Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

I felt a tingle through my body when ‘Offred’ read out this iconic, yet largely made-up phrase, in Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. Not because it’s latin but because its translation speaks volumes.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

It’s a motto for life, I’m sure. But also, for writing.

When we write, whether it’s fiction or not, we are putting a part of ourselves into the world. To be enjoyed, acclaimed, critiqued and scrutinised. It takes some kind of thick skin to put yourself out there, time and time again.

But what if we’re not even at the point of putting our work out into the world?

I read a tweet the other day from someone whose opinion I value. This person mentioned how they cannot stand when certain experiences in life are used for plot points in a book. That it’s in some way cheating, lazy and insensitive.

As soon as I read the tweet my heart sank. I felt like this person was directing their tweet at me. Even though they hadn’t read any of my work.

It made me question everything I’ve been working towards.

It made me want to quit the draft and start on something new.

I sat with this discomfort for a while, and then I read a post by Marie McLean, who was clearly going through similar feeling as my own, though for different reasons. And what she said spoke to me, about not giving up. About seeing this thing through to the end.

I knew when I started writing this book that it was shrouded in controversy. In fact, it was part of the reason I wanted to write it in the first place. I wanted my fiction to be about something real. Something that people could relate to, in whatever abstract way that may be.

It’s never going to please everyone. Even people I like.

I’ve since come out the other side, and I think my writing will be all the better for it. Perhaps I will even strengthen the concept with these comments in mind.

Regardless of how far my book goes, at least I’ll know I never gave up.

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

 

 

On Being a Masterclasser: Conflict

In Masterclass, Fiona stressed the importance of conflict.

As a consumer, I know how important it is to be immersed in the conflict immediately. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s picked up a book from the shelf of my local book store, opened it to the first page and read the first paragraph or so. I’m also probably not the only person to have placed the book back on the shelf in search for something else more grabbing.

However, it wasn’t until this was pointed out to me that I realised just how important those first lines are. But not just the first line of the book, the first line of each chapter, even the first line of each paragraph.

Going back over my manuscript after Masterclass, it was evident just how boring my writing came across. I was trying to tell the story, rather than show it and it was taking me far too long to get to the conflict. I felt like I was reading a letter to a new pen pal that was trying to fit in all the information of a past, and did nothing to move us into the present.

Looking at my writing with fresh eyes, it has been easy to change tactics. I simply deleted the first paragraph or so and this brought the story straight into the thick of things.

Here’s an example of the same opening paragraphs of chapter two of my current WIP.

Before:

Emily had been working as a cashier at a supermarket in Rundle Mall for a couple of years, and her best friend had secured a retail job nearby. They had decided to head overseas for a gap year between school and university.

Two weeks before they were due to fly out, and three hours into her six hour shift, Emily felt her pocket vibrate with a new text message.

“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said to her customer.

The woman, middle aged and determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact, pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.

After:

“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said in a voice so sweet she could have been dribbling honey.

Her customer, a middle aged woman, seemed determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact at all. She tapped at her phone during the entire transaction, barely grunting as Emily attempted to make small-talk. The woman pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.

The background information I was conveying upfront; that the character worked at a supermarket, that she was saving for an overseas trip and she was in her late teens, can all be determined through the actions of the scene, rather than by point blank information dumping.

Though a supermarket transaction can hardly be considered a wild adventure or conflicting situation, it’s an experience that shows a lot about the character. It also puts the reader straight into the scene, instead of mulling around the outskirts.

By considering action over information, conflict over description, it’s much easier to set a scene and allow the character to be felt.

At Masterclass, we did a short exercise to really hone in on the opening scenes of a story. We had ten minutes to write an opening that dove straight into conflict. This exercise really helped me to put the theory of story telling, and of showing not telling, into practice.

Click here to read my opening for that exercise.

 

Plot vs Prose aka the fight to be taken seriously

I recently read an article criticising, well, critics, for labelling Liane Moriarty’s books as “best selling fluff.” To be honest, I was surprised that Moriarty’s work was even considered fluff. I’ve only read Big Little Lies (pre-miniseries) and I really loved it. The book dealt with some very serious topics, in what I thought was a clever, sensitive and entertaining way. Though the plot is framed by a murder that’s not what the crux of the novel is. It’s about women, friendship and motherhood. It touches on domestic violence and bullying in a very realistic way. It’s a best-seller yes. But it’s hardly what I would consider “fluff.”

So why are the critics hating on Moriarty?

Well for one thing, Moriarty writes commercial fiction. *Gasp*. I say this tongue in cheek of course, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with CF. It’s my preferred genre to read, and it’s what I hope to be published in someday soon.The problem is that it seems literary critics think CF isn’t worthy of the time of day it’s given. According to a great number of articles and reviews, it seems that commercial fiction is synonymous with simple sentence structure, poor prose and a lack of seriousness.

On the other hand, literary fiction is said to be the opposite of all of the above. It is serious. Its words are carefully selected and arranged into sentences that read like poetry and make the reader want to bleed the very blood of which it was constructed. In my opinion, literary fiction is actually less focused on plot and far more derived of powerful, poignant prose.

I like to read great prose. I read literary works because I think it will make me a better writer. Because it makes me think and feel in a different kind of way. I take down notes in the margins of literary books. But I don’t become immersed in them. I don’t finish a page and feel a rush of emotions. Sometimes I even struggle to finish them, because the engagement of a great story just isn’t there.

But that’s just me. Someone else might revel in the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Zadie Smith and Ernest Hemingway.

I couldn’t get into the Twilight books either, and even a recount of any shade of grey makes me cringe. But again, that’s just me. There are millions of people who loves those books. People who are serious about reading, and love those books.

And to that I say, great.

At least they are reading. Because at the end of the day, isn’t the reason we write because we want to be read? Isn’t being read by someone (other than your mum/best friend/partner) the greatest achievement for a writer? That’s what I consider being taken seriously.

No matter what or why people read, whether it’s to escape, to laugh, to think or to feel, we should be grateful that there are still millions of people buying books and reading ferociously. Because without readers, there would be no reason for us to write.