Friday, 20 April 2007

Reading Like a Writer

A few years ago I wrote an article Writing & Bridge: How to become a Grandmaster. It was full of fine thoughts, theory. But reality and theory do not always match: for ought and is leave maybe far behind.

Last Saturday my bridge partner and I played in a tournament that was way above us, the clich├ęd and literal "out of our league". There were seven rounds, and sure enough, we started with an 18-2 defeat.

In the next round, our opponents were in "Four Clubs" meaning they needed ten tricks with clubs as trumps. I had the Ace and King of Diamonds, the Ace of Clubs (a guaranteed trick) and a single low Spade. If I led the spade, and partner had the Ace, and she led back a spade, I could ruff the trick. Then we had four tricks, possibly five, and the contract would be off, a good result for us.

I led my little Spade and dummy went down (one of the opposition's hands [dummy] is shown and the opponent plays both hands). My AK of diamonds now didn't look so good as dummy had just one diamond, and once partner doesn't play the Ace of Spades things look bleak.

Our opponents win with the Ace of Spades and return a small club. Now comes my point. I can play a low club, rather than my Ace (the usual rule is second man plays low) in case my partner has a bare King of Clubs. But then what? We might make the Ace of Clubs, the Ace of Diamonds. It was just possible that partner had the King of Clubs but highly unlikely.

But I choose to go up with the Ace of Clubs. I now have a tiddly little club but I'm out of spades) and I want my partner to lead spades so I can ruff. There is only one hope, one possibility. I have to pray that my partner has the Queen of diamonds, wins the trick when I play a low diamond, then remembers I led a spade to start, so leads one back. If partner doesn't have the QD we get a very bad result indeed.

But I'm committed now. I win with the AC lead the small diamond. Partner plays the Jack and my heart is in my mouth. But it wins, back comes a spade, I get my ruff. The opps, miles better than us, say "well-defended" we win that board and eventually draw the round 10-10.

We had got the good board because had stopped to think "outside the box" to consider "is there any holding my partner has that could give us a result?" That is not a beginner thought. It comes from good players doing it to you, and from reading about the principle, understanding it, and then applying it. That is, it doesn't happen unless you work at it.

Going into the last round we are 11th of 150 (we needed oxygen we had never been that high before) and then reality hits like a thunderbolt, we lose the last round 19-1 (forgetting all our discipline) and end up 22nd.

Now why do I tell you all this in a writing article? Well, back then in that other article I explained how just playing bridge (or just writing) is not enough. We can reach levels that make us feel OK and then stay within our comfort zones and never push on. Pushing on might mean no publications, being misunderstood, rejection after rejection. The comfort zone might mean we do what we are good at but also display a limited repertoire. Instead of going to speak with grandmasters or reading bridge books, we "settle". Instead of seeking out experienced writing teachers or reading more serious craft books, reading the greats, reading carefully we just "muddle along' publish in small presses, zines, pick up final placings or the occasional prize. Is this enough? Aren't we better than this?

In the week immediately after our relative success in the tournament where we both qualified as Regional Masters (a mid-lowly rank) we had three horrible nights at the bridge club, playing like hopeless newbies.

Where were the solid rules, the carefully practised system, the signals we normally employed? Frankly, I was seriously pissed and pard and I met in the pub to discuss the fact that we had settled for OK. I don't like "OK".

Many of you know I teach creative writing on line in Alex Keegan's Boot Camp. (That's not vain BTW. There's another Boot Camp out there!)

Was the same thing happening there? Oh, we were racking up "hits" and had just had our sixteenth first prize of the year, but what about the texts, what about the stories? Weren't so many of the stories appearing written in a nice, safe, bland "Boot Camp" voice, with non-layered, well-written easy-to-place stories, or "laddish" tales of first-time sex or adultery?

When was the last time I was shocked, or intrigued or shaken or horrified by a Boot Camp story? When was the last time I needed to read a BC story a second, third, fourth time to get its subtle nuances? They really all did look and feel similar. In fact it one moment of frustration I cut and pasted sections from at least half-a-dozen stories (from a single session) and showed that the voice(s) were virtually identical.

That is one problem, the work becomes unambitious, safe-ish, OK, "Well, it'll probably place in a decent zine" – but did we start writing to achieve that?

