Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

Ten Rules For Writing Fiction

February 21, 2010

The Guardian has invited several writers to give their rules for writing fiction. The list includes Elmore Leonard, addressing the perils of adverbs, Hilary Mantel, Richard Ford (marry someone who likes the idea of you being a writer) and many more, to be found here.

Alexsandar Hemon

January 16, 2010

The December 17th issue of the New York Review of Books has an article from John Lanchester about Nabokov’s posthumous novel, The Original of Laura.

In it Lanchester discusses the difference between an author’s signature and their style, and, as a way of explaining this he writes:

‘One example might be from one of Nabokov’s most famous flashes of brilliance, Humbert Humbert’s memory of his mother in Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” It’s hard not to be dazzled by the parenthesis, which is pure signature; but the heart of the sentence, its moment of style, is in the quieter and much less prominent word “photogenic.” You realize that Humbert knows his mother only from photographs. The sentence’s quiet poetry is the poetry of loss.’

I struggle to express how profoundly such a piece of writing moves me. Firstly the Nabokov, which I naturally love, as if his use of words is already part of the mechanism of my blood flow, and reading them again makes it quicken. But then secondly with Lanchester’s analysis of why it moves me, which I had never previously understood.
This is the thing, I guess. As a reader, some might say a compulsive reader, since my early teens, I both consume words (and produce them), without really knowing how or why one piece moves me and another does not. I’ve tried to understand it but I don’t think intellectualising necessarily helps. What I’ve learned to do is to trust the quality of resonance which sentences generate within me when I read them or hear them. My own or someone else’s.

Occasionally though, I stumble upon examples which are so extraordinary that a certain amount of analysis is essential. Here is one that I recently found in Alexsandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles:

The story is called ‘Good Living.’ The narrator is Bosnian, he is selling magazines door to door in Chicago, the outer suburbs:

‘My best turf was Blue Island, way down Western Avenue, where addresses had five-digit numbers, as though the town was far back of the long line of people waiting to enter downtown paradise. I got along pretty well with the Blue Islanders. They could quickly recognise the indelible lousiness of my job; they offered me food and water; once I nearly got laid. They did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end. In the meantime, all they wanted was to live, wisely use what little love they had accrued, and endure life with the anaesthetic help of television and magazines. I happened to be in the neighbourhood to offer the magazines.’

The first time I encountered this passage I had to stop and read it four times, and then ring up a friend and read it to him aloud, twice, over the telephone, before I could begin to think about continuing my life.

Take, ‘As though the town was far back of the…’ This ‘far back of’ is a peculiarly American use of English, here used by someone writing in their second, adopted, language. Its unusual word order, the extra ‘of’, seems to deliberately push the suburb further back in the sentence, further away from the place where the numbers were smaller, where (apparently) paradise is.

But it turns out that it’s not just onomatopoeic in its placement. It’s also elegant. If I was writing the sentence I would probably have started by trying: ‘as if the town were a long way along, no, cross that out, can’t have a long way along, well then, a long way down, or, a long way towards the back of the long line,’ all of which are unsatisfactory. So I’d rewrite it and rewrite it, and eventually start to question if that was what I really wanted to say when I couldn’t get it to work, perhaps break it up into two or three sentences or try to come up with a different metaphor. It is unlikely I’d have stumbled upon Hemon’s solution: ‘as though the town was far back of the long line of people waiting to enter downtown paradise.’

But then he goes on: ‘They did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; …’ This was the sentence I wanted my friend particularly to hear when I called him up but he got lost in the throwaway line, ‘once I nearly got laid,’ and the story that spins off from there. So I had to read it to him twice:

‘their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end. In the meantime, all they wanted was to live, wisely use what little love they had accrued, and endure life with the anaesthetic help of television and magazines. I happened to be in the neighbourhood to offer the magazines.’

Here is writing of an extremely high order. When I read something like that I feel as though the game is up. We may as well all go home, Beethoven is amongst us, what’s the use?


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