writing technique

What would you recommend?

I’m sorry to say I haven’t read Steven King’s On Writing. It seems that I should, because by most accounts it’s excellent, even for those who don’t care much for his fiction. I don’t think it matters that it doesn’t feature in this list of the top 10 books about creative writing – interesting as I’m sure they are, I’m afraid not a single one tempts me.

This isn’t to say I’ve never tried. Sorting through my bookshelves the other day, I came across The Way To Write by John Fairfax and John Moat, with a foreword by the poet Ted Hughes. Fairfax and Moat, poets also, established the Arvon Foundation in 1968, becoming the first in Britain to offer a creative writing course. Today the Foundation offers a multitude of courses, events, conferences and workshops covering every aspect of creative writing.

I skimmed through the book. It came back to me, but the fact that I recalled so little meant I must have skimmed through it the first time, and hadn’t picked it up since. In the year it was published (1999), I was already too far on the quest to find my own ‘voice’ for the (rather underwhelming) tips to have much effect. And I’m of a generation that never knew creative writing courses. They were an American thing.

My opinion now? They help to avoid a lot of trial and error, but at what cost? For the voice to be truly your own, doesn’t it have to involve trial and error? Maybe I’m just used to stumbling along my own path, trying to learn as best I can, reading, analysing, trying things out, deciding for myself.

Later, I bought Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, moved to do so by the insistence of Jay Greenstein that no decent novel could be written without applying Swain’s advice to the letter. The book goes into very precise detail of plot, character, pace – you certainly get your money’s worth. But although I read it more attentively than the Fairfax and Moat, my Kindle tells me I stopped at 63%, and I haven’t been back to it since. Just too stubborn, I guess. I’ll do it my way.

All the same, to prove I didn’t come way entirely empty-handed, here’s the central take home message of Swain’s book:

A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes. A scene must (a) provide interest by pitting your focal character against opposition and (b) move the story forward by changing your character’s situation. A scene is composed of a goal (possession of something, relief from something, revenge for something), a conflict (something that opposes the goal), and a disaster (real or potential, so the reader then wants to turn the pages to see how it gets resolved).

All good, sensible suggestions which (for the genre I’ve chosen) I should probably follow more closely than I do. It’s just that I find it hard to apply them consciously as I write. Of course there’s conflict, and goals and opposition, and every so often disaster, but I never set out thinking, ‘Right, this is the goal, and that’s the conflict – now, what’s going to be the disaster?’ Do I do it unconsciously? Perhaps. So much the better if I do. I certainly know when there’s not enough tension in a chapter, and a principle I have is to decide how the chapter will end before I begin it. But the rest is dictated by the overall arc of the story, in which there may be multiple conflicts and strands, and several balls to be kept in the air at once. The end result is never as neat as Swain’s technique would have it.

More inspiring than either of those books was Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1986). Less technical, more philosophical, it weaves Kundera’s account of his own writing with his views on what a novel should do: “A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.” In those days I was still pretentious enough to think I could do that. I didn’t know how, but I liked Kundera’s assertion that the modern writer’s greatest asset is the ‘wisdom of uncertainty.’

I also loved the Paris Review’s interviews of writers, in paperback in those days, so I couldn’t afford to buy many myself. Now they’re online, though still for a steep enough price to discourage me ($125 for 8 issues, or $85 if you live in the US). To lure you in you get a full interview free – here’s the one of Kundera – and then a glimpse of the others.

Those sort of texts, by the writers whose level of skill I set as my aim, are still the ones I prefer when it comes to gaining an insight into the art of writing. Less about technique than the deeply personal way each one of them works. Perhaps this means I’m not the best placed to reply to a young writer who asked me recently what books I’d recommend to help her improve. Any suggestions?

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