Posts Tagged John le Carre

Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson drunk and playing 20 questions in BBC Sherlock Season 3 Episode 2 The Sign of Three

A moment of uncharacteristic levity in the lives of J Watson and S Holmes

Your prose does more than simply describe what happens. It creates the experience in the reader’s mind – the atmosphere, the themes, the lighting, the mood. Imagine the book has a soundtrack, like a movie. In fact it does, because the ‘music’ is created by the shape of the words and the images they conjure. A writer’s distinctive style is often called their ‘voice’, and that voice speaks the book inside the reader’s mind. So we have to be very deliberate with every word.

But quite often, writers don’t realise they’re actually sabotaging their narrative by inappropriate word choices.

To hone your awareness, try this exercise

Pick a simple scenario. Let’s have a character waking up in the morning, climbing out of bed, putting on a dressing gown (or, if you prefer, a suit of armour). Write it in your normal voice. Don’t put on a character. Just imagine it’s you, being natural, explaining to a friend.

Now write it again – as a character with a skippy song in their heart. Infuse the text with vigour, optimism and joie de vivre. Smile at your screen. Don your headphones, dial up Pharrell … okay, that might be too much for some of you.

pharrell-nail-your-novel

Now go to the dark side. Describe exactly the same sequence, but make it tense. Foreboding. This is someone who wakes up and doesn’t know where they are. Or has been startled out of sleep by a sudden sound. For this I recommend Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Loom, which appropriately for our setting has a picture of the morning tooth routine.

yellow-magic-orchestra-nail-your-novel

Many voices

Do you see how different they all are? Notice particularly where your natural voice falls on the spectrum of mood. Is that the tone you use in the narrative parts of your novel? Does it fit the material?

Of course, the examples I’ve made you write are extremes, but they demonstrate what a difference your narration makes to the atmosphere – and how you can change it.

Here’s the rub. Writers often use their ‘normal’ voice in the narrative parts of their novel, as though they were explaining to a friend, perhaps over coffee or wine. Without realising it, they’re being flippant, raconteurish or breezy. Their main character is being interrogated by the police? He’s ‘squirming’ in his chair. A cherished ornament is knocked off mantelpiece? It ‘topples and bounces’ to the floor. A character is in intensive care? They’re ‘encumbered’ with tubes. A character’s lover is shot by the police? Their blood ‘splatters everywhere’. It’s all rather jolly. They’ve got Pharrell in their hearts when they might be better with a gulp of YMO.

A tip

If you find it tricky to establish an appropriate tone for a serious scene, try drafting it in first person to get the mindset. Then switch back to general narration once you’ve established the mood and perspective.

But what about humour?

Of course, even the darkest stories need humour. Humour is part of life. But it’s better done through the characters – their thoughts, actions, quips, the ironies of their behaviour. It shouldn’t look as though the neutral narrative is telling the reader to find the situation humorous. If you describe a cop as ‘huffing and puffing’ as he chases a suspect, you’ve introduced levity. Is that appropriate to the action or would you be better to say his lungs were raw but he wouldn’t give up?

Let’s stay with ‘huffing and puffing’. If a humorous remark is made through the filter of a character, it’s entirely different.

Indeed, the humour can add an interesting layer. John le Carre uses this in The Night Manager. In one scene, the agent handler, Burr, has tapped the phone of his agent, Jonathan Pine. As Burr eavesdrops, he hears Pine get a call from the villain’s girlfriend.

Jonathan at first furious … but then less furious. And finally, if Burr read the music right, not furious at all. So that finally… it’s nothing but Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan … and a lot of huffing and puffing…’

Yes, this description is humorous, embarrassed, dismissive – but it’s in the mind of Burr. It doesn’t defuse the tension or make the incident trivial because it’s coloured by Burr’s feelings. Indeed, it shows his exasperation, his horror and disbelief that his agent is putting everything in jeopardy by having a liaison with the villain’s woman. (More here about the prose of The Night Manager.)

Your prose makes the environment

The prose is like a soundtrack for a movie, the lighting, the mood. Your natural outlook, your raconteur voice, may not be right for your fiction.

Main pic courtesy BBC

Is there a writer whose narrative voice you particularly admire for evoking atmosphere? Have you had to consciously modify your writing voice to suit your material? Even, have you altered your chosen genre because you discovered your voice suits it better? Let’s discuss!  

nyn3 2ndNYN2 2ndPsst… Lots of info on fine-tuning your story in my books on plot and character

 

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Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book

51qdfvUxcdL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.

You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.

Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).

That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?

Books are interior

A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.

415sjZHeUVL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.

Characters and reality

Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.

For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:

He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’

The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:

Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’

Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:

He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’

How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?

I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.

Feeling perceptive

The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.

Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.

And this.

Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’

A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.

Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.

Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Your own pace

And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.

51NAwF7BkIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.

Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.

I love reading Nail Your Novel

Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.

Tell me your thoughts.

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Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose

5825834776_163ed4881c_bDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.

Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.

Objects
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.

People
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.

But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.

A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *

Places
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.

You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.

Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?

What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.

nyn2 2014 sml*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova

Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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Literary versus genre fiction – what’s the difference?

How do you define literary fiction?

Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.

Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?

Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?

With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.

If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.

If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).

If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.

Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.

With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.

So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.

Thanks for the pic pedrosimoes7

What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?

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