific memorable details – atmosphere, mood, tone
  • the opening can be used to illuminate theme or plot or place
  • or to illustrate the agendas of characters

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • opening sentence … “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • From which we know that this is going to be a story about unhappy families (more than one).
  • opening scene … Tolstoy starts (p.1) with the Oblonskys, Prince Stepan (Stiva) and Princess Darya (Dolly), who are not the main characters.
  • Q: Are there successful examples in more modern novels of this use of secondary characters to begin the story?

What Makes Sammy Run – Budd Schulberg

  • first paragraph. “The first time I saw him, he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick.  Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.”
  • Brilliant. Tells a lot about Glick and also about Manheim.
  • first chapter. 28 pages. Sets the stage beautifully. Gets right into the story. Conflicts established. Sets reader’s desire to know more. Great beginning.

******

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* It’s an uncertain time for books and authors … in a confusing battle of corporate giants, “books are in danger of becoming road kill in a larger war”

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 13, 2012

******

extracted and paraphrased from … Paper Trail, an article by Ken Auletta in New Yorker 6/25/12 …

A huge fight has been going on between Amazon and the book publishers for years …

  • Amazon was selling books at a loss: while publishers typically sold e-books to Amazon for about fifteen dollars apiece, Amazon was selling many of them for $9.99.
  • Steve Jobs, of Apple, was pressing publishers to agree to a new way of selling books: an arrangement called the agency model. The publishers would set prices, and Apple, acting as their “agent,” would take a thirty-per-cent commission and give them the rest.
  • On January 27, 2010, Jobs announced that five of the six publishing giants—Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin—would sell their books through Apple’s iBookstore.
  • By 2012, Amazon’s share of the e-book market had dropped from about ninety per cent to sixty. Apple had about ten per cent of the market, and Barnes & Noble, which had introduced an e-reader called the Nook, had about twenty-five.
  • Under the agency model, however, many consumers paid higher prices, and Amazon made more money, while the publishers made less.
  • Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an antitrust suit had been filed against Apple and the five big publishers for “a conspiracy to raise, fix and stabilize retail prices.”
  • If Barnes & Noble closes, Amazon will have an effective monopoly on all books, electronic and otherwise.

The fight between Amazon and the book publishers could have profound repercussions for publishers, bookstores and authors. Yet to Amazon, this fight is the “undercard.”

The “main event” is a free for all among the 5 U.S. digital giants: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In this fight, books are not the major battleground.

Devices (KindleFire, iPad, Nook, Microsoft ???), one-day shopping, collecting credit card information … those are the focus of the fierce competition among the giants, fighting a very large game, for enormous stakes.

John Sargent of Macmillan says, “Books are in danger of being the road kill in that larger war.”

******

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* “character” in Executive Power by Vince Flynn

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 4, 2009

Characters must be given the opportunity to become the object of our emotions. In Executive Power, Vince Flynn gives Mitch Rabb a terrific triumphal scene (p. 319) to match his outsized, outrageous character. Rabb barges into  a meeting of the National Security Council and first berates, then arrests the Assistant Secty of State whose email had caused the failure of an attempted hostage rescue and the deaths of two commandos. Realistic? Probably not, but who cares. The hero has been heroic, and his triumph in Washington is more important, for this reader, than his previous triumph on the battlefield.

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“plot” in Old Man by William Faulkner

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 1, 2009

the central action of the story introduced by an innocuous question …

“can you fellows paddle a boat?”

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* “beginning” in Old Man by William Faulkner

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 1, 2009

Faulkner takes 4-5 pages to introduce two convicts who are never named; only then does the story begin …

“It was this second convict who, toward the end of April, began to read aloud to the others from the daily newspapers”

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* “beginning” in Executive Power by Vince Flynn

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 1, 2009

I’ve read 32 pages and I’m hooked. Here’s how Flynn did it, scene by scene:

  • SCENE 1. special op craft filled with Navy SEALS approaches an island in the Philippines, heavily armed, mission unstated; foreboding hook at end of scene: the mission has been fatally compromised by someone from their own country.
  • SCENE 2. Mitch Rapp is enjoying the last day of his honeymoon; he is high-up CIA, they were married in the White House; he leads teams of commandos on secret and dangerous missions; he has scars; no hook at end.
  • SCENE 3. back to the SEALS;  mission explained: recue hostage US family; many details as they leave the support boat, rubber launch to the island, deploy; then they are attacked with major force; call in backup and evacuate; lose two men.
  • SCENE 4. another boat in Monte Carlo; the assassin named David gos to meet his Arab sponsor, five hours early; insists that the man be awakened.
  • SCENE 5. CIA HQ; Dr. Irene Kennedy, Director of CIA and Rabb’s direct boss, is furious that leaks have compromised the mission and caused two deaths; she knows who leaked, and is planning to make this information public; hook: Rabb is the only man in DC who can do the job.

It works for a thriller; can it work for a historical novel?

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