You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.

(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)

I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.

 

I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.

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Before the event

The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”

Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.

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He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”

Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.

Lee: Why are your books so short?

Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.

Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.

Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.

(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)

45369He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.

Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.

Barnes lecture 4If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.

There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a difference three days make

I wrote this post on Tuesday, 30th January, admirably ahead of schedule for today.

Authors don’t have false starts, because all changes are part of the multiple drafting processes. But authors often have false ends – they think they’re done, and then a beta reader, editor, agent, or their own head says no you’re not, and back they go to the text, rectifying, snipping, embellishing, reshaping (it’s beginning to sound more like a haircut than a book).

Finally, in desperation, boredom, defiance or pride off goes the manuscript. Agent, here you are. I’m prepared to rewrite, but only for a commercial publisher. Failing a publisher, I’ll self publish! But either way, that book is done to a turn.

Author takes time off. Eats toffees, ambles round the park, sneaks to an exhibition. For some, it’s only a few days before they’re thinking: next book? I’m assuming this process gets faster as they notch up the novels. After my first, I ummed and ah’d for months before I had any tentative thoughts, let alone jottings. The second novel is traditionally tricky for all authors and often referred to kindly (or patronisingly) as a hurdle to vault en route for the sunlit uplands of the third, merrily mixing metaphors as you go. But with one remarkably debonair click of the mouse, off went Second Novel last week. I hope you’ll hear of it again in some form, but if not, never mind: already this week idea number three is tickling my brain.

mouse happy

This time, I’ve taken advice on what the market wants.  Well, heard advice anyway. I can’t write gripping psychological thrillers but that’s ok, I’m told people want something more cheerful. I can’t write minutely researched historical fiction, because I’m too slapdash and anyway, they’re so last year. I won’t write violence and I don’t understand science fiction and I’m irritated by cosy crime.  I’m too down to earth for fantasy and I can’t invent some new literary form so novel (pun intended) and mould-breaking there’s a new book prize established in my name. But I’ve spotted a chink in the genre armour, a tiny keyhole of opportunity and I’m going to try and tailor something to fit its requirements. Third Novel won’t take four years like First Novel, or two like Second. I’ll knock it off in time to present it to my agent by Christmas and save the expense of a more conventional gift.

Only yesterday I was shuffling around the house feeling pressured and heavy (is it a good sign that this wild mind can go from haircut imagery to submarines in four short paragraphs?) Today a couple of characters introduced themselves as I walked round the block – what a help a sunny day is. The setting’s in the bag – the longer you live the more places you’ve known: how useful. There’s a glimmering of plot, always the hardest part for me. I have a very corny working title and a fragile 3000 words in a New Folder. To think there are people, events, ideas and developments ahead just waiting to be pulled out of my head and fastened on the page! It’s exciting like going up in a balloon, like candy floss (revolting but I’m in such a good mood it sounds nice), like the letter with my place at university, or the moment the clouds lifted from Mount Fuji.

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If my idea works and I keep writing, I’ll get to the drudgery stage quite soon. If it doesn’t – well, that’s one reason for publishing this blog post today. The edifice can’t come crashing down because so far it’s only sketchy foundations, but even if they sink without trace, even if the fleeting inspiration, er, fleets, I wanted to pin down the excitement of the almost blank page(screen), the promising project, the journey in prospect. Also, if I’ve announced it, maybe someone out there will hold me to it.

This is what I have to say this morning (Friday 2nd February):

The Magic Carpet (I may as well dignify Second Novel with its title) came back from agent yesterday with third round of comments (let no one say agents don’t earn their 15%). Most remarks justified, and he’s “still not sure about the beginning”. (This has been changed often. It’s surprising how moving different chapters to the front can herald a different genre each time – not necessarily one I want or that subsequent chapters remain faithful to.) I would now like to put it behind me, frankly. But if The Magic Carpet never flies, even on CreateSpace let alone commercially, how will Third Novel ever soar free of those Second Novel blues?

