Douglas continues his writing and reading for pleasure posts by comparing writing with the financial analogy of pennies and pounds.
REF – 1750, Chesterfield, letter 5 Feb. (1932) IV. 1500:
Old Mr. Lowndes, the famous Secretary of the Treasury, used to say –
Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.
Thanks to this proverb I am coming around to believe the same logic can be applied to writing as well by substituting scenes for pennies and books for pounds. In this post I will describe how I have gone back to my starting idea about the scene and short story being the building blocks of my books, and to see where Stephen King’s advice about reading widely has been of practical value in what I have found.
Pence and pounds and writing scenes may also be like jigsaw puzzles. My brother sent me this one (below pic) relevant to writing and reading. My book cases may be in better order than those shown in the jigsaw. However, my writing may be closer!
In writing this post I am going back to the writing part of my Writing and Reading for Pleasure spectrum prompted by a sorting out of all my books into those to be kept, those to be read, and the books for recycling I will never read or have read and do not want to keep. Since 1st January, 2015 I have purchased over 40 books and borrowed another 10 from the public library. So between 80 and 200 of my existing books will need to go for recycling depending on how I feel about my aim of buy one — recycle two, three, four or five current books.
In June 2010, when I started writing, I recall I made a start and thought my ideas and writing would be unique. Within a few days or weeks I had considered the matter further and reversed my view to one of; so many writers and books out there, someone will have had the same thought and idea before me and no doubt written up a better scene(s). I did wonder how I might find out. Perhaps there is a giant search engine out there somewhere which will check whether an idea for a scene or book has been used before. Does anyone know of one? Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots, but that is a simplification despite the thickness of his book.
I have used Amazon and Waterstones book searches and the Internet in general to check my proposed book titles and surprisingly I have found for some titles several books maybe exactly the same or with a small variation in spelling or linking words. I am undecided whether an unusual title used by other authors is going to make any difference to the sales of any books I may publish sometime in the future.
When I started writing — for the first month — I wrote various scenes and only in the following months started to link these scenes together into the beginnings and ends of several books. I always had in mind my starting assumption because my writing would be a series of short stories resorted and linked together in a longer book. The glue would be a technical background, a few plot lines, and the characters.
Over the years, before I started writing, I had drifted away from fiction thrillers in my teens and twenties to biographies and nonfiction. Since 2010 I have read much more fiction than nonfiction following Stephen King’s advice to read widely. However, old habits and preferences die hard because I find my liking is for non-dialogue fiction over fiction where the showing is done through dialogue. I usually find the latter hard going. I also find it easier to be told rather than shown because my brain wiring for nonfiction is this way.
As I am coming up to the five year anniversary when I started to write, I am reflecting more on my journey so far. I laugh at my initial optimism that I would run off a million words in three years and convert them to books soon after. The writer’s journey is a much longer one because of the stops along the way and the constant raising of one’s own bars on quality of content and expression. Many obvious pennies about writing have also taken this length of time to drop. Unfortunately in all this, there is also some procrastination and lack of completion and finishing drive.
What I have been able to do over this five year period is firm up some of my initial thoughts about what (in my own opinion) makes a good book. I believe this is a two-edged weapon because the entire time one is trying to formalise the process with rules and structures, and one is also losing the spontaneity of free spirit writing. I am pleased I have unloaded my brain onto paper in my million words and ideas because I think if I were starting out again, I would not have the unusual writing I now have in draft.
Looking at the websites of some creative writing teachers and advice-givers, I often look at what they have published on the grounds this should be proof of the pudding. Often I am surprised to see their books are not popular and have poor reviews. The quote about “if you cannot do then teach” comes to my mind. Looking back at my peers who became teachers during my lifetime, I think there is some truth in this rather cruel quote. Although some of my peers are brilliant teachers, many cannot do.
The only fiction book I read for six months after I started writing in June 2010 was Jeffrey Archer’s 1976 novel Not a penny more, not a penny less. I had a thought in my mind that he had sold quite a few books. On checking, he has… 120 to 270 million and he can tell stories.
Taking Stephen King’s advice, the things I learnt from this book were its pace, the hooking in of the reader in the prologue, and how dated it seems now. When it was published it must have introduced people to high living and eating and drinking in a world of trading, art, horse racing and revenge. Making and losing money is a good technical background.
Over the last five years, I have drifted away a little from my scene/short story approach, but over the last month I have decided to return to the approach for my efforts to finish a 64,000 word book. So I am going to look after the pennies – scenes, sentences and paragraphs in four novellas of 16,000 words and let the total book look after itself apart from the word count of 64,000 words or about 200 pages.
My writing ledger tells me I have already written 68,000 words, but somewhere 5,000 words are missing or I have double-counted. This is perhaps a good thing because I know I need to hack out several sections or 10 to 15% of the original draft words and add some more new words into the book to satisfy my current thinking on structure. There will be about 100 scenes, each having a beginning, middle and ending and each can be read on their own. Each will form a vital part of the whole story and the linkages will be provided by Henry (my main character) in most of my books, his cousin Henrietta who is the person putting the book together, and Kathrynne who is the unusual woman in Henry’s life from a six year old in 1953 to a seventy seven year old in 2024.
