Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Materena's advice for writers 2

The first line has to make Madame Colette Dumonnier exclaim, "I don't need to interview twenty-five people, I've found my professional cleaner!"
Celestine Vaite, Frangipani

Materena Mahi, as we left her a couple of days ago, is still trying to get that job as a "professional cleaner," which means having to write the first letter she has ever written in her life. She may not know much about writing letters or anything else, but she recognizes that the first line is the key. She quickly dismisses such openers as "I'm a cleaner" and "How are you today?" She wants something that will make Madame Dumonnier want to hire her on the spot, or least make her want to read the rest of the letter..

Materena's search for the perfect first line takes up nearly four pages of Celestine Vaite's novel. Finally she finds it: "I've been cleaning houses since I was eight years old to help my mother." That line gets straight to the point and gives Materena's qualifications for the job in a nutshell. Furthermore, Vaite writes, "That first line, the magical line, unleashes the rest of the letter."

I have often found that to be true, especially during my career as a journalist. Once you find the right opening line, the rest practically writes itself. Yet finding that first line can be a struggle, even for experienced writers.

I recall the time as a student reporter at Ohio University I was given the assignment of covering a lecture by Paul Tillich, the theologian. I filled several pages of my notebook, but frankly I had understood very little of what Tillich said. How was I to build a story out of this assortment of quotes and paraphrases that made so little sense to me? It took me a long time to come up with that opening line, but once I did the story somehow came together. It was printed on the front page of The Post the next day, and it probably appeared cogent to everyone who read it, with the possible exception of Tillich himself.

Sometimes, unable to find a good first line, I would cheat by writing a bad first line, something that was the equivalent of "How are you today?" The right opening line may not become apparent until after the last line has been written. The important thing, especially for a reporter on deadline, is to get started. Often your editors will rewrite your opening paragraph anyway.

Whatever one is writing, whether it's a letter, a news story, a term paper or a novel, a good opening line is key. You want the reader to get interested from the start and to want to read the second line and the one after that. Browsers in bookshops sometimes will pick up a book and read the first line. If it doesn't capture their imaginations, they will put it down and pick up another book.

So what about the first line of Celestine Vaite's novel? Here it is: "When a woman doesn't collect her man's pay she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues to celebrate the end of the week and you know how it is, eh?" That line makes you want to keep reading, eh? It also gives us a clue as to why Materena is so determined to write the perfect letter so she can get that job.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Materena's advice for writers 1

In her opinion, writing is like talking, except that she has to worry about spelling mistakes.
Celestine Vaite, Frangipani

Celestine Vaite
Materena Mahi is the young Tahitian woman at the heart of Celestine Vaite's novel Frangipani, which was first printed in Australia in 2004. Materena already has a little boy underfoot and she is six-months pregnant with her second child when she decides to apply for a job as a cleaner. This means writing a letter, something she has never done in her life. But, she tells herself, she can talk, so she should be able to write.

So often this isn't true, however. I have often wondered about people who can talk nonstop and tell wonderful stories yet claim they cannot write. Indeed, when they try to write something, the result is often a disaster. Why, I wonder, can't they simply imagine saying what they want to say, then write down the words?

It's just not that simple, for talking and writing are quite different skills. I, for example, have always been a competent writer, but put me in a social gathering, even with people I know, and I won't be able to think of a thing to say to anyone. Small talk can be a very big deal for me. I just can't seem to do it.

As Materena observes, there are differences between talking and writing. Spelling, though important, is hardly the only one. She buys a dictionary to help her with that problem, although inexperienced writers don't recognize certain words are misspelled in the first place, so they won't even know to look them up.

Then there's the matter of which words to capitalize, how to punctuate sentences and the correct use of grammar. You can get away with things in speech, including even incomplete sentences, that can be glaring in written form. Mistakes in speech are quickly forgotten, but mistakes in writing, especially factual errors, can potentially last forever.

Speaking and writing also seem to require different kinds of minds. Good speakers think quickly. They always seem to know where they are going next. Writing, at least for most of us, takes time. Fast thinkers need to be able to slow down and put their words down one at a time, instead of letting them pour out as they think them. Those of us who are slow thinkers to begin with may have a bit of an advantage when it comes to writing, while fast thinkers may get easily confused and frustrated when their hands on a keyboard can't keep up with their minds.

Yet for all the differences between talking and writing, I still think Materena Mahi is right. If you can do one, you should be able to do the other. It may just require a little effort, and perhaps a good dictionary.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Historical science fiction

For a science fiction writer, Connie Willis does an amazing amount of historical research. So many sci-fi novels are set in the future, but hers seem to focus more on the past. And she goes to great pains to get the past right. Black Out and All Clear, the first Willis novels I read, tell of historians of the future who go back to London in World War II to study the effects of the German bombings firsthand. In Bellwether, a researcher attempts to discover how fads, like bobbed hair in the 1920s, get started.

I have just finished reading her first novel, Lincoln's Dreams, published in 1987. Although set in the present, the story remains preoccupied with the Civil War. Jeff Johnston is a researcher for a historical novelist. For his next Civil War novel, The novelist wants answers to such questions as where Willie Lincoln was first buried, before his body was dug up and taken to Spingfield with that of his father, and what did Abraham Lincoln dream about before his assassination.

Yet Jeff gets distracted by Annie, a beautiful young woman who seems to be dreaming the dreams of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  Are these dreams figments of her own vivid imagination. Are they perhaps the dreams a guilt-ridden general dreams in his grave? Or are they, like Lincoln's most famous dream of his own body lying in the White House, a warning of the future?

I can't say that I enjoyed Lincoln's Dreams as much as those other Willis novels. Still, more than ever, I am impressed with her research.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Authors are fictional

Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some are real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors.
Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms of the Bookshelves

From a reader's perspective, Jacques Bonnet has it right. It is the story's characters who are real. The authors are pure fiction. They aren't that important. It's the characters who matter.

In some cases, of course, the authors truly are fictitious. Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and George Eliot were just made-up names. Those people didn't really exist. Yet Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy are hardly more real or more substantial. Each biography of these writers reveals something new about their lives and about their personalities. No matter how much we might study them, we can never really know them. Yet their characters are revealed in their totality. We know everything there is to know about them, including often what they are thinking about. As Bonnet says, "Hamlet is a great deal more present to us than Shakespeare, about whom we have only a few scraps of information."

I am reminded of The Great Divorce, the C.S. Lewis story in which visitors to heaven discover that the people there are much more solid, much more real than they are. As in heaven, so it is in the library. Things are reversed. It is the characters who are real. The authors are the ghosts.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Something big from something small

"Franny," the J.D. Salinger short story first published in The New Yorker in 1955, begins with a stereotypical college romance and ends with a spiritual crisis. In between, as a transition between the two, Salinger gives us an unusual literary discussion between the story's two characters, Franny, a student at one college, and Lane, a student at another. They meet at the train station in apparent rapture at the prospect of spending the weekend together. I love this line early in the story: "Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into air was the whole truth."

Little things often develop into big things in Salinger stories. The prime example has to be "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in which Seymour Glass, Franny's older brother, talks with a four-year-old girl on a Florida beach, then goes back to his hotel room and kills himself. What happens to Franny in this later story proves almost as dramatic. And the change begins with that literary discussion so common among college students.

Franny makes two observations. First she accuses Lane of "talking like a section man." This is a graduate student who temporarily takes over a professor's literature class and begins spouting his narrow views about a particular author, thereby ruining that author for the students, or at least one as sensitive as Franny Glass. Lane, naturally, does not take this criticism well.

Then Franny complains about those who write poetry but in her mind are not true poets. "If you're a poet, you do something beautiful," she says. "I mean you're supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you're talking about don't leave a single, solitary thing beautiful."

From there Franny goes on to tell Lane about a book she's reading called The Way of the Pilgrim and about the value of meditating on the phrase, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Within minutes she has fainted and is last seen lying still, her lips "forming soundless words."

Any good story opens itself to a multitude of interpretations, and "Franny" is no exception. Is Franny having a mental breakdown, an emotional breakdown or a spiritual breakdown? Is Lane a part of the crisis or just an interested observer? What is really going on in her life? I like the way Salinger uses his story to make connections between artistic things and spiritual things, between idealism and reality, between literature and life,  between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Been there, done that, so what?

How many thrillers can you reread? They are disposable, open and shut, throwaway, leave-on-a-train books. To stand up to years of repeated readings, there has to be more than blood and thunder, especially as, once you know what happens next, you lose the element of surprise.
Susan Hill, Howards End Is on the Landing

That, anyway, is how most of us feel about thrillers, and about murder mysteries, too. If you've read them once, you might be interested in seeing the movie, especially if it's something like Gone Girl, but you never want to open the book again. My wife will often pick up a John Grisham or David Baldacci novel and ask me if she has read it, as if I can remember what books she has read. I usually tell her, "If you can't remember reading it, there's no harm in reading it again," but she doesn't feel that way. If she's already read it, she doesn't want to read it again whether she remembers anything about it or not.

Yet Susan Hill goes on to explain why she enjoys rereading James Bond novels. She loves revisiting the villains, the settings, characters like Miss Moneypenny and the exciting chases and escapes. The stories, she says, give pleasure whether you know what's going to happen or not.

Wait long enough and you almost certainly won't remember what happens in a thriller or who the murderer is in a mystery. Recently I read James Grady's Six Days of the Condor for the first time in 40 years and it was like reading it for the first time. Last year I again watched the movie, 3 Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and it was that that was in my mind as I read. But after the initial scenes, the movie, as the change in title suggests, is totally different from the novel, so I was in for a lot of surprises. It made be glad I had kept that paperback all these years.

To open up more shelf space, I removed several fat Robert Ludlum thrillers with the intention of donating them to the Friends of the Library for their book sale. That was a year ago. The books still sit on the floor of my library, along with other books I can't quite decide whether I really want to part with or not. I was never a big Ludlum fan. I have so many of his books because I was sent them for review. Yet I keep thinking I may want to return to them someday. As with Six Days of the Condor, I've seen the film version of The Bourne Identity and may want to see how they compare.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reading recommendations in a mystery

Literary references in murder mysteries are not unheard of. Laura Lippman occasionally tosses one into her novels, as do other writers, and Robert Parker named his hero, Spenser, after the poet. But I was particularly interested in those in Susan Hill's fine mystery The Shadows in the Street because just a few months earlier I had read another of Hill's books, Howards End Is on the Landing, about the year she devoted to rereading books in her home, rather than acquiring new books. It turns out that both books were published in 2010, meaning she must have been working on both of them at the same time. It shows.

Howards End Is on the Landing has one chapter called "Reading for the Soul," much of which Hill devotes to discussing the books of Michael Mayne. I was so impressed by what she wrote about Learning to Dance that I bought the book. So I sat up a little straighter when in The Shadows in the Street Mayne's Learning to Dance is announced as the book for discussion at a book club's October meeting. Hill seems to be recommending Mayne's work a second time in a second book.

Hill makes several references to P.G. Wodehouse in Howards Ends Is on the Landing. At one point she writes, "Humour in books is a very personal thing and not a subject about which to be superior. I am always overjoyed when my recommendation of P.G. Wodehouse is successful. Only recently when I recommended a friend start with The Mating Season, the next e-mail I got from him was headed 'What ho!' But it ain't always so. Another friend said he couldn't see the point of spending time with such silly asses. You can't convert someone like that, you just have to let it be."

She makes much the same point in her novel.

"He gave her a sharp glance but ignored the comment, saying instead: 'I have started my grandson on his first book by The Master.'

"'Wodehouse? Bit old and dated for Sam, isn't he?'

"'Neither. We shall see. I heard promising chuckles coming from his bedroom. I decided Lord Emsworth was the right place to start rather than Jeeves.'

"'Maybe it's skipped a generation. Neither Simon nor Ivo ever took to him.'"

In other words, Wodehouse, or any other humorist, isn't for everyone.

Hill also makes reference to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in her novel, yet I haven't been able to find any mention of that book in Howards End Is on the Landing, although the lack of an index makes it difficult to be sure it's not in there somewhere. There is a chapter devoted to female writers Hill admires, including Margaret Drabble, Penelope Fitzgerald, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf, but I have no idea why Hill thought highly enough of Robinson to mention her in one book, but not the other.