The Storyteller

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Learning from the masters

Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.

But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.

When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.

Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.

The masters

Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.

And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.

I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.

So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.

Learning from the masters

I’m starting to become obsessed with plotting. Not plotting some dastardly deed, but plotting a novel. It turns out there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. The latter being the ones who just start writing and figure it out as they go along, ie flying by the seat of their pants. It turns out I am not one of them. Or at least, I get lost in innumerable tangents when I try that approach. Now, I have to say that I’m not convinced that I’m a plotter either, but I’m willing to be open to the possibility that applying some conscious structure might be a good thing. Because I really do go off on the loveliest tangents, but then I realise they don’t go anywhere particularly helpful, unless you count introducing a pile of new characters and events which I found interesting and wanted to play around with.

So I’ve spent a while today trying to see how one of the masters does it. Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is in my top [insert random number – it will be in there] books, and because she is telling a story in the present day and the past, I thought it would be a good one to take apart structurally and see how she does it.

Storyteller

I am now not so sure she was a good one to start with. What I need is something simple. Along the lines of ‘this scene serves the following purpose’, ideally as a header to each section. What I got was a crazy set of characters, all with their own stories, all coming and going in what, in isolation, seems to be without rhyme or reason. Except that there is both rhyme and reason and it all moves forward in a way that feels right. But it’s too well done to be capable of a quick ripping apart into different sections. But I am going to persist with this exercise anyway, I just need to look at everything that is going on and try to track what’s going on in more detail. One thing is clear already, though. It’s the characters that are driving it, as they always do. But I also want to see how the structure of the novel allows the characters to develop in a coherent way.

Part of me can’t believe I am willingly trying to analyse books in the way that I hated at school or university. Maybe the difference is that I’m now doing it for a reason I can understand. And one that matters to me.

But this exercise has frazzled my brain for today, so I am going to sit and read for a while before resuming my dissection tomorrow!

60 rolls, two book reviews and a new tradition

This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.

For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.

Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.

So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.

RollsWe ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)

I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.

Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.

Jodi

But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.

Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…