I took another decision way back in 2010 after reading and deciding to take Stephen King’s advice to read widely. I would not make copious notes about the books I read, but rather let the other writer’s style — where memorable or special — let their plots and ideas seep into my subconscious. I felt quite strongly then (and still do) that I do not want my books to be collections of other people’s writing ideas. This is why I have also decided to make my books unusual fiction. Again, I am not alone in this because already my professional editors have compared my writing to some bestselling authors, albeit not so good! My wife says, like Frank Sinatra, I would always do things my own way.
In my last post I mentioned using the 365 Short Stories by James Robertson and That Glimpse of Truth, the 100 finest short stories selected by David Miller to help me in my writing. James Robertson’s stories are an amazingly varied selection and I have had many chuckles. The best so far is about Death going to see his doctor because it has been a long hard winter. The doctor says he should go on holiday and this is described with Death sitting on a bench looking out to sea. He is joined by an anxious lady on a phone talking about her father clinging onto life and wanting death…I will leave you to work out the punch line. James Robertson has written several other unusual books, so a few may well be added to my large reading pile.
That Glimpse of Truth (the 100 finest stories) are published in date order, oldest first, so I struggled with some of the historic writing style too much. I could appreciate the quality of writing but it is different… I recall Gary Smailes from BubbleCow saying many old bestselling classic authors may not sell today because readers’ tastes and expectations on the way books are written have changed. My view is good stories never age. To get over this problem I fed all the starting page numbers into an Excel random number generator and now have the 100 stores bookmarked in random order. I am sure reading these 465 stories will help me in my short story based restructuring. Much of the writing technique used for a short story can be expanded for use in longer works.
While I have been reading these short stories, I have become exasperated with the other stories which came after the Shawshank Redemption and discarded the rest of the book. Sorry Stephen, but the Shawshank Redemption was such a good story and so tightly written.
Four other books have crept in under my new book radar while browsing since my last post.
From the library; Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room picked up as an afterthought along with her The Eye in the Door, then later Life Class involving the same characters.
I read her Regeneration Trilogy and liked the way she took factual information and real people from WW1 and clothed this skeleton with some serious story. What makes her reading almost irresistible is I feel very close to her male and female characters sharing their lives and their ups and downs almost as if I were reading their biographies. In the historical background, she has made her fiction writing read like nonfiction. I feel her books are semi-fictional given this context based on my own lifetime reading in biography and nonfiction. The fascinating technical background is about life drawing with the background of the Slade School of Art and a school of anatomy. The structure is pre WW1 home, education, work and love life, followed by life from 1914 and the horrors of WW1 expressed as experiences of the soldiers being bought home and their carers [similar structure as Regeneration]. The main character is Elinor and the hook for me reading on is what has happened to her brother Toby in France. If I could put together my pennies/scenes to write a book as good as this, I would be happy. Strong sex scenes are embroidered into all her books.
The second book is a small book in short story structure about the experiences of Frank Huyler, a senior hospital doctor, which I found by chance in a local charity shop.
The basic structure is simple. Person or persons come into hospital; the person is described, their medical state, and then recovers or they die and there is a twist in the tail. The stories are only two or three pages each. Compared to Toby’s Room, which is a five course banquet, these stories are but snacks. “True stories are better than fiction” — someone said, and in this case they are right. Health and medical conditions do have an attraction to many readers and viewers. I suppose this is why medical dramas are so popular on TV and so much of the tabloid press contain numerous pages on health issues.
The third book is Journey Round my I [Eye] by Albert Vajda. I was speaking to a friend I had not seen for some time and he told me about recent operations he had for a detached retina. While he was explaining the detail my mind went back to over 50 years ago when I heard this book being read by the author after Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4 programme). I must have been off school that day. The opening scene came back immediately. I went on to the Internet, found a copy and have now read the book. I do not recall the ending so I could not have been that sick or was unable to persuade my mum I should stay off all week to hear the end of the story. There was no playback then. This chain of events proves my strong view on marketing that being on the BBC sells books (even after 50 years!). I am also reading his follow up book Lend me an Eye.
The gift of sight is so precious and one sense I would not want to lose. My blind writing buddy Calvin wrote his first long book Turning Point and is now writing another book. He has asked my help in giving him the content of pictures of people. Calvin has not the luxury I described in my January post; of a picture being worth a 1000 words. He wants to know the personal looks of Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr (the German Secret Service) for Hitler. Calvin is aware there are pictures on the Internet, but having found them, even I am having a problem finding out the colour of his eyes because most of the pictures are monochrome. I am still looking despite Richard Bassett’s biography Hitler’s Spy Chief proving a good read.
The fourth book is another one from the library; The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. I picked it up as relevant to my unusual fiction and was attracted by cover comments from David Mitchell and Philip Pullman.
