To Judge a Book (Not By its Cover)

I was tidying up my desk yesterday (a roughly biennial event, so it’s sort of a big deal) when I struck gold: two vouchers for a well-established chain of bookshops. One was worth a whopping £30 and the other, £27. That’s almost £60 worth of book voucher just waiting to be spent.

Naturally I fired up the website of this well-established chain of bookshops as soon as I had completed the excavation of my desk and immediately hit a snag. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. I just wanted new books. Exciting stories, riveting stories, poetically crafted and well researched works of fiction. Unfortunately, that’s a little too vague for the average search engine to reliably cope with. I know what I like when I read it but… how do I know I like it until I read it? I’ve always had this problem with choosing new books, films or other forms of fiction.

It is wise, of course, to begin by whittling the choice down to include only your favourite genres. Most bookshops are organised this way anyway, regardless of whether you are looking online or in a physical shop. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to peruse almost all of the genres, which doesn’t really help much. You could, of course, always fall back on that age-old game of literary roulette called ‘Judge a Book by its Cover’. Alternatively, you could do what I do and ignore the categories the shop gives you and make up your own categories instead. Here’s a couple I like to use:

Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read

This category usually gets first priority when I’m trying to find something new to read. It includes all those authors that I, as a self-proclaimed bookworm, know I should have read but haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that you can dislike anything you wish (even if everyone else loves it) but you just can’t know until you’ve tried… and some authors are just too popular to ignore completely.

For example, I claimed earlier in this post that I love the fantasy genre. Indeed, I do love the fantasy genre. I’ve read loads of fantasy and I nearly always enjoy it but in spite of this… I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Terry Pratchett. Naturally, therefore, when I had my surprise bookish windfall, I decided that I would address the lack of Pratchett on my bookshelf, instead of picking a fantasy novel at random. Since it is the first book in his ever-popular Discworld series, it wasn’t long before I had added The Colour of Magic to my basket.

Authors I Read Once Before and Liked

As well as fantasy, I am also a big fan of fantasy’s dour-faced brother, science-fiction. A couple of years ago, Isaac Asimov belonged in my ‘Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read’ category until I finally read The End of Eternity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Now that I’ve read one of his books, I have a golden opportunity to decide whether or not to write-off Asimov as overrated or to invite him back for a second audition. After all, the last book was maybe a fluke. Maybe Asimov is a one trick pony. Maybe I just won’t like anything else he has written. The first book I read filled me with optimism but caution is still advised in buying books from this category. There’s only one way to know for sure if you can ever truly become a fully-fledged fan of a particular author like Asimov: buy I, Robot and see if it’s half as good as The End of Eternity.

Authors I Can’t Get Enough Of

There are a few very special authors out there who can do no wrong. Every book they publish, I devour and enjoy. Part of it is undoubtedly down to the skill of the writer; a lot of it is perhaps also a matter of personal taste. For me, John Steinbeck is such an author. I first came across him at school when we read Of Mice and Men. I was hooked. Since then I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Wayward Bus, East of Eden, Cup of Gold, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Tortilla Flat and probably a whole bunch of others besides.

This is a great category if, like me, you’re in credit with book vouchers and want to be sure that at least some of the books you order will be ones you know you’ll love. Just search for the author’s name and pick any old one. Joy is guaranteed.

Incidentally, I settled on The Red Pony for those of you who are interested.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes the idea behind a story is more important than who wrote it. A couple of years ago, I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which is an alternate history in which the Allies lost the Second World War. It wasn’t the most exciting book I’d ever read, but I still enjoyed it and the idea behind it made for a stimulating (if horrifying) fictional universe. Perhaps a different author might be able to put a different (or even better) spin on the same idea…?

Fortunately, most online shops include ‘more books like this’ recommendations. It didn’t take more than a few clicks for me to find and purchase The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville.

Gamble!

Some books do just have very compelling covers, don’t they? You’ve never heard of the novel or the author but still, something about it catches your eye. If you’re feeling brave, why not roll the dice on a brand new author who you’ve never heard of?

Of course, just because you’re taking a gamble doesn’t mean you can’t stack the odds of finding an enjoyable read in your favour. Do your homework before you spend any money. I remember I once overheard some horse-racing enthusiasts discussing at considerable length how they intended to bet and why. You should have this kind of mindset when taking a chance on a new author. Don’t just impulsively buy one based on the pretty cover alone; do your research. The internet and the newspapers alike are bursting with reviews on all kinds of fiction. Websites like Goodreads are especially useful for getting an idea of what hundreds of different readers individually thought about particular books and they will usually provide an average star rating as well.

Ultimately, every purchase is a gamble. Sometimes your favourite genre will disappoint you; sometimes the best-selling authors are over-rated; sometimes you will find a gem from an author or genre you normally hate. But just because every purchase is a gamble doesn’t mean every purchase must be a guess. With a well trained gut and a little bit of research, there’s no reason why you can’t find something worth reading every single time.

