As a first time novelist trying to break in, what’s the worst thing that can happen to you?
You spend years of your life pursuing your dream of writing a novel. Years of pain, sacrifice, denial, tears, agonising self-doubt, and perhaps a lot more alcohol than is good for you.
You send off the first three chapters to an agent. You start praying. And the agent (or her reader) is so overwhelmed with manuscripts to read that she just skims the first few paragraphs looking for red flags that justify her rejecting your work.
And the damn thing gets…
The big wooden door of Santa Maria della Scala hospital creaked open. The Blessed Saint Bernadine of Siena peered through the gap.
‘Yes?’ he said, inspecting me through rheum-filled eyes.
‘I’ve come about the job.’
‘The Corpse-washer.’ I held up the advertisement in the Siena and North Tuscany Chronicle. ‘It says that in return for washing corpses, you will teach me to write a best-selling novel.’
‘Oh yes, of course! Come in!’ The Blessed Saint Bernadine of Siena opened the door. ‘We didn’t expect anyone to apply. This is a plague hospital. All the others died before they could…
For the price of two cups of coffee, you can lay the ghost that wanders through the labyrinth of your heart.
You can finally get started on that novel.
Begin your pilgrimage in London at that railway station named after the eponymous literary bear, Paddington. Take the train to Oxford.
Once you arrive in Oxford, turn left outside the railway station and catch a number 4 bus to Magdalen Street.
Say to the driver, ‘Driver, please furnish me with that blessed parchment, your 24-hour dream ticket.’
Then look forward to writing the opening lines to your novel…
Pick up a few creative writing textbooks, and sooner or later, you will come across a reference to the famous adage coined by Anton Chekhov, called Chekhov’s Gun.
It goes like this: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
This is an excellent piece of advice to help divest your prose of unnecessary baggage. But it is even more helpful if you reverse it to create what I…
What does it all mean? This crazy, ineffable mystery of being? What does it mean? Really?
As far as I can make out, we have three options.
We are just lumps of meat with a pilot light that flickers for a brief fragment of time before going out. We were created by blind forces that had no provision of the ends they achieved. We live our lives bewildered and in pain; we struggle, eat, love, fight, visit the bathroom, and, above all, suffer. The older we get, the more we suffer. We are convinced it must have some meaning because…
It was around the end of the last century that I embarked on my journey to the East in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
I had been told I should present myself at the gates of a Zen monastery in Japan and there prostrate myself. The monks, they said, would then pick me up and throw me out. This would be the prelude to a year of severe privation intended to break the spirit of any postulant monk and make him run home to his mummy.
It sounded good, but alas, as a member of the godless fraternity of admen, this…
Five years before he died, Elmore Leonard published his Ten Rules of Writing.
I agree with them all, but happily break most of them on the grounds that there is no ‘ Writing Cop’.
But of his ten rules the one I like best is Rule №11:
When you find writing that sounds like writing, cut it.
It’s great advice, especially for student writers, but the problem is, it is clearly a paradox and not immediately obvious what it means.
What exactly is ‘writing that sounds like writing’?
Let us start with a prime example: that moment when the dying…
Every creative writing course worth its salt will urge you to ‘show don’t tell’.
But you would be hard-pressed to find a better demonstration of the concept than this old advertisement for Volkswagen, which appeared in 1959.
At the heart of the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra is the old pop science concept of left and right brain.
When you tell someone something, you engage the rational, reasoning right-hand side of the brain. When you show them, you use storytelling to inveigle your message past the guard dogs of logic.
If you tell someone something, four things happen:
He really would have preferred me not to go out at night at all. Or during the day, for that matter. But blessed with the immortality (stupidity) of youth I insisted.
So he said, on no account should I hail a cab in the street. Safest would be to order one through the hotel desk.
The consequences of ignoring this vital piece of advice were potentially very grim. Both for me and the reputation of the hotel.
So I ignored it and hailed a taxi in the street and gave the driver the name of the bar someone had told…
It’s Called the Bible.
Long ago when I was lost in the Disenchanted Forest seeking ways to write my first novel, I read many books that claimed to teach me how to write fiction.
I quickly forgot most of them but there was one that made a lasting impression on me.
The book is called On the Art of Writing, by a chap little known today called Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.