From Hook to Book

Archive for the tag “Story”

Don’t Write What You Know

“Are you French? No, then set your novel in Australia. Write what you know!”  Words to spark a blogpost and debate.

The jury is out on my Google search into who first spoke the words Write what you know, though Mark Twain and William Faulkner seem to be the main-listed culprits.

Write what you Know would probably have been the first (and most oft repeated) piece of advice I’ve heard quoted as a writer. For a long time, I stuck slavishly to it. Believed in it. Passed on the words of wisdom myself. UNTIL…the day I realised it was given and explained (to me) by someone who took it as literally as I took it from her. Too often “write what you know” advice is given to new writers without adding the all important addendum, until you learn to write and are ready to explore beyond the breadth of your own experience. Or boredom takes you out, whichever comes first.

I mean, was Anna Sewell ever a horse? Was Toni Morrison ever a slave? Did Geraldine Brooks ever live in a sixteenth-century village consumed by the plague?

No. And why didn’t they need to have lived the life, in the place, at the time of the characters and stories they were writing? Because one doesn’t have to be a horse to know how any warm-blooded creature feels to be beaten, starved or left out in the freezing cold. We all recognise and know pain. We all experience illness and the fear of our own mortality. Few of us escape the pain of loss of a loved one.

We live, therefore we experience. As writers we can take those emotions and feelings and impose them on our characters and story events, transport them to places and eras we’ve not personally lived in and make them real. Authenticity comes through connecting the reader to the emotional and lived experience in ways that resonate, in ways a reader can engage with and feel the pain, pleasure or emotional happenings in the story.

I find I sometimes draw subconsciously on my own personal, emotional experiences and don’t necessarily recognise the origins until later. A bit like dreams, I suppose. Some mean nothing and others we can see the wellspring, even if the dawning doesn’t come until much later on.

Sometimes my writing reveals that I know more than I think I know. This proves itself in those rare and wondrous moments when words appear on the page and I sit back and go, Wow! Where did that insight, knowledge, revelation come from? Other times, fine details and rich imagery of place and setting emerge out of much reading and research I may have done months or even years before.

Research, lots and lots of days and weeks of research, shows in the authenticity and emotional connection of good story and characterisation, not merely through the insertion of historical facts or costume/period details. So I can write about a girl in France, enmeshed in a war I did not fight in the trenches or on the homefront. I know how this girl feels to be betrayed, lied to, and scared on finding herself alone in the world, because I can summon up memories of those exact same feelings. I might need to magnify them significantly for my character’s usage, but I’ve been lied to, betrayed and found myself alone in a foreign country, albeit in the latter case by choice. I can impose like feelings and emotions onto my character and make her experience real through adding description and evoking the place.

Yes, I can write what I don’t know, what I’ve never experienced and yet still make it real. So I’m on the no side of the debate team that says “Don’t write what you know”.

If writers did not give themselves permission to write outside their experience, there’d be no science fiction, no spec fiction, no fantasy. No hobbits, or time-travelling Doctor Whos, no Star Wars, ET or Hunger Games.

Personal experience and emotions may be the foundation stone, but the walls and windows come from imagination. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same old same old.

Writing fiction takes courage and research and getting into the psyche of living, breathing people, or animals in Black Beauty’s case. If a writer can take me into the skin of a horse, a Frenchwoman, a soldier, a space warrior, or a Neanderthal tribesman and make it real, I’m happy to go on the journey with them. That is the writer’s job – to transport the reader beyond their disbelief, to a new place, time, life. The writer must believe in their story and bring it to life beyond what they knew when they started out the writing.

Do you write what you know? Or do you go where no man, woman or writer has gone before you? 

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What I am Reading

Words to transport me across generations, centuries, continents and viewpoints – such is the mastery of writer Arnold Zable in his acclaimed memoir Jewels and Ashes.

What began as a “case study” for my Master’s exegesis – too dry a term by far for this riveting narrative and beautifully told story – became a lesson in the art of traversing narrative time. I chose Zable’s work because I’ve long admired him and his writing and have attended various of his talks and his inspirational Painting with Words workshop. (You know how every now and again you get that feeling your writing has upped a level, well, I believe this workshop prompted one of those shifts. But, I digress.)

