Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Writing Fiction: Quotes

A few of the quotes that I have had, at various times, on my writing board.

  • I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. Hemingway to Fitzgerald.
  • 200 words a day. What Anne Enright would have tattooed on her in the event of a midlife crisis.
  • Be aware of the bear. Ken Kesey.
  • Talk to your muse as frankly as you would talk to your friends. Allen Ginsberg.
  • I just think there too much pressure on this idea of character. Find truthful moments first and character will come. And you will be surprised how it comes and will keep coming and it’s an endless well. Brad Pitt.
  • When writing, just jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. Ray Bradbury.
  • I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am. Jane Austen.
  • It is never too late to be the person you could have been. George Eliot.
  • Be as intelligent as you are. Mike Myers explaining the rules of improvisation.
  • Writing is problem solving. Me. A reminder for every time I get stuck.

Writing Game: Placebos

A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’  Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo.  ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.

But so much for the joke.  A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up.  A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures.  And it’s not just health.  The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time.  A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels.  Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat.  But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.

So, my question is this.  What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of?  What would you find yourself able to do?

For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.

The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters.  No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me.  And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is.  A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose.  Characters who had both humour and suffering.  A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.

As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting.  Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really).  And certainly there were insights.  Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character.  So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross.  I put it back the way it was.

What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques.  It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.

Writing Fiction: Attraction

Early in my novel writing course I was told that the relationship between to my two leads was unconvincing.  Why did I think that she would be attracted to him?  My answer, honestly, was, ‘Because it’s me.’  But apparently this was not sufficient.  So, how, as a reader, do you know when one character is attracted to another?  And how might this help a writer to make a relationship more plausible?

Let’s start with physical attraction.  It’s a tricky one this.  Any attempt is likely to be based on personal preferences and is in danger of revealing sexual peccadilloes.  She had a great rack/He had a tight bum, tend to end up as nominees at the Bad Sex Awards.  But the following passages are not a million miles away.  This, from Dr No:

It was a naked girl with her back to him.  She was not quite naked.  She wore a broad leather belt with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip.  The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic.

As Cher from Clueless says, ‘Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.

And what about the physical attraction of a woman to a man?  This is the first meeting with Christian Gray in Fifty Shades:

So young – and attractive, very attractive.  He’s tall, dressed in a fine grey suit, white shirt, and black tie, with unruly dark copper coloured hair, and intense, bright grey eyes that regard me shrewdly.  It takes a moment for me to find my voice.

Clearly, neither of these are at the top end of the literary market.  But do I believe that James Bond fancies Honey Ryder; or Anastasia Steele has the hots for Christian Gray?  Yes.  It might seem a bit pat to suggest that such simple signifiers such as tallness in men and bare skin in women are effective in convincing a reader that one character is attracted to another, but try these: He was a small man, under three-foot tall if my guess was correct.  Hel-lo, I thought to myself.’  Or ‘Despite the tropical heat, she was dressed to keep out the cold: at least three jumpers under her thick duffel coat, and a scarf over her chin’.

There is also a danger that you can get too literary.  This is the hero’s description of his lover from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them; and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic.  In fact, she was half Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border.

This is, as you’d expect, free of cliché, but it feels a little too detached – almost anthropological – to convince as a description of attraction.

If the physical were sufficient to convey attraction, then Bond girls wouldn’t have such a short shelf life – or life come to that.  As it is, he’s pretty soon out the door and killing again.  What tends to take over is emotional attraction.  Traditionally, male leads on the Heathcliffe/Mr Rochester model, are described as brooding.  (Brooding, not glum.  As if your family’s inheritance means you have to take responsibility of an unfair burden; not as if your Oyster card has just run out.)  The one woman James Bond actually marries has a troubled past and behaves in an unpredictable way.  It all points to some depth in the character, something that might draw him past appearance.  Unfortunately, just being moody or troubled is not a guarantee of attractiveness.  So what else?

Actually, I could probably list any number of physical, emotional, or verbal traits, but what really convinces is the degree to which they lead to entanglement.  Two protagonists who just can’t help getting involved.  Even if they try to get away.  In romantic fiction this is often expressed through argument.  As if they are annoyed at finding themselves so caught up.  A friend of mine told me she’d once got into an argument with a man at a party about the ‘patriarchal society’.  She then paused and said, ‘And I know it was because I fancied him.’  This is from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy as she tackles her handsome cousin over his choice of fiancé:

This brought him in mind of a complaint he could with justice make.  He said stiffly: ‘Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be very much obliged to you cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!’

