Tag Archives: Stephen King

Writing Fiction: Details, Details

Apparently, at the microscopic level it is possible to see that print rests on top of the page.  Similarly, I can read a whole chapter without ever quite getting absorbed by it.  But this is what I hope for: the point when it becomes immaterial whether I am reading a book or a Kindle.

One of the ways in which writers achieve this is in their use of detail.  In the discussion of character I quoted from Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea.  The full list of what she buys is, ‘Two Karlanda sofas with sand coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs, two round side tables of clear lacquered birch, a Svansbo coffee table, and several Lack occasional tables.’  It would have been easier to tell us that she went to Ikea and bought some furniture, but it doesn’t engage in the same way, the list somehow adds to character and puts you next to her.

In Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh could have written, ‘There were many choices on offer for breakfast but Adam and Nina ate frugally.’  Instead he writes, ‘Adam and Nina breakfasted alone in the dining-room.  There was a row of silver plates kept hot by spirit lamps which held an omelette and devilled partridges and kedgeree and kidneys and sole and some rolls; there was also a ham and a tongue and some brawn and dish of pickled herrings.’  A bit heavy, but in my pre-vegetarian days I’m sure I could have tackled it.  Not only does this give a clear description of an unnecessarily excessive breakfast in an English country house, but also sets up the bathetic joke at the end. ‘Nina ate an apple and Adam ate some toast.’

Stephen King, when writing about his hero’s alcoholism, could have said, ‘His hangover made him feel nauseous.’  Instead, ‘His stomach gave a liquid lurch.  He burped up a mouthful of sour gunk that tasted of whiskey and swallowed it back.’  Yuk.  And say no more: drinking ain’t fun.

Dickens is a little different.  He often piles on repetitive detail (fog, fog, fog; stone, stone, stone) as a metaphor for some moral condition which surrounds the characters.  But occasionally, he just lets you have the scene.  ‘A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.  It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.’ (Tale of Two Cities) Which really makes you feel that you’re with the characters as they follow their carriage up a muddy hill.

The final example is from a book that is almost totally a description of details.  In Life, A User’s Manual, a Parisian block of flats is described in almost obsessive detail.  The furnishings, the knick-knacks, the works of art and books.  But hidden in them are clues to the characters of the occupants.  This is from the description of the ‘witch’s mirrors’ that the evil Winckler has made, ‘He finicked over each frame for days on end, cutting, fretsawing endlessly until it was an almost immaterial piece of wooden lace, in whose centre the small polished mirror looked like a metallic glance.  An icy eye, wide open, full of irony and malice.’  Which reminds me, winter’s on its way.

I have nothing wise to say about all of this.  Other than the fact that details are part of the art of writing.  Which I would do well to remember.

Game: Page Counting

There was a point early on in reading the new Stephen King novel when I looked at the bottom of the Kindle and realised I was 9% in.  I was a bit concerned.  It seemed to be going too fast, I began to wish that it was longer.  The experience didn’t last for the whole novel but I rattled through all 500 pages in two weeks, which is pretty good for me.  Compare this to the six months it took me to read Don Quixote, counting pages every step of the way.  I can’t be the only person who does this: working out how long it’s going to take me to read another 50 pages, or to get to 35%.  Obviously it’s a sign of not being totally absorbed.  The joy is finding a book where the opposite happens.

So what are the books?  I’m going to nominate Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.  Which I couldn’t wait to get back to every time.  And remember, this isn’t your favourite book, it’s the one where the pages sped past.  Any nominations?

Editing: Eye Drift

Some time ago, I finished a free-writing exercise for my current novel which left me with 160,000 words to work with.  Reading it over, I found myself naturally skipping whole paragraphs and then suddenly alighting on a sentence or two, or a page of text.  When I read back over what I had missed out I found that, in my opinion, I had been right.  This suggests a very quick and simple method of broad-stroke editing.  But what’s the mechanism at work here?  And can it be trusted?

The eye shift is a common phenomenon in reading.  According to Wikipedia, it was a French ophthalmologist called Louis Emile Javal in nineteenth century who noticed that people read through a combination of ‘fixations’ and ‘saccades’ or shifts.  A skilled reader shifts every quarter of a second, and fixes for 200-250 miliseconds, taking in four or five letters at a time.  For 15% of their time they’ll be going back over the text.  Poorer readers shift less, and fixate and regress more.

Which is all very interesting.  But what we’re talking about here is the eye drift.  The point when your brain thinks, ‘I have had enough of this,’ and starts searching around for something more engaging in the text, often missing whole sentences or paragraphs.