The second problem was critiquing. If Boot Campers (or any writing group) see story after story in the same mental range, with the same lack of challenge, with similar language and subject matter, the same lack of layering or nuance, the same failure of ambition, then this (a) becomes what's seen as "normal" and "decent writing" but worse (b) the writers begin to critique automatically and are simply not attuned to reading more complex, more ambitious stuff.

So when I wrote some more difficult material and posted it as "a ringer", when I got stories from top writers and posted those as if they were by Boot Campers, they got mostly poor or middling marks!

The critiquers had got so used to straightforward, unambitious stories that as soon as one landed with subtlety, metaphor, or linguistic trickery they were stumped. Suddenly Boot Campers and the Boot Camp Grid appeared to be undiscerning, incapable of spotting the classier story.

How could that be? Well, if you eat burgers every day (large fries please) or your idea of a whiz meal is the local Chinese, maybe anything fancier will be "too much". If you glug loads of cheap wine, will your palate for the better stuff be ruined or at least damaged?

It took four sessions of ringers and lots of argument: "Are you BLIND!?" before the Boot Campers started to rouse from their torpor, open their eyes and see. Now, a story from Aimee Bender might actually get a round of applause, rather than a group, "HUH?"

There is a superb book out just now by Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In it Francine takes us, sometimes word-by-word through the writing of the great writers. We have to see exactly what they did so we might, one day, write a sentence that's nearly good enough to be in one of their stories. If the best stories in the world score 200 and we are writing 100-110 we cannot keep reading 100-110 even if we can spot what's wrong and how to improve it.

We have to be exposed to better work, the great, the very good and the good, see a range of brilliances, the use of rhythm, the use of repetition, the careful choice of words, the exactness of description, the clarity, the specificity, or if it's deliberate, the double meanings the two-way shots, the subtle hints, innuendo, metaphor, symbol.

We need also to see that many great stories are layered or have stories within stories or if they don't, at least allude to a bigger, richer world. There is more to fiction than an adulterer losing his family, or the three wicked sisters at the funeral. Why don't we at least sometimes try for brilliance of language, or the insights of Saul Bellow? How high we finish is not the point. How hard we try, how hard we push ourselves is.

There is a very serious danger in writing groups, even ones like Boot Camp that simply refuse to workshop* that they learn to be bland and forget that out there is a world full of incredible richness.

* the work-shopped story is a rancid camel masquerading as a horse.

Every year BC reads Best American Short Stories even if its constituents may be a little staid compared to "Best Non-Required Reading", or "Best New American Voices", The O'Henry Prize Collection or The Pushcart Prize Collection. The point is, at least for a while we read better stuff. But that's still wrong because they are separate.

We read and critique new stories, presumably from Boot Campers, not expecting anything that will blow our socks off. That is we "know" (most of the time) that we are going to get the same old burgers, more or less. Oh, sure once in a blue moon, Alex might slip in a ringer, but…

I've realised that every session should have a top-class story, a very good story, something at BASS level perhaps, or a competition winner, and something truly awful dregged up from some internet swamp.

That way I won't see marks from 90 to102 crit, after crit, after crit, and group apoplexy the moment something even half-special comes along.

We must not separate our daily work and critiquing from the work and critiques of those writers who are allegedly much better. If I feed the troops Saul Bellow but they know he's a Nobel Prize winner, how likely is it that someone will stand up and say, "Sorry this just isn't very good!"?

Being wrong is the quickest route to success.

We post all stories anonymously. Sometimes one of mine is "spotted" and the marks mysteriously jump about twenty points. Well, Alex wrote it…

So I've taken to sometimes putting in two stories, once I put in four, or I'll throw in an old failure, see if they spot what's wrong.

And along with my own stuff I'll put in an old BC big-Prize winner or a great hopefully not-too-famous story off the web. What has been remarkable is the extra energy, the greater diversification of language used in critiques, the animation and what is also noticeable is that marks for the ordinary solid BC story have begun to spread more. Instead of safe stories with safe crits, the stories are now more challenged.

The Disease of Critiquing is close cousin to The Disease of Competence and reading Francine Prose's book I've realised that my own input was slowly getting lazier. It takes time to write deeply about how this story lacks weight, that one is badly paced, especially when an improved story is only going to move a few points along the continuum, from "not quite OK" to "it'll probably place".

I have written (some would say "pontificated") on stories or passages from stories, but lately I've taken many short-cuts. What I should be doing, and might do more if Boot Campers broke out from their lethargy is to write about writing like this, from Francine Prose:

A similar powerful use of rhythm, in this case to achieve an effect that's a cross between an incantation, a lamentation and a sort of sermon that might have been delivered by the narrator's Puritan ancestors appears at the end of John Cheever's "Goodbye My Brother".

