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Mystery and Manners

Discussion in 'Café Life' started by Amber, Oct 12, 2017.

  1. Amber

    Amber Member

    87 (0 Banked)
    I have way too many writing books. I won't lie. I don't read them. I flip through them. They're bathroom reading.

    Today I read this while eating my salad:

    It's always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks. - The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O'Connor
    To put this in context, O'Connor is talking about how writer's often have an abstract concept in mind. She's talking about how they have a sociological or psychological concept they want to communicate and says writers would do well to remember that stories are made of concrete details.

    It struck me because I write science fiction and fantasy. My education is in psychology. I also have metaphysical leanings. So, I love me an abstraction. But I've noticed my writing is at times, self-indulgently pretty. It's like I'm enamored with my own language.

    Recently I had to throw out a scene I was told was stunning, beautiful, and breathtaking because I was also told it made no sense. I asked myself, "How did this happen?" The answer was, "I was too busy making things pretty."

    I've rewritten it and plugged up the plot holes but it still might be too pretty. I'll see.

    But I'm always trying to learn new things and I suppose I wanted to share my recent maybe learned lesson. Does anyone have any thoughts on abstract vs. concrete or pretty vs. matter of fact?
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  2. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    Flannery O'Connor is a brilliant writer of unsentimental and grounded stories, shockingly so at times, as in A Good Man is Hard to Find (free PDF). I first read her when living in her native Georgia, which somehow added to the unvarnished truth of what she wrote. Interesting, that one of my writing heroes, John Kennedy Toole, attempted to visit her home shortly before committing suicide.

    In my own writing, I always remember Bob Dylan's lines from It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) :

    But even the President of the United States
    Sometimes must have to stand naked.

    (Probably best if you don't imagine the current orange incumbent doing that!)

    My main protagonist in a series of novels is a detective, who investigates grisly murders in Cornwall. My home county is a land of legend, with many peculiar superstitions and folklore, so I include some of that in his enquiries. There's lots of solid police procedural detail too, as well as factual forensic minutiae, but at the end of the day it's vital for me to show what sort of man my detective is—to keep him real—hopefully, readers will bond with him through his strengths and frailties. I've attempted to make him stand out from the herd of other sleuths, by making him left-wing, a biker and artistic, a frustrated painter who uses reading, listening to music and painting watercolours as a form of meditation. He uses abstract thinking as a way of homing in on the criminals' motivations.
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  3. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

    149 (0 Banked)
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  4. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

    694 (0 Banked)
    @AgentPete once gunned about a pretty first page. Beautiful, he said, rhythmical and musical, he could feel it almost lulling him to sleep.

    Then came the question

    'And why should I care about this?'

    I was startled because as a reader, it's voice that pulls me in. That's the bait, and I reckoned people get it who get it. You're writing for those who'll respond, not those who won't.

    So I had to think hard. Kill this darling? And I did. It hadn't been a case of showing off, but of myself getting carried away. Well, little wonder if there's a tendency to do that, writing, but the challenge is to carry someone else away.

    Clean, lean and prosaic can be elegant. Nothing wrong with poetic prose though, not in my book as a reader, so long as it's doing a job and I, the reader, resonate with it. If I detect self consciously literary pyrotechnics, it might well turn me off it. Ulysses, Joyce not Homer, bugger off.

    There was a programme about Auden on the box the other night. I'm not a fan, but it was making this same observation. To build the metaphysical, start with the physical. They discussed this poem as an example of using manners to build mystery.

    Let The Mourners Come.

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
    Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2017
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  5. Amber

    Amber Member

    87 (0 Banked)
    Good points... and how awesome is that poem? Thanks
  6. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

    149 (0 Banked)
    Love Auden and loved that poem long before Four Weddings and a Funeral! Along with As I Walked Out One Evening:

    The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
    The desert sighs in the bed,
    And the crack in the tea-cup opens
    A lane to the land of the dead.

    Voice is always important for me, style, something enchanting and unexpected in the how of what is being said.

    At the same time, I'm not sure I'd stay with the fiction unless there was something urgent or intense happening. Conflict, drama, thwarted desire: somebody awake at 4am with toothache who looks out of the window and sees a masked man dancing in the street, a wedding where the groom doesn't turn up, a narrator who welcomes you to the Dark Side.

    From the writer's point of view though, Flannery O'Connor is right. Each paragraph is filled with the creaking mechanics of how to get Character A from the kitchen back up to the bedroom before the door bell rings, what the jealous sister (Minor Character F) will wear to the wedding to upstage the bride, what mechanical glitch made the vintage car break down just outside the country house, whether Character B should tell his mother about his new love now or at the end of Chapter 3, what might plausibly lead to A slapping B, what happens if a cloudburst drenches the skyclad coven (Character F again) and turns an eerie scene comic. Etc etc
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