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – A Masterclass in Dialogue

There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (first published in Men Without Women 1927).

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is set in a bar at a train station in the middle of nowhere and focuses on a very awkward conversation between an American man and a girl who have been apparently having an affair. The girl is pregnant and is travelling for an abortion. She is having second thoughts about it, or perhaps more accurately is having second thoughts about the affair she is having with this (perhaps older) man. He, on the other hand, is desperate for her to have the abortion so that their life can continue as it was before she got pregnant. What is so remarkable about this story is that absolutely none of this is explicitly stated. It is simply implied, not only through what the characters say but what the characters are also not saying. Indeed, there is very little narration in the story at all (only three or four short paragraphs); the vast majority of the story (which is just shy of 1500 words long) is made up of dialogue between these two (ex?)-lovers.

This is ‘showing, not telling’ at its very finest. There’s lots that can be said about this tiny little gem but the thing I really want to talk about is Hemingway’s extraordinary use of dialogue through-out this story.

The first five hundred words or so of the story feature the two characters having the most trivial of discussions: what they are drinking. They simply do not mention their relationship, their feelings about each other, the pregnancy, the abortion or anything else of significance before this point.

Five hundred words! That’s almost a third of the story done with already and they haven’t given any hint whatsoever that they are anything more than casual acquaintances. I should also mention that during this time, the characters knock back no less than three drinks each. This is a long, drawn out conversation about nothing punctuated by awkward silences. Hemingway doesn’t need to describe the awkward silences. They’re apparent to the reader through the fact that they get through so many drinks while saying so little. If we had any doubt that the silence was a tense one, we only need to look at how quickly their trivial conversation turns into conflict:

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’
‘Oh, cut it out.’
‘You started it,’ the girl said. ‘I was being amused. I was having a fine time.’
‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’
‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’
‘That was bright.’
‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?’
‘I guess so.’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Maybe I’m just more laid back than most, but it strikes me that these two characters are having anything but a ‘fine time’. This is a tense and awkward discussion about anything other than the one thing that’s on both of their minds.

When the conversation finally does come around to ‘the operation’, the two characters continue to dance around the subject and each other. They never once talk about a baby or an abortion, or even the fact that they have had any kind of physical relationship. Instead, Hemingway nudges the reader towards an understanding of what is going on for these two characters through their vague and awkward dialogue. The best clue we have that the girl is going for an abortion (rather than some other kind of ‘operation’) is that they are both clearly very uncomfortable about it. They talk about it with euphemisms, like how it is a ‘simple operation’ to ‘let the air in’ and so forth. This euphemism itself also gives us a clue that the girl is having something removed from her body… something they’re both embarrassed to talk about but are both desperately concerned about.

Hemingway goes on to make it apparent, through the characters’ dialogue, that these two characters have very different feelings about their situation. The man consistently tries to goad the girl into going ahead with the abortion using reassuring phrases such as ‘It’s perfectly simple’ and ‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it’.

There is one interesting point where the girl explicitly asks him, ‘And you really want to?’

Does he give a straight answer? No. Instead he tries again to persuade her:

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’

Even in the middle of this conversation about the actual issue they are both facing, the two characters utterly fail to communicate. They’re playing verbal tennis with each other but it is clear that they are on different wavelengths entirely. The man continually tries to persuade her that everything will be all right and that their relationship will go back to how it was when the abortion is complete; the girl, on the other hand, increasingly realises that this is not the case. When she does, she drops the conversation. She’s no longer interested in hearing his persuasions; her mind is set. Again, this is not explicitly stated by any narrative; it is simply made clear by the dialogue:

‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -‘
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Notice how the girl interrupts the man by finishing his sentence for him. She knows what he’s going to say. She’s heard him spin this line a million times before (he certainly spins it often enough during the story and goodness knows how many times before the story actually begins!). She isn’t interested in hearing it any more. In spite of his assertions that he cares about her needs, the man actually has no idea what the girl needs and is more occupied with his own fear that she might actually have this baby. The girl, on the other hand, seems to mature in wisdom almost immediately before our eyes.

This is all made clear to the reader with the narrator barely uttering a word through-out the entire story. Instead of simply being told the facts, the narrator leads us to this train station in the middle of no where and leaves us there to eavesdrop on a private conversation so that we can glean all the details for ourselves as we go.

Now that is what I call showing, not telling.

5 Simple Steps to Avoid Becoming a Writer

So, there’s a writer inside you and he’s already sowing the seeds of a best-seller in your brain. Your inner-writer’s urge to write that story is overwhelming. Night and day, he nags you to let him write. You fear that it may only be a matter of time before you have to quit your miserable office job that you love and become a professional author instead – all because you couldn’t silence the voice in your head which said ‘Let me write!’. Because the urge – no, the need – to write is so powerful, you know you’ll never be able to simply ignore it.

