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If you stopped at Skin, and just added "Luckily Joe was a trained magician" you might be onto something!

An interesting way of looking at writing, and an event that humans went through in history on a grand scale too I suppose. Is writing the new meditation, the new spiritual path, where progress is only possible with accurate self-reflection?

You might be right out there in the avant guard M! But I'm on a similar track looking at Kindle. Not very far along yet though.

Added a comment to The icy leap 

Glad it's minor R.J.We do have the problem that attention spans and delay of gratification have reduced massively since the times of Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy! But how you deal with that must be part of what your idea is about. You can't be chasing popular fashions or your tangled lump will remain!

Added a comment to The icy leap 

A big factor is that through all the edits we become so familiar with our big idea that to the writer it loses it sheen. Standing back for a while can help, but ultimately we have to have faith in our original judgement!

Added a comment to The icy leap 

Helpful to see that even experienced authors still need to keep their belief in the work alive and struggle with the slow parts and a lot of that comes down to the key ideas of the book. 

I don't think that would work as the individual would still be responsible and that is why publishers state that in their contracts

That's interesting, it may be down to the degree of romance (he said hopefully). In which case maybe a different take could still take the bite. Is your sub genre the paranormal mystery? I think romance is my sub genre but it's not far behind the main genre. My professional designer has gone for the romantic font and I'm wondering if that's going to disappoint. But if I go for a thriller font nobody will know what a romance they missed!

Reposted harrybingham's post.

Last week we pondered the awkward prose and strange success of Dean Koontz. Today – rather stupidly – I’m going to do the opposite.

Our theme this week is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The book deals with the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. (The two names, Hamnet and Hamlet were used more or less interchangeably in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare wrote the play a few years after the death of his son.)

The book is obviously Great Literature. My copy is jam-packed with superlative reviews and the book won both the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction in the US.

So: serious critical heft, plus it talks about Shakespeare, so what’s not to love?

Well, when we were looking at Dean Koontz last week, we thought that some of his writing habits are there to reassure his readers that they’re going to get what they came for.

Koontz’s readers don’t want fancy writing, so Koontz is quick to reassure them: buddy, you’re not going to get any. On the other hand, they do want big, clear, comic-book style characters, and Koontz makes sure he places one prominently on page one.

I suggested that that Koontz’s approach to prose was like a box of cheaper chocolates, where the point of the packaging was to reassure shoppers, “This is not too fancy. If you feel worried by fancy, expensive chocolates, we promise that you won’t find any of that stuff inside.”

But how about the opposite? If you’re buying fancy chocolates, you want the packaging to match. Elegant fonts, dark colours, plenty of layers of foil and fluffy packaging and fancy tissue. The packaging says, “You want fancy? We’re going to give you fancy. Worried that these chocolates won’t pass muster at your posh dinner party? Don’t worry. We’ve got six layers of fancy tissue and each chocolate comes in its own mini-wrapping, so your guests are just going to KNOW that you’ve spent real money on this box.”

OK. Hold that thought.

Here are some bits from Hamnet:

Quote 1

You might find the [edge of the forest] a restless, verdant, inconstant sight: the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour, bending and shuddering and tossing its branches as if trying to get away from the air, from the very soil that nourishes it.

Quote 2

The words fly out of her mouth, like hornets, words she didn’t even know she knew, words that dart and crackle and maim, words that twist and mangle her tongue.

Quote 3

He gives a nod and a shrug, all at the same time, eyeing the broad back of his father, who looms behind his mother, still facing the street. He is, despite himself, despite the fact that he is clutching the hand of the woman he has vowed to marry, despite everything working out which way he will have to duck to avoid the inevitable fist, to feint, to parry, and to shield Agnes from the blows he knows will come.

Two things before we go on.

One, please look at those quotes and see what you think of them. Forget that you are reading a hugely successful work of literary fiction. What do you think of the quotes on the page?

Two, I’m going to have some challenging things to say about those snippets of writing, but I’m not so daft as to think that Maggie O’Farrell can’t write. There’s plenty of excellent writing in the book – just, I’m not sure she nails it every time.

Right-o. So let’s dig in.

Quote 1, comments

You might find the [edge of the forest] a restless, verdant, inconstant sight: the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour, bending and shuddering and tossing its branches as if trying to get away from the air, from the very soil that nourishes it.