With my next novel unstarted, at the time, but swirling in my mind, I wanted to write my exegesis to inform on an aspect of its writing. I can already see the structure of my new novel forming as a complex narrative where I plan to show three characters’ viewpoints and visit them in different time spans, on different continents and be able to crisscross between them all. Hence my exegesis topic: Traversing Narrative Time, Space and Viewpoint. Part of the reflective practice in my uni subject’s title is to look to the masters to see how they’ve achieved such techniques. Zable was my first choice, though I also studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is the master Zable says he studied to learn his artistry of transitions.

Jewels and Ashes traces the author’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of his Jewish parents, (in Bialystok, Poland), crisscrossing the decades of the twentieth century to uncover the truth and fate of his extended family. When I first read the book several years ago, I marvelled at how Zable showed history while weaving his family background around his 1986 journey to Poland, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing craftwise, how he was doing it or why. I just knew whatever he was doing transported me on one amazing journey. Mind you the way Zable paints his words in such rich detail and description transports you with seamless ease too.

Of course, I’ve read many novels featuring multiple viewpoints, time and places, but I’d always been keenly aware of the transitions from one to the next. Some jolt you out of the story with a clunk, or shifts only occur at the end of chapters or storybreaks, whereas Zable weaves into the next event, place, time with seamless transitions, be they in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

How does he do it?

Through my study of Jewels and Ashes, and Arnold’s own explanation of his technique, I understand him to effect many of his transitions by connecting story fragments or threads using subtle and well placed links. Closer study of the text reveals these to be both tangible and intangible associations, such as events, trees, photographs and letters, and/or sensory connections, such as memories, smells and sounds. For the purpose of my exegesis I extracted the examples below to demonstrate:

  • Decades later,… (p. 8 ) a simple flashforward (prolepsis)
  • We leap through the centuries (p. 46) transition bringing narrative forward two-hundred years
  • As a child I would often gaze at his portrait in the Bialystok photo album… (p. 46) transition back through flashback (analepsis)
  • Father has now warmed to the subject. He draws me with him to Nieronies Lane. (p. 76) transition of place
  • Years later, when Mother fell on a Melbourne street, the memory of another fall, in a time and place far removed, came flooding back. (p. 88) incident as link to another time
  • At 4 a.m. on summer mornings, throughout the twenties… (p. 93) connects one paragraph later through the link of season to On a summer morning in 1986…
  • Above all, Father recalls the seasons (p.139) a memory and seasonal transition of time and place.

Arnold Zable is not only a wonderful storyteller, but a generous humanitarian, and I was lucky enough on two chance occasions during the writing of my exegesis to have opportunity to speak to him and ask him about his practice when writing his memoir. Arnold told me he did not plot the narrative of Jewels and Ashes, but followed his physical journey and allowed the threads of the greater story to emerge instinctively. However organically these evolved, the chronological discontinuity and disruption of story serve to build a sense of mounting dread even in a fact-based narrative where the reader knows the holocaust history:

‘At Linowe station the trains were drawn up by the platform, waiting. The time-tabling was precise, the organisation efficient. The doors of the cattle wagons slid to a close on entire families, crammed together, robbed of light, air and hope. Soon after they were on the move: a journey of several hundred kilometres southwest, across the breadth of Poland, to a town called Auschwitz’ (p.137).

The switch to a new focus in the next paragraph serves to discontinue the narrative and heighten tension even with foreknowledge of the horror coming.

This post offers only a glimpse of one of the multiple narrative devices available to traverse time, space and viewpoint to best dramatic and emotional effect. Regardless of whether you’re interested in the writing craft, I urge you to read Jewels and Ashes. You’re in for a treat, a harsh history beautifully told and one that must never pass out of memory. Honour goes to Zable and all those it recalls.

It is so true what they say about  the value of reading as a writer and what you can learn. Though I’ve never studied a topic quite so intently (or academically) before, and found the initial drafting of my exegesis extremely challenging, I can honestly say what I’ve learned is invaluable. If I can begin the writing of my new novel and in some small way emulate the beauty of the transitions of Arnold Zable in his writing, I’ll  be thrilled. What once seemed impossible, now seems achievable.

I hope this post excites the idea of some ‘narrative’ time travel in your writing. If so, I’d love you to let me know or leave any thoughts you’d like to add in the comments.

The Importance of Story

Yesterday, I was privileged to see a live performance of Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular Saltimbanco at Rod Laver Arena. The charge in the auditorium was palpable as an eager and excited audience waited and the house lights dimmed.

