Yesterday, I rashly asked the group if there was a subject they would particularly like me to cover.
Bit of thinking. Small pause. ‘Well, yes,’ they said, tentatively, almost as one. ‘How to write a book.’
Of course they did not quite say that, but that was the gist. So, I decided to tell them, in under three hours. I like a challenge.
I could have said: you start, you keep going, and when you are finished, you stop. And then we could have gone to see the horse.
This is facetious, but it is also slightly true. That really is what you do. It’s gloriously simple and fabulously hard. You need, I think, some hows to help with it. That is what I was trying to provide.
This is a truncated version of some of the things I said. It will not be the most beautiful thing you read today, because I’m trying to convey information, not dazzle you with my prose style. (As if I could.)
Structure bores me witless, which is probably why I’m not very good at it. But there are things about it I do know. Your book needs a spine. Books with no spine collapse in a mashed soufflé of their own muddle and self-indulgence.
A beginning, middle and end sounds absurdly obvious, but it really does help. How much you know of the spine before you start depends on you. Some people have wall charts and index cards and plot points all worked out. This makes them feel safe, and they write from point to point, like those first steeplechase riders who galloped from spire to spire.
Some people find this too prescriptive, and merely require a more general direction. Then they can play around in between. I generally begin with a vividly-known opening scene; this is the germ of the book that gets me going. I’ll have in my mind three or four pivotal scenes along the way, and a definite finale. Within that, I make it up as I go along, so the journey is one of discovery.
Find the method that suits you. But you should know where you are going, or you will, at some stage, run into the sand, and get lost, and wish you had brought a map.
I include momentum under the heading of structure. A book should have a strong forward motion, which pulls the reader along with it. Sol Stein called this the engine of the book, and he always said that he listened carefully for the moment when the engine started. In a perfect world, it should turn over in the very first sentence.
Even if you are playing about with flashbacks or being cavalier with time, the pulling thread of the book should remain tight. Everything should strain forward, to that inevitable end. It sounds rather old-fashioned and blatant, but the question in the reader’s mind should be: what happens next? You should have a good answer to that question.
You can learn a lot about structure from the art of the screenplay. The strict three act construction, with its set-up, amplification, reversal and resolution can feel a little formulaic, but it’s not a bad thing to hold in your mind, especially if you are a novice. The classic screenplay moment at the end of act two, when it seems that all is lost, followed by the eureka moment when the heroine regains her mojo and sets out once more on her quest, is almost archetypal. It is drawn from the ancient myth form, with a faint Jungian aspect, and that is the reason it is so powerful. It’s something you might like to consider.
As a side note, thinking about film can help in another way. If you are stuck on a particular scene, run it in your head like a film clip. Then you may easily transcribe what you have just watched. Most of the writing advice that I dispense is shamelessly cadged from greater writers than I. This tiny trick is something I came up with all on my own. I’m stupidly proud of it.
Character is vital, and it’s really where a book should start. You can have the cleverest, most intricate story in the world, but if it is not happening to someone vivid and human it will be flat as twenty-seven squashed pancakes. The reader needs someone to root for. What happens is not the most important thing, it is who it happens to.
So, you have to start the very idea of a book with a strong character. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your plot is, if the reader is not caught by the protagonist, she will not care what happens, even if it involves fireballs and flying spaceships.
Sol Stein once said that when he was an editor and he was sent a manuscript, his first hope was that he would fall in love. This does not mean that the character needs to be lovable. You can create a monster, an anti-hero or heroine. The only thing I would say about that is that it is difficult. It takes a master to persuade the reader to stay with someone loathsome. Dostoevsky did it, and Nabokov, but they were flying at the very top of their game. I’m not suggesting you cop out. If you are fascinated by the ghastly, go with it. But if you want to make your passage into fiction easier, the best approach is to invent someone with whom you can fall in love, just as Stein hoped to. The likelihood then is that the reader will too.
Don’t make the mistake of creating a shining, perfect character. People rarely love the perfect, even if it did exist, which it does not. The very idea of perfection repels; it is distant and impervious. It is up on a high plinth. The moment in High Society when the Grace Kelly character becomes truly lovable is when she says: help me down from my pedestal. The ones people love are usually keenly human: flawed, contradictory, struggling, aware of their own folly.
I do think plot comes from character. You may have a ripping yarn in your head, and that is fine. But normally a plot starts with a human doing something. The woman picked up the ringing telephone; the man tore the bandage from his eyes. It is the person who begins the action and starts the motor of the plot.