‘But Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton!  She cannot help it, and that, I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!’

‘I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!’

‘Yes indeed, but you have quite misunderstood the matter!  I meant a particularly well-bred horse!’

‘You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!’

‘No, no!  I am very fond of horses!’  Sophy said earnestly.

A quick wit is both a sign of attraction and an attractive quality in itself.  It is also important that the two protagonists are equally matched – what Charles lacks in wit he makes up for in belligerence.  There is a game of tennis here, the ball will continue to go back and forth between them.

Lack of entanglement makes a relationship implausible.  Two characters are paired at the end of Adam Bede, but they have barely been in contact throughout the novel and show no real attraction for another.

The example of Sophy and Charles also brings up the way in which attraction is often a game in which one or other character will break or hold rules.  Sophy constantly defies convention: arriving in a carriage with several dogs and a monkey, and later driving a carriage down St James’s St in front of her cousin’s club.  All Charles has to do is express angry disapproval and you know they’re headed up the aisle.

One of the reasons it is perfectly plausible that someone of a higher social status would find Elizabeth Bennett attractive is that she breaks rules.  Whether it is walking when she should wait or defying her social superior.  It is an attractive quality.  Darcy, on the other hand, upholds rules: holding a confidence even at the risk of his own happiness; ensuring, at the end, that the right thing is done.

Christian Gray’s sadistic games could even be seen as an extreme example of this: combining rule breaking and enforcing in one.

Jane Austen, however, has more to say.  In Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund, two of the dullest lovers in literature, both uphold rules in a rather priggish way.  They share values, but do they genuinely find each other attractive?  Yes, but the attractions are quieter: he is consistently kind to her, in defiance of others; whereas she quietly supports his ambitions.  The Crawfords however are great rule breakers.  You can’t help thinking that if Edmund had given in to Mary, and Fanny had succumbed to Henry, they might have had short relationships but they’d have gone up in delightful flames.  Jane Austen seems to be saying that those things you think lead to attraction will end in chaos; conventional attractions are dull but they produce quieter and more sustained outcomes.

Ho-hum.  And it brings us to the great rule breakers: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.  Both of them have clearly been defying convention since they were in nappies.  Despite her mistake in pursuing the boringly conventional Ashley, there are, in her and Rhett, no two other people living in Texas who can match their flagrant disregard for what you are supposed to do.  The game of attraction they play is about bringing each other to heel.  That they ultimately fail is probably as much to do with the fact that they temporarily accept a compromise which involves living a more conventional life.  No wonder he’s out the door.  Do I believe they find each other attractive?  Absolutely.  Plus, on the film poster, he’s taller than she is, and she’s showing a bit of boob.

If the lovers are not fighting against each other, the proof of their attraction is often the contrast between them and the world they find themselves in.  A friend used to always write about supermarkets: songs, stories, you could always rely on an Asda or a Co-Op.  For him, they represented an emotionally vacant world in which the two protagonists, and their love for one another, provided the only sign of humanity.  In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the relationship between Jess and Melanie is set against an intolerant Pentecostal church.  Think, Julia and Winston in 1984, Romeo and Juliet in that play I can never remember the name of.

A final proof of attraction is the degree to which one or other or both are willing to sacrifice or endure in order to turn that attraction into love.  Prospero, clearly the father of the romantic novel, says of his daughter and her suitor, ‘They are both in either’s power, but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.’  Ferdinand is caged to prove his love for Miranda, and endures.  Both Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy have to give up their fixed views – of acceptable behaviour and social status.  The hero in Love in a Time of Cholera must wait many years before he wins his love.

So where does this leave the writer trying to create convincing couple?  Well, for a start, would you fancy them?  If you don’t, who else is going to?  Also, is this a short term attraction or something more: do they want to go to bed with one another, or wake up together in the morning?  If so, what entangles them?  What makes it impossible for them ultimately to be apart?  Finally, be Prospero: what obstacles could you set up to test that entanglement: distance, other suitors, misunderstandings, arguments.

