24 January 2009

Advice to fiction writers

As usual, these are from the Guardian. For better or worse, I spend more time reading newspapers than I do reading novels.

Philip Pullman: According to David Mamet, "Where should I put the camera?" is one of the fundamental questions a film director has to ask. I'd say it was the fundamental question of all storytelling. It's not only what angle you choose to see an event from, but how close you go to it, and how long you spend with it, and when you look away.

Pullman also wrote: I once heard Christopher Hampton make a very interesting point about the novel, the theatre and cinema. He said that the novel and the film have much more in common than either of them does with the stage play, and the main reason for this is the close-up. The narrator of a novel, and the director of a film, can look where they like, and as close as they like, and we have to look with them; but each member of the audience in a theatre is at a fixed distance from the action. There are no close-ups on the stage.

Eudora Welty's ambition was to create dialogue that can, in her words, reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood.

July 2009: adding a few more points from a Guardian essay by Richard Ford:

In nearly 40 years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I've always tried to abide by EM Forster's famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess "the incalculability of life". To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details - themselves well-rendered in language - will, indeed, be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book's covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels - even the darkest ones - are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest, and they presume a future where they'll be read, their virtues savoured, their lessons put into practice. (I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost's advice meant specically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.)

. . .Thoreau may have been right when he said that a writer is a man who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. Surely one of the sublime allures of literature is that part of literature's breathtaking miracle is its sheer unlikeliness in the hands of its makers, the chance that, given all, it just might never have happened.


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