No time for Third Novel today after considering agent’s comments and writing Friday blog post. Perhaps the blog should go? Perhaps Magic Carpet should be fed to the moths? Perhaps it would only be Third Time Unlucky?

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The only symbol left on my exhausted keyboard doesn’t augur well…

The End, as written on Tuesday, 30th January: Back next week if not too busy!

The End, as written on Friday, 2nd February: Back next week (possibly).

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

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A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page.  And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another BC dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until a thing happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, the thing then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole narrative with a prologue and corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On packing for a novel

Although I love trips away and I’ve chosen to be a writer, packing a case and planning a novel both fill me with dread. But I’m not one to waste a good analogy.

I don’t know what to include. I’m worried I may end up marooned without something crucial, or humping around a dead weight of miscellaneous junk. Will my choices complement each other, or will they be out of place and pointless? What mood will I be in – light, careless, stressed, excited, energetic?
hat-and-umbrellaWill I stride up mountains and pen epic passages? If so I’d better take my strongest boots and most heroic thoughts. Or will I get stuck at some bureaucratic roadblock, with no way through from one chapter to the next without endless examination of my narrator’s identity and reasons for passing through? Will my inner critic let me vault such hurdles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, I’m lost?

For realism and to set the scene, a writer can note the climate. But how will the weather behave? Will my characters and I need rain coats or diaphanous gowns? How will I fare when the pests of the air sting on the long itchy nights / typos adn infelicities infest my exiled prose? I can pack mosquito repellent but I can’t pack my editor.

Who and where are my secondary characters? Will they just happen along, or have I planned to meet them? It’s the author’s privilege to ditch the Brexit bores, if that’s who the company turns out to be, but they can be tenacious chaps who hang around dulling my polished prose. A good guide book may help me avoid them, so in it goes.

How quickly will time pass? Do I need books, sketching materials, puzzles – aka subplots, illustrations, and red herrings? Or will my trip and my story be entertaining enough alone? Would such distractions impede or embellish?

I dither and wander and find displacement activities. Make a trifle, sand the kitchen counter, catch up with the book reviews I promised months ago. Anything but commit to what is going in that case/novel. (Tracy Chevalier describes this well in the Guardian.) In the end I wildly throw everything, essential or not, on the bed. I hurl more on top, chuck it out, bung it in again.. It’s a depressing muddle that will never fit and I sleep in the spare room that night.

Anyway, what case? I forgot I’d thrown it out as it was splitting. Ditto what flight bag? What about those transparent moments when everyone can see my intimate creams and ointments as I go through security? Am I writing a novel at all, or is the idea just too leaky and revealing? Would it be wiser not even to embark ?

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Departure day arrives. I must commit. I have a list on the computer, some of it out of date (cassette tapes? Trainer cups?) Likewise there’s a list of requirements for a novel: genre, characters (all grown ups now), setting, inciting incidents, five acts, themes, and – when I can finally leave the house – resolution. Nothing must be left behind.

At the airport I’m anxious and buy more paracetamol, forgetting I already have enough to kill off a whole series of victims.

Let’s cut to the last day of the trip/the end of my current writing journey. I’m pleased! I vow to visit again, spending more time in one place, paying more careful attention. I’ve acquired so much I have to force the case shut and buy a strong strap to keep everything together. The paraphernalia I added early in my stay are still protected by tissue wrappings: I’ve forgotten what these items are and they’ll take me by surprise when I unpack back home. Most are no good: what I thought an ideal Christmas present is actually tacky; that poignant incident I wrote the night we drank cocktails is schmaltz. The volatile scene created on the flight out will work, with some of the turbulence tamed; but the meandering chapter of the thirty-two hour Friday you live through when you get on a plane at midday in Tokyo and disembark at 3pm in London is too long and tired.There’s dirty washing to be done and careless prose to clean up and the only thing that will help is a cup of tea that tastes of home. My analogy has been baggage handled to breaking point, but souvenirs survive: a fine wine, a garment of exquisite comfort to be worn until it falls apart, photographs of beautiful, strange people and places. Enough to frame the rest of the story. Welcome to the start of making sense.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016