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How do you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand: how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming – Diana and Helen – and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked woman walk out of the sea.

I have read that story more than once, and "liked" it, but I have I unpicked it, examined it, savoured it, as Francine Prose does?

We are struck by the energy, the grace, and the variety of the sentences, to say nothing of the high oratorical mode in which the passage begins, with the series of questions asking (Who? The reader? The deity?) what is to be done with a man like that?"

They are, of course, rhetorical question. Nothing can be done, and the queries are a literary form of throwing up one's hands. The questions vary in length. The shortest, a mere four words, repeats and emphasizes the first. The longest requires fifty-eight words, and a cascading succession of dependent clauses.

Francine Prose's analysis continues for two pages, every word worth reading and reading again. It's when we read as closely as that, define and dissect so meticulously, that we learn. Then we write another story, put it through the mill, and hope, every time that one per cent of one per cent has got through, stuck, and made us better.

I have yet to telephone the Bridge Club chairman and ask, "How can I get seriously better?" but I have started that same long road in my writing and this book is a pretty handy guide.

Oh, dear, "pretty" handy? That's not a very strong adjective….

2,346 words


Marzipan said...


Thanks for another interesting and thought provoking post.

I’m a beginner, only just stepping onto the huge learning curve I need to climb to become a decent writer. I read as much as I can. I try to absorb the good, the bad, the indifferent and take lessons where I can. I read a story like ‘The Ledge’ and I love; I think I can see why it’s one of the best American stories of the century, and I decide it’s what I would like to aim towards. I show ‘The Ledge’ to my girlfriend (not the world’s biggest reader) and she likes it, she gets it.

If it’s great art or literature, does the reader need to be shown that it’s great?

What I mean is, if the critquers in your group don’t recognise that a ‘great’ story is, indeed, great and the greatness has to be pointed out to them, then could it be that the problem lies in the story?

I grew up when punk rock exploded onto the music scene. The amazing thing about it was not the technical adeptness of the musicians, the intracies of the middle eight, the production – it was all about energy, hitting the listener in his gut, his heart. It was about excitement. Now I’m older, but the kind of feeling I got from hearing The Buzzcocks is what I want from my reading.

I feel that the trouble with ‘high-art’ literature is that it can easily become too much about symbolism, metaphor, repetition etc and not enough about reaching the reader’s heart. Yes, I’ve a copy of Ulysses. No, I’ve not finished it (like so many others).

Ok, you say, what if it touches your soul AND has great symbolism? It then HAS to be a better piece of fiction. I’d agree with that. But, your group of critters can’t be stupid or unfeeling. If a story hasn’t made them weep, rage, jump and down, whatever, then can it really be THAT good?

Surely a story has to accessible, at least to reasonably literate people, to be classed as a classic.

I know I am going down the postmodernist argument that serious fiction can be elitist, and that, according to postmodernists, is a bad thing. I’m not a postmodernist, and I’m not going to argue that just because “Harry Potter’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ are hugely popular they are therefore good writing.

Maybe I’ve misinterpreted what you are saying (I’m collecting my thoughts as I write this). Maybe you are saying that by using rhythm, ‘high orotorical mode’ etc, the writer deepens the story so that, once the reader learns what the writer is doing, the story reaches into him even more. I can see that, I think.

But I read ‘The Ledge’ and it made my legs wobble as I was reading. I may be wrong, but it didn’t feel like it was the rhythm or symbolism that kept me hooked. It was the tension, the humanity, and I think it was the insight.

Should I ever aspire to anything, I’d like my stories to make people’s legs wobble. Are simile, metaphor, incantation the keys, or can it be done by mining my soul, letting it all out onto the page in simple words and sentences?

I heard ‘Ever Fallen in Love with someone you shouldn’t have’ by the Buzzcocks when I was thirteen. It ain’t Shakespeare, it ain’t Nina Simone, but it rocks and I still sing it twenty-five years later.


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Marz, it would take DAYS to answer this, HALF-answer this.

You're not sure if "oration", style, musicality matters? That's easy to answer.

You want to make love to someone. Do you say "Fancy a fuck?" Why not? presumably, 1/2.000 or so that might work, but are there BETTER approaches?

HOW we say something is part of the meaning, part of the weight, part of the message. Not only that, but the right music can hypnotize...