So, what makes it start or stop drifting?  There is a great deal of research, for example, into ‘readability’.  The Fleisch Kincaid Test used by Word bases its scores on length of sentences and number of syllables per word.

As an experiment, I put in the opening paragraphs from Love in Time of Cholera by Marquez, and Best Kept Secret, the latest Jeffrey Archer novel.  The first starts, ‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’  The second, ‘Big Ben struck four times.’  The first got a score of 15, indicating a reading age at university level; the second got 10, or 15-16 year olds.  This means that the Archer should be more readable than the Marquez.  But my previous experience with a Jeffrey Archer book (Kane and Abel) is that after a paragraph or two I got bored and ended up skipping the whole thing.  So, if the Marquez is harder to read, why do I drift less?  A simple answer to this might be that, as a post-graduate, the reading age is more appropriate.  But I’m reading the latest Stephen King novel at the moment, which rates the same as the Archer, and really enjoying it.  To say nothing of Hunger Games, which can be read by 8-9 year-olds, and I happily rattled through all three parts.  So, something else is going on.

The full first paragraph of the Marquez novel is:

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.

What holds my attention?  Not just the use of scent and colour (gold cyanide, no less) but the hints of unrequited love, adventure, the brief but full biography, and the friendship.   The language is poetic and feels like a finely carved piece of ivory.

But one person’s ivory is another’s dead elephant.  A lot of people would drift through the Marquez, but eat up every line of the Jeffrey Archer.  In her Fiction Bitch blog, Elizabeth Baines says, ‘Reading is a dynamic process in which a complex array of things come into play: the reader’s taste, mood, expectation and, above all, education – by which I don’t mean formal schooling but cultural immersion.’  Too right, mate.

Elmore Leonard once said, ‘I leave out the parts that people skip.’  But it might have been more accurate to say, ‘…that I skip.’  When you’re editing your own work, beyond spelling and basic grammar, you tend to be guided by your own taste.

There is also the question of how the eye drift as an editing tool could possibly work at such speed.  Research that followed Javal’s initial observations shows we only take in information during fixations not shifts.  This would suggest that a drift only feels like a drift.  What is actually happening is a series of fixations, though less than during normal reading.  This is probably aided by the fact that you have a sense of what you have written, and memories of particular passages.

I’m not sure I’ve completely established why this technique seems to work – or if it does.  All I can say is that it works for me.  I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts.

By the way, The Fleisch Kincaid score for this post is 8, which means it is readable by 13-14 year-olds.

Writing Fiction: Altered States

Sorry, I just had a vision of William Hurt suspended upside down with snakes on his face and various flashing lights, but that isn’t what this is about at all, and anyway, that’s Ken Russell for you.

What I was actually thinking about is how often an altered state of mind can help in writing fiction.  In 2009 I was on a meditation retreat in Italy.  At the time I had been working on my second novel.  It was going ok but the plot lacked something dynamic.  I had put all thoughts of writing aside for the retreat and was meditating one day in the lovely converted chapel which was our shrine.  Suddenly, unbidden, the solution to the main plot problem came into my mind.  Even afterwards it seemed perfect (and does to this day) but I hadn’t sought it, if anything I was probably battling the pain in my knees.

And this wasn’t the only time.  Often in my morning meditation, a sentence that I have written the day before will be presented to me in a better form (and then there is the battle of whether to write it down or continue meditating)

There was a fashion in the 60s and 70s, of thinking that the only real writers were drunk ones and that getting pissed or high on drugs was the best way to access the inner writing daemon.  A quote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives in a recent article in The Guardian described how drunk Ben Jonson was whenever he sat down to write: “He would many times exceed in drinke (Canarie was his beloved liquour); then he would tumble home to bed and, when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie.’  I’ve tried this but my handwriting got so bad I couldn’t even read it after, (but I’m sure it was genius).

Charles Dickens used to go for a good old-fashioned walk: pounding the heath and talking to the various characters in his head.  Stephen King listens to loud heavy metal music.  Jenny Colgan suggests having a bath (it wasn’t personal).

I guess this is all just another way of talking about accessing a ‘muse’.  It doesn’t seem to be something that can be forced.  Occasionally I’ll find that while writing I can see the next few sentences ahead of me and there is a race to get them down in time.  The sensation is a little like being in a trance.  For the most part, however, it’s just good old plodding along putting one word in front of another.