As usual, I don’t think I’ve got anywhere near answering the question.  For example, the experience of attraction is often overwhelming.  Romeo says, ‘It is the East and Juliet is the sun.’  And where is that in this list of ways that you know that one character is attracted to another?  Also, I just kept thinking of more and more examples eg Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.  But you’ve got to stop somewhere.  If you have your own opinions please add them below.

Writing Fiction: Jane Austen’s Advice

See link below for a collection of advice gleaned from her letters.  I particularly like the fact that she referred to people who were too obsessed with punctuation as ‘dull elves’.  Try saying that the next time someone starts a discussion on the apostrophe.  Also, she sums up everything about persistence by saying, ‘I am not at all in a humour for writing, I must write on till I am.’


Writing Fiction: In Praise of Writers’ Groups

I have a friend who was convinced that there was no point in showing his writing to anyone other than an agent/publisher, and that was only in order to get it in print.  A mutual friend was allowed to read a piece he had written and said subsequently, ‘He’s not good at taking feedback is he?’

At this point, given the title of this post, I should be able to say that he never got anywhere.  Instead of which he has had a book published and had at least two plays on the radio.

Some people are naturally introverted.  I don’t think Jane Austen was in a writers’ group – by one account, she used to hide her writing under her embroidery if anyone came into the room.  Charles Dickens, on the other hand, was always reading his stuff out to people (there is a famous sketch of him reading one of his Christmas stories out to his friends).

I spend a lot of time writing on my own, but I really like getting feedback from the two writers’ groups I attend.  Sometimes they just see things I can’t.

My general rule is that if only one person in the group makes a particular observation then it is up to me to decide whether or not to go with it.  If everyone is saying the same thing, it’s probably time to listen.  I showed my synopsis to a couple of writer-friends recently, and both of them had written ‘why?’ in various places in the plot, and both agreed that it was thin.  It led to the breakthrough that I experienced on retreat (see ‘Meditation 2’).

The best sort of feedback for me is, ‘This does work’ or, ‘This doesn’t work’.  In this way I get a general idea of how it is coming across and it is left to me to come up with a solution.  The sort that isn’t so good is the, ‘What you should do is…’  Usually because they are starting to write their own novel out of it.  Having said that, posed as a question, ‘Have you thought of…’ can be helpful.

The first synopsis I ever wrote was roundly rejected by my novel writing class.  Except for one thing, a station attendant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name.  A Western character in the midst of a modern-day setting.  I took the synopsis to another friend, who agreed with the class, right down to the Western character.  And then she said, ‘Have you ever thought of making the whole thing like that?’  And that’s what it ended up as: a modern-day setting and all the characters unknowingly playing the parts of the usual Western stereotypes.  Perhaps not the best thing I’ve ever written, but great fun to write.

Structure: Follow the Dog

It came as a big surprise to me, aged 19, to realise that novels were written on purpose.  I’m not sure that I’d thought about it that much, I had been too busy playing in a band and not concentrating at school.  But after crashing out of exams, and a year of work, I decided to retake my A levels.  I ended up with an English teacher (I wish I could remember his name) who taught structure.  Writers write on purpose.  When a character in a Jane Austen novel goes ‘beyond the ha-ha’, or wanders down a serpentine path, it means something.

Well, duh.  Except for me it was like cracking a code.  Like the first time I was told that the scrolling black-and-white thing at the top of a TV screen means there’s about to be an advert break.  Or that every time a character is sad in a film, it is raining.  This was great!

My favourite book at the time was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I had got the idea that it would be interesting to look at the halfway point in novels.  Because if you were going to write on purpose that would be an obvious place to have something significant, (don’t even get me started on Sophie’s Choice).  I opened it at exactly halfway, and found a dog.  A page-and-a-half about a dog, to be precise.  Chief Bromden is looking out of the asylum window and he sees, ‘a young gangly mongrel slipped off from home to find out about things went on after dark.’  The dog explores holes in the fence, is distracted by migrating geese, and then sets off after them.  Then I looked at the start of the novel and found this: ‘A bluetick hound bays out there in the fog, running scared and lost because he can’t see.’  And at the end of the novel, ‘I ran across the grounds in the direction I remembered seeing the dog go.’  Just planted in there: the beginning, the middle and the end: a mirror to the Chief’s state of mind.  I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been looking.  It’s almost as if Ken Kesey knew what he was doing.