.. not how you say it.
if you have bothered to read me at all, that’s probably not news. I’ve said it quite a few times. It is the one thing that above all others makes me feel as though I am at odds with other writers; I would even extend that to say all within the writing and publishing peripheries.
Two recent articles reaffirmed this belief, in part – I think – by agreeing with me but mostly by boring me to a degree I almost didn’t realise it. One of them by the highly regarded Hanif Kureishi, (here) was a skilled, layered piece of writing that required several passes and determined reordering to decipher. But I take his point – I worked hard to find it – technique cannot teach imagination.
But nothing can. Its like that old adage, ‘you can lead a writer to paper but you can’t stop them writing their *&%* on it’. Something along those lines.
The disordered rhetoric diluted the meaning and words, suggesting the random artful chaos you can create with them meant more than what you can say with them.
Form has its place, but it very much does make writing a self conscious ‘art’. Our coffee table may heave with the books we think we should read, our minds and kindles (you know, where no one can see) are much lighter.
I am going to push that idea further. Too much in regards to form nowadays is in actuality a bastardisation. A novel is not its cover. It is not a scavenger hunt. And its not a website. These are addendums, sales pitches, adaptations. Addressing them is missing the point. Emma is not a film with Gwyneth Paltrow, it is a book by Jane Austen. And no matter what anyone tries to do with it – form clubs, rewrite, repackage – the book remains pure and untouched.
If you are bored with books, chances are adding word searches won’t improve matters. Nor will making your characters vegetables or reversing your past and present tenses or only having dialogue with syllables that add up to Pi. ‘Wild implausibility’ is just another phrase for novelty.
Hey, we should totally write a book about a tennis ball that travels round the world with a young Scottish player and how it teaches him to become a winner. We could dress folk up as tennis balls and put them on youtube to read it and then maybe intercut it with outtakes of Wimbledon matches narrated from the pov of the ball.
You know as youtube videos go, it probably beats Charlie Bit Me. Or at least it could, if you have the wit to pull of the narration. Problem? Its not a book!
Big ideas aren’t running out – ideas aren’t running out. But ideas are easy. A lazy man can sit in his chair and churn out a dozen a day. Great books?
“Aspiring writers who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not
mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and
That presumes there are such things as rules. Which in turn can put too much emphasis on breaking them. If we see them as techniques, tools, we can address their effect and our concern is only how they serve us. Most importantly how they serve the story.
When I say it is what you say that matters most, I’m not talking big idea, I’m not talking transformative theme or subversive message. Its your story, your message. I adore the little tales. The ordinary, the personal, the Emma’s, the Harriet’s. Big or small there is room for all. I’m saying ask yourself with every word, what am I saying? Because how you tell your story comes down to what you put in, what you make your character do, what you make him say.
When I say what you say matters most, the irony is I am putting the emphasis on form, because that is the form of a novel. It was decided long ago and you’re not the man to change it. No-one is.
The written story works like no other art form. It is in essence sensory deprivation. We use our eyes, but it isn’t visually stimulating, there is no colour, no texture, the shape uniform and unyielding. We hear the words, yet it is silent. In that deprivation, is the uniquely vivid and intimate experience that is the novel. The art is not what we put on the page it is what we create in the mind. But it needs something to grip a hold of. Some writers seem to think the reader should do all the work. Sometimes I do. I call it writing.
You cannot replay the same note and expect the mind to build a landscape – if it does you don’t own copyright. If you offer up prose so complex we’re engaging the puzzle solving part of our brain, we’d be as well doing a Sudoku. If we want to create colour, shape, texture we need something concrete to build with; not simply ideas but your tangible realisation of them. You can’t bury, evade, omit, and expect to end up with something other than a rumination on a how late the bus is.
What everyone is looking for is different, what everyone offers is different. The point is if you want to be read, not simply downloaded to someone’s coffee table, they’ll be inviting you into their mind based on what you offer, the how was already decided, so why are you worrying about it?