If I were being mean about this snippet (and I am), I think I’d point out the following:

  1. Verdant means covered with thick green foliage and it’s a word almost never used in ordinary speech. It’s what you might expect from a Victorian poetess. Any more recent usage tends to feel like it’s straining a bit too hard.
  2. Restless and inconstant mean much the same thing. Certainly, it’s not clear that both are needed here. What is the additional word supposed to add?
  3. On the topic of pointless repetition, caresses, ruffles and disturbs seems like repetition for the sake of it. 
  4. When O’Farrell writes the mass of leaves, she could just as well have written the leaves. The word mass adds a kind of pretension without any useful addition to meaning.
  5. The weather’s ministrations: the use of the word weather here seems like an awkward way of repeating the word wind. But she doesn’t really mean weather; she definitely means wind. So the sentence needed a bit of a rethink… 
  6. And the word ministrations is rather like verdant: do you ever actually use the word if you’re not straining to sound posh? I’d suggest mostly not.
  7. On the matter of a slightly different tempo from its neighbour – I actually liked this. Different trees do move in different ways, as do their leaves. So a poplar alternates rapidly between showing a darker upper leaf, and a more silvery underside. A beech behaves differently. An oak differently again. If O’Farrell had offered us some detail of observation along those lines, we might actually see something new in nature – taking stock of something we’d seen but never before noticed. As it is, the comment is blandly general and getting close to a statement of the obvious.
  8. When we get to bending and shuddering and tossing its branches, then once again I think we mostly have repetition for the sake of it. I’m not even sure that trees do shudder. That implies a rapid repetitive movement which is not really how trees behave.
  9. And trees moving in the wind suggests that they’re trying to escape from the air and the soil? Really? I mean, I love a tasty metaphor, but for me this just seems like a fail. A big, bold image that in the end just feels unconvincing.

Quotes 2 and 3, comments

I’m not going to comment on these passages at length, except that now we’ve noticed O’Farrell’s habit of repetition, it’s hard to un-notice it – and it doesn’t feel better on further acquaintance.

But do just take a note of this: ‘The words fly out of her mouth, like hornets’. These words are clearly not very like hornets, since they dart and crackle and maim none of which are things that hornets do. These words also twist and mangle the woman’s tongue and you’d have to be a very muscular (and peculiar) hornet to do that. The thing that hornets are best known for doing is stinging people, and there’s no mention of sting here. So: these words aren’t really like hornets at all, are they?

Presumably, O’Farrell knows that, so why does she write it?

Well, I think two things. First, there’s the literary attraction to the big, bold metaphor, and the attraction remains, even when the metaphor isn’t sound. And secondly, if you want to cut a dash with book critics, then some great tips are:

  1. Write about Shakespeare or adapt a story of Shakespeare’s (Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres) , or adapt another classic tale (Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles), or  …
  2. Make sure that, every now and then, you talk about words themselves, or sentences, or parts of speech, or vowels, etc. That way, you’re showing proper deference to the tools of the literary trade
  3. Use fashionable phrases where you can. ‘Freighted with a cargo of X’ for example is an excellent way to say “possesses X” for pretty much every possible instance of X.
  4. Use some fancy words (verdant, not green)
  5. Toss in plenty of verbs, in lists.
  6. Use semi-colons freely – or avoid them completely. Doesn’t matter which: you just need a clearly visible policy.
  7. And so on! This list is definitely not exhaustive.

The opposite of Mr Koontz

The truth is you can write a terrific novel and still fall prey to some of the weaknesses of Literary Writing – no novel is perfect, after all.

But as with Mr Koontz, I think part of it has to do with wrapping and how you appeal to your target market. In the end, it’s the chocolate itself that matters. But clever packaging is a smart way to market yourself to your target audience.

It’s not just Dean Koontz that does that, it’s prize-winning Maggie O’Farrell too. And hell, it’s not just those two: it’s all of us. Nowt wrong with that. But we still need to make sure that the writing passes muster. The writing has to come first.

I suppose it is quite a good deal Jo. Are you Canadian or did I just pick that out by chance?!

Hi Jo, Thanks for your posts. If the others are like me they are just busy writing! It seems a lot for a website. Presumably it is for more than one page?

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