The first 30 pages of God, sex and travel earn a five star rating reduced to three over the following 554 pages. Why oh why does a book which promised so much have to be so long? My books will be short and if I can do so, tightly written.
What other practical matters have I found and put to use from Stephen King’s advice?
- MEMORABLE SCENES
Several books I recall from long ago have single scene memories which informed my decision to write hard for a memorable moment in all my books. E.g. Events at the Albert Hall when Professor Challenger presents his finds from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s the Lost World.
- HAVE A REALISTIC, AMBIGUOUS OR UNCERTAIN ENDING AND / OR STING IN THE TAIL
My late sister in-law gave me Hill of the Red Fox with its sad ending. I have only just been reunited with this book in 2013 after browsing a 100 best children’s book list. What I learned from this book was the importance of a realistic ending.
Twist in the tail ending trade marks of Roahd Dahl, Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth; especially the latter in the first story of short stories in No Comebacks.
Julian Barnes in his rather short book Sense of an Ending made the reader work hard to check the far from certain end to his book.
Personally, I cannot stand the lived happily ever after endings and those books when all the ends are tied up. Life is not like this. Some mystery is necessary to keep one’s readers thinking on after finishing the book.
- HAVE A GOOD TECHNICAL BACKGROUND TO CREATE INTEREST AND TENSION
I saw the film version of the English Patient, then read the book, and I also have a transcript of the film narrative. As well as having the awful memorable moment after the overtaking jeep, the bomb disposal background added interest and tremendous tension.
- SEARCHING TO TAKE REVENGE IS A POWERFUL SKELETON
I read Alistair MacLean’s Fear is the Key with its beginning and end scenes fitting together well and also the author leads one down a garden path before turning the story on its head half way through.
- WRITING IN THE FIRST PERSON
I read John Braine’s How to Write a Novel, then found writing in the first person in his Room at the Top.
It is no coincidence that out of Jim Grant’s twenty books I like The Killing Floor, Trip Wire and The Affair the most as they are all written in the first person. His nom de plume slips between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the bookshelves.
Robert Harris’ The Ghost is also written in the first person.
I also break the rules and switch point of view. “No you cannot do that!” I hear the professional editors say like the officials at a Local Authority Meeting.
- Engineer “About the …”
- Town Clerk interrupts. “You have no legal power to do it”
- Treasurer follows. “There is no money”
- Personnel, determined not to be left out. “Not in your job description”
- Engineer. “Did it last week”
I wonder will most of the people who may read my books ever notice my switching point of view.
- HOOK YOUR READERS IN
The opening sentence and first pages can do this. The stronger the scene or hook, the harder it will be for your readers to stop reading.
Kate Atkinson – in the first couple of pages of Life After Life – also had the great strap line:
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
Jim Grant is also consistently good at doing this.
- SHOCK YOUR READERS
I have read about the five-act structure and often the shock comes in acts four and five, a totally unexpected event, a surprise. This can prove a memorable moment and a driver to carry the book forward to the end. I do not want to be a spoiler, but two good examples of this are:
A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb which contains an evil scene which one can see coming but even then stopped me dead. This is the first recent example I recall.
Turning Point (by my writing buddy). This has one in Wales which came really unexpected.
- USE A STORY TELLER
Soon after I started writing in 2010, I obtained a copy of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.
– Julian Barnes.
I don’t know how many times in nearly forty years I have come back to this book.
– Graham Greene.
I had it for some time before I started to read it and thought it was a war book. Only when I was well through the book did the penny drop that it was a love story of hidden passion and betrayal. What kept me reading was the continuity proved by John Dowell as “The classic unreliable narrator.”
The above eight pointers are easy to list. I am trying to follow these in my writing, which is a lot harder to do.
Having fixed a little more direction by going back to scene by scene, the other area which I need to fix is the overall skeleton. For a couple of months I have been looking at various books and detailed selections of best books ever written, and books one needs to read before death, delayed by holidays, with a synopsis for each. I propose commenting on this subject in my next post.
From time to time, I find some really nice writing usually under 100 words. I have read five of Pat Barker’s books in 2015. I think many of her scenes/chapters could be considered as individual stories. The following appears in Toby’s Room [link above]. My thanks to Pat Barker for what I think are a small sample of wonderful writing about entering a house next to a beach. If only I could write as well.
After a few seconds Neville’s grouping hand found the light switch. The bulb cast a dingy light on to a hall that was scarcely more than a passage between two rooms. Striped deck-chairs and parasols stood against the wall near the stairs. Rather more realistically, perhaps, four big umbrellas hung from a hat stand near the door.
Everything was faded, but the effect was pleasant nevertheless. The house didn’t have the mildewed smell so many holiday homes have in winter months.
Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney of TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories ‘Ywrnwab!’ in September 2013. In their 2014 and 2015 Writing Plans, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress in 2014 and 2015 has been slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing.