Yesterday I trammed up to the Wheeler Centre, for another Writers Victoria workshop. During the round-the-table intros, I described myself as a workshop junkie. It is true. But I find that it’s interesting to meet other writers, to meet facilitators/teachers, to hear what people are working on (I made a note while listening to people’s projects: ‘I want to write a story about a really functional family’ Disclosure: I have already written a dysfunctional family saga) and I always glean at least one piece of useful info, whether it’s something from inside the publishing world, a recommended book to read to study one aspect of creative writing, an almost-throwaway comment on structure. You get the gist. Over the years I’ve compiled a whole patchwork of ‘stuff’ that is useful in some way or another, even with sessions which might cover a lot of ground already covered in the past or through my own reading, as in this particular session.
And I like to share, but before my notes, a bit about Robert Gott.
Robert is a crime writer and this is the text from his author page at Scribe:
Robert Gott was born in the small Queensland town of Maryborough in 1957, and lives in Melbourne. He has published many books for children, and is also the creator of the newspaper cartoon The Adventures of Naked Man. He is also the author of the William Power trilogy of crime-caper novels set in 1940s Australia: Good Murder, A Thing of Blood, and Amongst the Dead.
Robert was a delightful teacher, smart and into grammar, the best type of combination. He was funny too, generous and helpful. While I don’t read detective fiction any more (although I worked my way through pretty much every Agatha Christie as a young person, and Dick Francis, Robert Ludlam). We were there to talk about points of view, and voice. Here are my notes:
– on second person novels, there are some but ‘they’re horrible’ (one was mentioned later, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. I read that in the early ’90s. I liked it but I was in Japan and hungry for fiction. I don’t remember it being in the second-person voice. I didn’t think Robert was including it in his ‘horrible’ category but I’m not sure. I should re-read it.)
– there’s also the ‘they’ voice which is ‘frankly weird’
First person, the strength of the ‘I’ is in the intimacy and immediacy of the voice. With the ‘I’ the author is trying to create a fully-formed character that the reader can connect with
– the unreliable narrator in the 1st person (‘I’) voice is a ‘bit tricky’. One limitation is that everything has to be seen through that character’s eyes, and it can mean that when it comes to getting information through to the reader, the filter of that first person voice can be a little blocking. There are ways around. The clumsy old mirror trick, or another character commenting aloud (has to be aloud, can’t be inner voice if the first-person POV resides with another character). The man stands in front of the mirror and laments his ageing face. That sort of thing, which to me is maybe ok in genre, the paunchy detective, but I tend to not pay a lot of word-attention to the appearance of my characters. I want the reader to imagine themselves, as much as possible, so I just sketch very lightly.
The first-person voice can paint the writer into a corner if the character is not sufficiently interesting to carry the words/story, but again there are ways around it.
Some writers don’t bother about that (yes, I thought). Robert mentioned Shane Moloney, he just doesn’t bother, leaves it to the reader to do it (yes, I thought again). You (the author) don’t have to necessarily spend a lot of time on character appearance (some writers have huge dossiers of all the backstory and everything of each character. For what it’s worth, I don’t do that.)
Robert gave an eg from one of his books, Good Murder which is based on the true-life death of a young woman Molly Thompson in 1942 in Maryborough, Queensland. His protagonist is an actor kept from being drafted by some physical problem, who believes he looks like Tyrone Powers. So that was Gott’s way around conveying how the main character looked.
We read an excerpt, the opening page of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. An opening that I loved so much I’ve just ordered the novel:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
‘Very good, Ali,’ I quavered in Spanish through the closed door of the master bedroom. ‘Take him into the bar. Give him a drink.’
‘Hay dos. Su cappellan tambien.’
‘Very good, Ali. Give his chaplain a drink also.’
I retired twelve years ago from the profession of novelist. Nevertheless you will be constrained to consider, if you know my work at all and take the trouble now to reread that first sentence, that I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening. But there is really nothing of contrivance about it. Actuality sometimes plays into the hands of art. That I was eighty-one I could hardly doubt: congratulatory cables had been rubbing it in all through the forenoon. Geoffrey, who was already pulling on his overtight summer slacks, was, I supposed, my Ganymede or male lover as well as my secretary. The Spanish word arzobispo certainly means archbishop. The time was something after four o’clock on a Maltese June day – the twenty-third, to be exact and to spare the truly interested the trouble of consulting Who’s Who.
I lay a little while, naked, mottled, sallow, emaciated, smoking a cigarette that should have been postcoital but was not. Geoffrey put on his sandals puffing, creasing his stomach into three bunches of fat, and then his flowery coatshirt. Finally he hid himself behind his sunglasses, which were of the insolent kind whose convexities flash metallic mirrors at the world. I observed my eighty-one-year-old face and neck quite clearly in them: the famous ancient grimness of one who had experienced life very keenly, the unfleshed tendons like cables, the anatomy of the jaws, the Freibourg and Treyer cigarette in its Dunhill holder relating me to an era when smoking had been an act to be performed with elegance. I looked without rancour on the double image while Geoffrey said:
‘I wonder what his archbishship is after. Perhaps he’s delivering a bull of excommunication. In a gaudy gift wrapper, of course.
Probably not to everyone’s taste but to me, it is such a masterful piece of prose, it gives you so much and sets up questions, and immediately I am somehow rooting for the old man, even though he might be revealed to be despicable. It’s something about his humour and the way he lays out his vulnerabilities, or what most people would consider a man’s vulnerabilities.
We looked at the opening of The Great Gatsby, a ‘great example of an unreliable narrator’ and when we listened to Robert read the first page, Carraway’s pomposity was clear to me in a way it hadn’t been before. I really think reading aloud is a missing element of reading novels/fiction. Was it something that was done in the ‘old days’? Yes, people would sit around and listen to someone reading at night. Even in Wuthering Heights didn’t they sit in front of the first listening to Mr Earnshaw read or am I mistaken. Did Cathy just sit at his feet and stare at the fire while her father read to himself?
Robert said if we are writing in the 1st person and don’t want to go the Anthony Burgess road and show what the character looks like, then look at the examples such as Gatsby where Fitzgerald shows how the character (Nick) sounds.
We discussed memorable openings. Rebecca was one ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Mandalay, again.’ We struggled to remember the Pride and Prejudice one, but here it is: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
We can choose to change our characters through suffering, and make them better or just different. If you write in the 1st person, you don’t have to stick to it, eg Dickens’s Bleak House (we read the opening, sweeping, omniscient narrative which continues for a couple of chapters and then a character voice takes over.)
Robert mentioned two detective books (many of his examples were detective/crime/mystery) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins an early example of detective fiction (even though Dickens created a detective CH in Bleak House); The Moonstone also by Collins).
We did a writing exercise which was interesting and which I won’t be sharing here. It was practise writing in the first person, ten minutes and we were invited to read aloud. Out of approx 15 people only two did. And yes, I was one of them.
Robert mentioned The Writer’s Room available on iView. I have heard about these interviews but haven’t caught up with any of them yet.
Then we looked at 3rd person and how it works. It can be an omniscient voice, either neutral (except for Dickens) and can go everywhere, be in a dozen places, heads at once. It can roam freely but requires discipline to avoid chaos and confusion.
A ‘pared-down’ version of that is the limited 3rd person narrator.
All the techniques require discipline. Robert mentioned Alexander McCall-Smith’s novel (I think Love Over Scotland) where there can be four POVs on the one page, and it’s not a mish-mash, ‘it works’ and one is a dog’s POV.
Dickens was a rule breaker and very modern when it came to writing. He wrote so-called sentence fragments (Cormac McCarthy also, we looked at his opening page of The Road, another one I have to re-read because people in the group had different takes on the ending, some saying McCarthy copped out, others saying he didn’t, that it was ambiguous.) Robert said such fragmented sentences can be annoying. Here’s the opening of The Road (I think it’s the opening, I can’t find my copy):
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.
In contrast to Dickens’s Bleak House opening, which shows us a world, a wide landscape, McCarthy takes us into the landscape of someone’s mind. Here’s a bit of the Dickens opening, to compare:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.
Dickens relies on gerunds rather than verbs, and a dislocated prose that suggests a broken world.
We went round the table and said a bit about our projects, and whether there was a POV/voice problem we needed an answer to. I asked about two narrative lines (one historical, one contemporary), each in the third person and whether it might be worthwhile considering putting the contemporary voice into the first person, because all the debut fiction seems to be written in the first person, it’s a very contemporary ‘thing.’ Robert agreed with that, said it wouldn’t take as much work as I might think, and to play around with the idea. He’d said earlier too that readers need a break from a particular voice sometimes.
Talking about In Cold Blood Robert said Capote had a ‘sexual liaison with one of the guys.’ Interesting.
Robert suggested to another person, who has a wide, sprawling novel with about 6 – 8 characters, that they might consider 8 sections where each character has a discrete story that sits within the whole as a collection. Rather than having a ‘common narrative spine’ through all of them, as a novel, the novel could consist of a collection. I wanted to ask him whether he was advising this because it’s a contemporary way to structure a large-cast of characters into a novel form, but I didn’t get the chance.
Finally, Robert mentioned William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom as an example of a novel opening with a chaotic voice, no punctuation.
And that was it. Came home tired and watched a million episodes of Community, Season 2. It’s kind of losing it’s appeal for me I have to say now.