All you can hope to do is keep your inner-writer at bay by pacifying him with false promises of writing. So if you want to make sure that best-seller of yours never makes it to the first draft stage (never mind the best-seller shelf!), here’s a few simple steps you can follow.

1 – Find New Writing Equipment

Remember, the trick is to make your inner-writer feel good about himself without ever letting him do any writing, so set aside your manuscript (‘just for a second’) and fire up your preferred app store or shopping website and start hunting for new equipment or software that might help you to become a better writer.

The reason this is such an effective means of dodging that completed manuscript is simple: it feels like you’re helping your inner-writer to accomplish his goals when in fact you are simply wasting his time. Because there are so many resources you can spend your time perusing, you can easily spend your entire day doing it instead of actually writing. The obvious thing to look for is new software that you can write your novel with (or perhaps some nice new stationary, if that’s how you roll); perhaps something that allows you to organise your notes and drafts in a particular fashion, or perhaps you would prefer to look for an app like the Hemingway Editor which marks your writing style for you.

2 – Study Your Craft

The only danger with the previous step is that if you do happen to find the perfect writing software (i.e., Scrivener), your inner-writer will insist you buy it and then let him start writing his novel with it!

If this happens, quickly appeal to your inner-writer’s sense of vanity. It is his greatest weakness! Tell him you want to make sure he writes to his fullest potential… and to do that, he must learn all about the art of writing before he can write in a way which does justice to his natural genius.

The internet is your best friend to this end. With just a few well-phrased search terms, you will soon find that you’re absorbing the wisdom of writers and writing-coaches from all the four corners of the world. The more you read, the more excited your inner-writer will become about how great a writer he is going to be – not realising that hours may have passed without a single word of fiction actually being written by you.

3 – Figure Out Whether You’re a Planner or Not

So, you’ve got your brand spanking new notepads, pens, writing software, chair and everything else you need to write and you’ve finished reading up on how to be a writer (not that you’ll ever truly read everything the internet has to offer!). Suddenly you’re struck with a horrifying thought:

I have no more excuses not to write!

But don’t give up! You still have a chance to kill time. Remember what the internet taught you about planning your novel: that some people naturally need a plan to write successfully and others naturally do better without a plan. So, waste a bit more time trying to figure out which applies to you…

4 – …Then Plan/Do Not Plan Accordingly

If you have decided that you are a planner, then plan. Plan, plan and plan some more. Plan until you are up to your nose-hair in character profiles, chapter layouts, back stories, mind-maps, doodles and whatever else you can think of to refine your story without actually writing a line of narrative. If you’re struggling a bit, get back on the internet and research your subject. Is your antagonist a pirate? Then be sure to research everything the internet has to offer on piracy and don’t stop refining that antagonist’s profile until he accurately reflects all the facts you’ve learned. Plan until there’s not so much as a hint of a rough edge left anywhere in your story. I can guarantee that you will never actually start a draft.

If, however, you have decided that you’re not a planner, then write without a plan. Remember all that stuff I said last week about knowing what your story is about? Forget I said it. Write fifty odd chapters, or more if you can manage it! Then, when you finally realise that your story can proceed no further, spend a few weeks or months feeling dejected. Repeat this process as many  times as required until you finally give up.

5 – Tell Everyone About the Great Novel You’re Writing

If, by some miracle, you have actually managed to complete all of the above steps and you still have a little time left over to write your novel then stop.

You’ve already got your new writing software. You already know how to craft and structure the perfect novel (and have the jargon to prove it!). You have completed all the planning you need. Your inner-writer probably feels pretty smug about the fact that he is ready to write a killer novel and still has a few spare hours to do it. Your last hope is for you to tell all your Facebook friends and Twitter followers all about the exciting story you’re writing. Perhaps even post a little excerpt to demonstrate to everyone what a truly splendid writer you are and maybe get them to critique it for you.

While you’re here, have a look and see what everyone else is up to on the internet, especially other writers. There’s nothing your inner-writer likes more than to feel like he is a contemporary of your favourite published authors. This is also a good place to look at up writer’s memes, or something along those lines. This will make your inner-writer feel good about himself, because he gets all the jokes that include literature jargon about narrative voice and what-not.

These five steps should be more than sufficient to waste every precious minute of your inner-writer’s writing time. So long as you’re procrastinating, you’re not writing and if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. If you find you still have time to write then I can only conclude that you are simply not procrastinating hard enough and are spending far too much time writing your story. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this but if you find yourself in that position then I fear that you may, finally, be a writer.

What’s Your Story About?

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?