I’ve been a professional writer for more than ten years, but it was only recently, when asked to produce a How to Write book by A&C Black/Bloomsbury, that I came to think systematically about this craft of ours.
I mean ‘systematically’ in two different dimensions. First, there’s the whole area of technique. How, precisely, do you create a character on the page? What, precisely, are the golden rules of plotting? It’s easy enough to give good, general answers to those questions, but if you’re building a ship, you need more than some vague notions that a hull would be nice, maybe some masts.
The second dimension had to do with genre. It’s lazily assumed that literary fiction is good writing, and genre fiction is fun (but easy) writing. I more or less assumed it myself, but I’d never tested the assumption under fire. Given that I was writing a book that needed to give advice on every style and every genre, how would the different genres compare under close scrutiny?
My book relied on a huge number of examples drawn from recent high-profile fiction. I took great care not to stick with any one branch of writing, so I’ve had chapters that looked intensively at Bridget Jones / Eat Pray Love / The Devil Wears Prada, and ones that looked hard at Roth, Updike and Franzen. Using examples solved the problem of specificity. I could simply (for example) analyse dialogue by showing how Philip Roth writes dialogue and drawing out some of the most useful techniques.
And, you know what, some of those old, standard general approaches simply dissolved under fire. Take characterisation for example. The standard way to sketch out character while at the planning stage is you build up a character with little notes. Like these for example:
BJ is a late-twenties woman. Mildly but not seriously overweight. Social drinker, but sometimes very social. Ditto, when it comes to smoking. Uncertain self-esteem. Longs to be loved. No steady partner. Occasionally decisive, more often not. Sometimes awkward when in company, especially so with men.
DC is a mid or late thirties man. A business type. Charming, but deceitful and untrustworthy. There to bed women, not commit to them. Witty, however, and with some money and power.
What do you notice? I think you’ll notice how utterly clichéd these characters are. How lifeless. Any conventional ‘how to write’ book would tell you to scrap these characters and start again.
But then you read this:
Huh. Had dream date at an intime little Genoan restaurant near Daniel’s flat.
‘Um … right. I’ll get a taxi,’ I blurted awkwardly as we stood in the street afterwards. Then he lightly brushed a hair from my forehead, took my cheek in his hand and kissed me, urgently, desperately. After a while, he held me hard against him and whispered throatily, ‘I don’t think you’ll be needing that taxi, Jones.’
The second we were inside his flat we fell upon each other like beasts: shoes, jackets, strewn in a trail across the room.
‘I don’t think this skirt’s looking well at all,’ he murmured. ‘I think it should lie down on the floor.’ As he started to undo the zip he whispered, ‘This is just a bit of fun, OK? I don’t think we should start getting involved.’ Then, caveat in place, he carried on with the zip. Had it not been for Sharon and the fuckwittage and the fact I’d just drunk the best part of a bottle of wine, I think I would have sunk powerless into his arms. As it was, I leapt to my feet, pulling up my skirt.
‘That is just such crap,’ I slurred. ‘How dare you be so fraudulently flirtatious, cowardly and dysfunctional. I am not interested in emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye.’
The book is Bridget Jones, the author is Helen Fielding, and the result is terrific. The character definitions – which do suggest cliché – simply explode with life on the page. Indeed, a huge part of the book’s vitality arises from the way that Fielding took some chick-lit clichés and gave them new life. The trick isn’t in the character notes, it’s in the life.
The same example illustrates another thought too. Literary fiction is supposed to be deft with words. Commercial writers are thought to be just cranking out plots and letting the language go to hell. But take another look at that Bridget Jones passage. She says, ‘Had dream date at an intime little Genoan restaurant near Daniel’s flat.’
That word: intime. Dear old Bridget doesn’t speak French, and if she did, she’s not pretentious enough to slip such words into her ordinary vocabulary. So she got it from somewhere else – almost certainly a women’s magazine which would itself be using the word in a fake, affected way. And Daniel Cleaver – we know, we guess – probably does have the class to use the word intime in a natural way. (He has the sophistication to pick not just an Italian restaurant, but a Genoan one.) All that – that characterisation, that subtlety, that precision – from one word. One word, which isn’t even pivotal to the scene or even the sentence.
So, my heartening conclusion? That good writing is good writing. Some will be fast-paced and fun good writing. Some will be thoughtful and beautiful good writing. But there’s no genre which doesn’t produce extraordinary books. There are no rules which can’t be trumped by authorial excellence. There are certainly techniques to deploy – my book will be full of them – but a technique is not a rule.
I learned a lot while writing my book, but the very best thing is that I became a better reader. More attuned, more satisfied. Enriched.
Harry Bingham is an author and boss of The Writers’ Workshop (UK). His book on writing will come out in 2012.