If you try to impose a story on a person you have built to fit, the thing will always have an air of bogusness about it. Readers will only ask the what happens next question when there is a living, breathing, believable human in the vortex of all that happening.
And it is the knowledge of your character that will make your plot make sense. If you try to shoehorn a character into your set story, making him do something entirely out of character in the process, the fourth wall is broken, and the suspension of disbelief is lost.
Don’t be afraid of complexity. Humans are contradictory and complex and often hardly explicable. Fictional characters may be as complex as you like, just as real people are, but they should also have a sort of consistency. If you pull a stunt where a protagonist suddenly behaves completely against all previous form, you risk losing your reader. The protagonist may do the unexpected, but there should be a little foreshadowing, so the reader may look back and say: ah, yes, I see.
Characters should always want. The essence of plot is – a protagonist desires something, and has to overcome a series of obstacles to achieve it. The obstacles do not have to be visible or actual even; they can be internal. But they must be there. Kurt Vonnegut said the cleverest thing I ever read about character. He said: ‘Make your characters want something right away, even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’
I try not to be too prescriptive, because really the only rule of writing is that there is no rule. You only have to read Ulysses to see that. But I do think that you should know your central characters better than you know yourself. It is for this reason that I never base fictional characters on real people. Even if you live with someone for forty years, she will suddenly surprise you. You will never truly know your great-aunt Mabel in the way you know Ethel Sambora, who grew up in the back-streets of Buenos Aires and now breeds chickens just outside Lowestoft, because you made Ethel up, and she is yours.
How you get to know your character depends on you. I live with mine. They are with me when I fall to sleep at night, and with me when I wake. I take them to the supermarket and to do the horse. Some people like to do a strict Paxman-style interview; some people set their characters twenty questions. A really good way to find your characters’ true selves is to put them under extreme pressure; then their inner core is revealed.
If you do not know your characters, your plot will stutter and fail. Learn them, love them, hate them, fight with them. Make them unexpected and eccentric and not quite normal. It helps if they amuse you, because you are going to spend an awful lot of time in their company.
3. The importance of openings.
The start of a book is the most important part of it, and the opening sentence is the crux of that. This is vital for two reasons. One is practical and vulgar. There are thousands of books on the market and people have little time and short attention spans. If you do not get them at Hello, your book will not sell and you will have to eat grass.
In a more high-flown, artistic sense, your opening sentence may perform many creative tasks, sometimes at the same time. It can introduce character, paint a picture, set a tone. It can create a mystery, pose a question, serve up a shock. It should, at the very least, interest and intrigue. I did not use to pay much attention to openings, but just went on instinct. This was a mistake. It is now something of which I am keenly aware.
I remember ages ago being struck by a piece of advice from a clever person whose name I have lost. It went something like this: always start a scene halfway through. The same goes for the beginning of a book. To start a book in a thrilling way, you can plunge straight into the action, the middle of a scene, an act of violence or love or wrenching loss. Trust the reader. You do not have to set the stage, explain things, map out what you are going to do. Let her see it, taste it, feel it, sense it. If there are loose ends, you can loop back later and tie them up. Hit the ground sprinting. The reader will go with you. She is quite brave like that, if she senses she is in safe hands.
Don’t forget that writing, even though it is composed of one-dimensional scratches on a page, is a vivid, visual medium. A good question to ask about openings is: what can the reader see? All the senses may be used: a good opening can invoke smell, taste, touch.
But don’t make promises you can't keep. If you begin on a note of high drama, of intense action, the book cannot then lapse into a dreamy, static examination of the human condition. If you want to write a contemplative book, begin on a contemplative note. That way the reader does not ask for his money back. Never write a cheque you can’t cash. Remember Chekhov’s gun. If you load the gun, and it never goes off, your reader may feel puzzled and short-changed.
Here are some of my favourite opening lines:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
LP Hartley, The Go-Between.
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.
Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a proud, rose-colored hotel.
Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night.
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway.
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
Karen Blixen, Out of Africa.
It was clearly going to be a bad crossing.
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
In a village of La Mancha,
the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
Dante, The Divine Comedy
James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and though about life and death.
Ian Fleming, Goldfinger
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier.
This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Paul Auster, City of Glass.
When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd.
I said an awful lot more. (My poor students. At least there was cake.) I’m not going to write any more now, because I’ve gone on long enough. Also, my fingers are tired.
And here, to reward you after all those damn words, is the now-traditional foal picture. Nine days old today: