Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Inspiration - take it where you can get it

I’ve been dipping into three books recently. I’ve also started writing again (yay!)  after long periods of staring at the blank computer screen or, Shh, don’t tell anyone, playing Solitaire. 

I think the two are connected. The beginning to write again and the dipping into books that is, just to make that clear, in case there’s a misapprehension that playing Solitaire awakes creativity. I assure you it does not. 

One of the books is a self-help book called Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2001. 
Apologies for blurry cover

Donald Maass is a New York agent with a long list of authors. He wrote Writing the Breakout Novel to help writers identify faults in their work, improve their writing, and say things more effectively, all with the aim of achievement, of writing a best seller. The book is divided into chapters such as Premise, Time and Place, and contains a checklist at the end which sums up the contents. For instance under Characters the checklist states:
·        All stories are character driven
·        Engrossing characters are out of the ordinary
·        The highest character qualities are self-sacrifice and forgiveness
And so on.

Some of the chapter headings don’t come up to scratch. For instance there is nothing on setting, only time and place. Now, for me, setting is one of the most important parts of a novel. It’s the backbone of the book. I would have loved to have more on setting.
Some of his statements are obvious. Stuff we’ve all heard before. My point is that dipping into this book and rereading what makes a great novel is inspiring. Well, I found it so. You can never hear too often what makes a successful sub-plot or how to keep the tension on every page, and one of the ways Maass does this is to use successful novels as examples to illustrate his point. 

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, published in 1999 by Little, Brown and Company, is one of these novels. As it happens it's one of my favourite books, and I have my own copy.

Maass mentions TPW under the chapter heading Character. Of course. Let me just tell you that TPW’s is a fictional story about a woman whose husband’s plane blows up – that’s not a spoiler, that’s on the blurb at the back – and how she deals with her grief, her difficult teenage daughter, and the rumour that her husband had a secret life. Pilots are away from home for considerable time periods, right? But it’s the novel’s protagonist that drives the story, right from the first page, when she’s awoken at three in the morning by someone knocking on the door. The author gets right inside her head:  Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door. It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded…She reached for the lamp…and she was
thinking, What? What?  

It goes on, but you get the idea. When you read something like this, you see how it’s done. I find it very helpful.

The third book I’ve been dipping into, which is not one Donald Maass utilises, is The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (published by Allen & Unwin in 2007). 

I’ve been rereading this because the protagonist is a male and de Kretser is a woman and I wanted to see how she does it. I read this when I was at uni as part of a unit called Australian Literature, and was very grateful because it’s not something I would have picked up to read. It’s a beguiling read. On the surface it’s one thing but just underneath it is quite another. The first time I read it I didn’t really get it; it wasn’t until I pored over it later for an assignment that its true beauty came to life. What isn’t hidden under the surface is its beautifully crafted language. I’m going to give you one sentence – just one because less is more – the first in the book: Afterwards, he would remember paddocks stroked with light. I don’t only love the sound of that sentence, I love the way it looks. The repetition of “o” and “k” in paddocks and stroked; the back-to-backness of “i”, “t” and “h” in with and light.


I feel like I should say, "Here endeth the lesson" or something along those lines, but I'll simply finish as I began. Inspiration - take it where you can get it.


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