by Mandy Haggith

Trade Secrets

August 12, 2011 | by Mandy Haggith

Many people like the idea of being a writer without ever putting pen to paper in earnest. Sometimes such people need to give themselves permission to write, particularly to write badly, at least, at first; only then do they become teachable. And creative writing can definitely be taught. Whether through enough practice the writer will become skilled is another question. But, as I say, it can, like any skill, be taught.

In the last issue of the Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor asked whether a novice writer would be better off spending several thousand pounds on good books or on a creative writing course. I don’t see these as alternatives: both serve different purposes, both are useful.

Learning to write involves at least the following four elements: know-how (a technical understanding of grammar, style and story structure); practice (to gain fluency, skill and confidence); feedback (to understand how others respond to your work) and reading (to learn from the masters). A writer learning the trade can do much of what is offered by creative writing courses by him or herself, but an audience of fellow apprentices led by a teacher can help his or her development through providing constructive criticism. Reading and practising are down to the writer, though a teacher can also offer guidance on what to read and suggest new directions that will make practice fulfilling.

The popularity of creative writing courses was underlined recently by the publication of two guides to the subject written by experienced teachers. Andrew Cowan is at the University of East Anglia, famously the site of the country’s first such course, graduates of which include Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Jonathan Falla is at the Open University and St Andrews. Cowan and Falla have also written several well-received novels themselves. So what can a handbook offer? It will not help with feedback. It has a modest role laying out know-how rules and techniques and giving examples, and it may be able to do this even more clearly than a workshop or class, plus it can provide exercises for practice. In addition, it can offer reading signposts and suggestions.

Both Falla’s and Cowan’s handbooks are aimed at prose writers, rather than those interested in poetry. In the case of Falla, he pitches his lessons specifically at would-be novelists. The difference in their approach and style is indicative of the various ways in which creative writing can be taught. Cowan’s book is a guided course, which starts with easy tasks and grapples with progressively larger issues, offering a plethora of ‘try this’ exercises that will keep a new writer busy for a year. Falla’s book begins with the big picture, the overall story that a novel-writer is seeking to tell, and works his way inwards with a brisk rather than professorial tone and with didactic ‘work points’ presented as suggestions rather than homework.

Cowan’s book is an introduction to the writing process, including encouragement of habits such as noticing, keeping notebooks, writing stream of consciousness screeds, and breaking every rule going. There are some good observations. Dialogue, he writes, ‘often succeeds most for a reader where it most fails for the characters’. His explanation

of point of view does not shirk the issue of the moral dimension implicit in the author’s decision of how much ‘psychic distance’ to place between the author, the narrator, the reader and the characters. This area is often where a book comes together or falls apart, and Cowan handles it well.

Unfortunately he also packs in an awful lot of boring memoir and unconvincing material between his gems. He relegates the use of vernacular speech to ‘a stylistic option’, rather than making it a key issue of authorial voice. He is shallow on the issue of structure, dismissing archetypical story forms in a few sentences and body-swerving the important and difficult topic of plot altogether. This leaves a hole in the book.

Someone who is in the early stages of creative writing may find Cowan’s book helpful, especially if they are unsure about grammar or how to harvest material from the world to draw on in their fiction. A writer needing serious help with a novel will find Falla a more suitable advisor.

Whereas Cowan takes until page 143 to reach how stories work, by page 7 Falla has begun to tackle the issue. ‘When you are considering a story to tell, the first questions must be: where is the tension, and the source of conflict? Who wants what, and why is that going to be difficult?’ From the start, then, there is no doubt that Falla’s reader is already well past the basics and wants to grapple with the challenges of a big story. Unlike Cowan, Falla expects that the reader has at least a degree of literacy sufficient enough that he or she understands the difference between direct and reported speech as well as a number of other grammatical matters (‘You don’t know the Oxford comma? Look it up.’) Thirty pages in, Cowan is still advising the reader on how to keep a notebook to capture moments of real life, in order to demonstrate ‘how journals can act as a source of material for fiction’. By this point, Falla is asking, ‘Are you prepared to lie? To change the facts, the motives and the order of events? If not, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.’

For Falla, story is primary and it is about character conflicts. On setting, he says, ‘There is no such thing as a neutral landscape; it will be charged with human tension.’ Using all the senses is not a matter of providing ‘colour’, but rather a way into the experience of characters. Take an urban soundscape: ‘Whether it be buskers or musak or the radio playing high upon scaffolding where builders are at work, or the sudden physical thumping through the open window of a boom-box car. Are these things a matter of pleasure or distress to your character?’ As well providing good advice, the book is full of vivid writing like this.

Falla is at his best examining what makes writing difficult. He skips over the laundry list of attributes the author should know about every character, and instead focuses on where in the narrative a character description can do most work. His chapter on plotting provides lucid summaries of issues like pacing out information, foreshadowing a crisis and handling multiple time-frames. He systematically dismantles traps that a learner writer is likely to fall into: flashbacks, for example, or surprise revelations towards the end of a story. ‘Explanation for its own sake is tedious and should be cut,’ he says. ‘Most things don’t need explaining anyway.’ Shocks, he says, ‘are often very boring’.

The Craft of Writing Novels has flaws, of course. It has summaries at the end of chapters, which I found irritating, and occasionally the author wanders off into snapshots from his life in rural Scotland the relevance of which escaped me. But overall it is well-paced and clear.

Both books, however, fail to deliver on what is, to me, the most challenging and disaster-prone aspect of novel-writing: the process of editing. Most novelists probably spend far more time on re-writing, revising and editing than on the creation of the first draft, but these processes receive short shrift in Falla’s brief concluding chapter. In Cowan’s chapter on revision, page after page is devoted to grammar as if, by hiding at a sub-sentence level, he can avoid the real issue that every novel writer faces, which is how, having completed a bad first draft, he or she can set about reworking the whole into something more coherent. I know from experience, having had one published and two unfinished novels, that the hardest part is keeping a whole novel in mind, understanding where the plot or subplots are not working, which characters do not have satisfactory roles, and which themes are introduced but not developed. Neither book, offers sufficient advice to meet this need.

The most striking difference between the two books is the novels they reference. Within the first few pages, Falla has mentioned Austen, Shakespeare, Homer, James, Pasternak, Golding and Pamuk, and throughout the book, he illustrates points with examples ranging from Hitchcock movies to soap operas to new novelists like Jason Donald. Cowan begins with a set of vignettes about the writing practices of various authors and his bibliography contains more books about the writing process than works of literature. So, while both books present a range of useful know-how and writing practice, as guides to further reading the choice is between Cowan’s shelf of other handbooks or Falla’s signposts towards a world of great writing.

THE CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO BECOME A NOVELIST

Jonathan Falla
ABER, £10.99, PP231 ISBN 978-1842851043

THE ART OF WRITING FICTION

Andrew Cowan
LONGMAN, £16.99, PP240 ISBN 978-1408248348

From this Issue

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by Joseph Farrell

An Orcadian’s Conversion

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Trade Secrets

by Mandy Haggith

Blog / Discussion

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