Like any of Cirque du Soleil’s brilliant performances, within minutes, the rainbow of colour, superb artistry, breathtaking acts, creative and imaginative costuming, and exciting music swirled the large crowd into a single enraptured body.

We thrilled to an amazing two hours of fantastic entertainment. I enjoyed Saltimbanco immensely and thoroughly recommend it.

But… I do have to say – for me, something was missing.

Though each individual act in itself was engrossing and visually stunning, somehow the performance lacked a thread of engagement because I was seeking, expecting, a story. Other Cirque du Soleil  performances I’ve seen – on television – followed a definite storyline – drawing me in and holding me by a narrative filled with emotion and tension that stretched throughout the performance.

I wasn’t the only one to miss this aspect. The family next to us discussed in the intermission how they were searching for the guiding story during the first half also. They never found it either.

According to Wikipedia Saltimbanco has a story.

“Created in 1992, Saltimbanco was the first show in which Cirque du Soleil would narrow its focus to tell a very specific and themed story. Franco Dragone was inspired by the way multiculturalism shaped the nature and direction of Cirque du Soleil and wanted the theme of this new show to be one of “cosmopolitan urbanism”.”

I think the key word here is “theme”.  Saltimbanco has a theme, not a story. Further investigation on the official website turned up the revelation, “Saltimbanco takes spectators on an allegorical and acrobatic journey into the heart of the city”. So it was intended as a journey, not as a story as I’d gone expecting.

Thinking about it on the way home it occurred to me that, much like attending a performance, reading a book can be fraught with preconceived perceptions (i.e. a blurb or a writers’ previous work can set us up with certain expectations). Some contemporary novels feature strong and evocatively explored themes, and amazing journeys, yet intentionally lack a story. For me, as a reader, if I’m reading a novel, I’m always expectant of a story.

I read fiction for story. And I write it with the same overarching intention. Most writer/publisher talks I’ve attended tout story as the most important aspect in a work getting published. Why then do I so often hear that story is lacking in many submissions and even some published works? Some even say story is not so important in literary narratives. I disagree – on the basis of my own reading pleasure. Beautiful prose is a joy to read and may keep me turning pages – though not always nowadays – to the final page, because without story I’m left dissatisfied like a great potential has been left unfulfilled.

I don’t need every ribbon tied up in a  perfect bow. Some can flutter free at the end for my imagination to furl, tie, twist or let flutter on, but I do like a story that concludes and a narrative to drive the story from start to finish. Something to latch onto and take me on a journey.

These thoughts remind me of a chapter book mss I wrote a few years ago. I developed a character for a series of short educational stories, and found Angus a cool, likeable dude. Turned out he was a little too cool for the series, but later I helped him get up to few more tricks and adventures, and included three of the short stories reworked as chapters. I loved his attitude and humour and had high hopes for him. I sent him off to a major publisher to see if they found him funny too, but, alas, Angus came back – though with the most positive, glowing of rejection letters.

“There is a great deal we like about AA Gets a Life – the voice is great, the characters are engaging, and the relationship between Angus and Nick is very believably drawn and sensitively explored. Unfortunately, it is not quite the right fit………………………”

Why? I couldn’t understand. (And there were tears.) If so much was good, why didn’t they want it?

Some time later, Angus was rejected by a different publisher. I sat down and pored again over the first rejection letter. The answer jumped out me in a heartbeat. The Editor had said she liked the voice and characters, but what was the one thing she never mentioned?

She never mentioned the… STORY!

Like a whack over the head, I realised the mss had all these wonderful components, but no story. Admittedly, it was deceptive. On the surface it held together, even sounded pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. I still love it. But, reading back over it, I realised it was episodic. (The danger of cobbling, I’ve since learned.) Sure it had a narrative line, but it was not connected to a big enough hook or nearly strong enough storyline to carry a whole book. Angus is a great character. He deserves a real story to live in, and live through. So now he’s back on the drawing board of my imagination, and soon to start on his journey to a junior novel. This time supported by a strong storyline.

For now he has to wait, but he’s starting to fidget and call from the sidelines. ‘Hurry up and finish that novel. It’s my turn.’

Maybe story is not so important to everyone. Thank goodness there’s lots of readers out there loving different genres, styles and structures. I’d love to know, do you read for story? And do you read between the lines of your rejection letters? Just drop me a line in the comments to let me know.

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