Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Something different for you. Pay attention at the back. I interviewed the writer Alex Keegan below, and he has kindly given permission to reproduce his essay on, among other things, theme. It’s rather long (for a blog piece), so I’m going to post it in three parts. So make a cuppa, pull up a chair and see what you think. There’s much to provoke here. You may agree with some, none or all of it, but I always find it fascinating to see how other writers work, as well as hearing their views on how we go about producing anything of worth. Much of it refers to short stories but can equally be applied to novel writing.

Beginning writers, almost all of them, exhibit the same problems. They tend to think in terms of plots, clever ideas, twists, surprises. They tend to create characters that are simple, one dimensional, stereotypical, or “stock”, or they create what they imagine are “better” characters, stereotypes with a reverse image: the hit-man who loves his Momma, or the bully who is afraid of the dark, the smiling priest who is an abuser.

If the beginning writer becomes ‘conscious’ of being like other writers he may go to great lengths to get away from the stock character in a classic situation, doing a volte face or springing a not-quite-believable extraordinary change. The result is low credibility and little or no reader satisfaction.

The singular thing I find in beginning writers is no writer. That is, the writing, so often could be by “any beginner”. There is little or no voice, no personality, no accent, no dialect, no attitude which obviously is Jack or definitely Jill, (rather than any old Tom Dick or Harriette). The heart is missing, nothing beats, there is no ache, no sense of having been invited into another mental or spiritual world. After reading beginners’ stories we get no sense of the writer, the author, the person, the dark recesses of the mind. We have the feeling that the words on the page are false, mere cheap and easy constructions, superficialities, distractions, asides, falsenesses.

If the beginner goes to his own life for material, in some ways the problem becomes worse. Now we get apparent truthfulness, for isn’t John writing about his lost love? Isn’t Jill talking about a heating husband? Why then do these stories too, echo with emptiness and reek of artifice?

Because, there is no heart, no soul, no nakedness, no unconsciously made connection, no risk, no blatant truth, no smell of the inner person. It’s simply falseness, like a celebrity’s plastic smile.

How then do we avoid these stories? Well, my first approach as a teacher is to suggest beginners write a lot of stories in a short a span of time as possible and then to expect the clumsy twists-in-the-tail, expect the crude flip-flop characters, the obvious stories, the simple, linear, superficial plots. While the beginner learns basic rules of craft he is also “burning off” the bulk of those awful stories, those same stories all beginners seem determined to write.

This time is tough for these writers. Everything they do is blue-pencilled by their cruel taskmaster. The stories are stamped with “cliché”, “stereotype”, “stock”, “samey” and “so what?” and life, for a while, seems ever uphill. But it’s only after the beginner learns the hard way that plot-driven stories are devoid of resonance, weight and deep believability that they are prepared to alter their approach and seriously consider the power of character, the effects of theme and the extra textures that come from language.

It is now that we can really talk about the opening, the setting, the character, voice, tone, musicality. Finally they are prepared to listen (and thankfully, they are not quite so eager to write “Mrs Jones’s Funeral”).

Now we can get into an area of greater difficulty and subtlety. We can talk about “writing things that matter”, “saying things that resonate”, “going naked” and “telling real truths”.

The writer John Ravenscroft has talked about ‘The Land of the Scary’ and I have said much the same even if I am only satisfied when travelling there. I have also talked about going naked, of outwitting the sentinels, and of accessing the depths, surprising oneself.

Think for a moment about daily life, how superficial most things are, how we glibly lie and accept those lies, how we are trivial, duplicitous, deal in clichés, bigotry, simplifications, sound-bytes and misinformation. We do this mostly all the time. Listen to a conversation and hear repetition, “you know” and cliché after cliché upon cliché. We are all, almost, sailing alone, rarely connecting, rarely telling a deep truth or hearing one.

Most of the time we say stuff we know will be half-heard and half-absorbed by people who don’t particularly care. In writing, this kind of communication is the womag story: simple plots and trite characterisation, everything signposted, and that’s it, next story please. A little beyond this is the formulaic romance, the books you know pretty much from cover to cover before you’ve bought this month’s batch.

But step beyond here into the lower reaches of other genres, like the puzzle-style crime novel and we are still in the land where behind closed doors we ask SFW? (So F------ What?) but in politer circles we might say it’s a DIM book. Does it Matter?

I’m aware that thrillers, good mysteries, and romances may be written well, artificially plotted and peopled with simplistic characters or caricatures and genuinely entertain. Fine, fine, fine, but do these stay with us? Do they make us feel? Do they change lives? Do they change the way we think? Do they alter our state, or disturb our steady state? No they do not. They fill time and kill trees.

I’m talking, then, about writing stories with weight, with power. Stories which can move us, deeply, heavily, meaningfully; stories which when finished leave us feeling slightly different. We need to take a deep breath, rest, absorb, wait. The story has stepped inside us.

Does this mean “a literary story”? Tricky question. If asked it, ask the questioner to define “literary”. Do they mean arty-farty? Do they mean highly-languaged? Do they mean dealing with minutiae or deep philosophical issues? Do they mean, “There aren’t any guns”? We need agreement before we continue.

For the purposes of this discussion I consider genre stories, non-literary stories as highly dependent on plot, on what happens, and when it happens. The better kind of fiction, more meaningful fiction “carries something”. As well as what happens, there is a why, perhaps a how, but what matters is not the action but its meaning. From the reader’s perspective that action may or may not be vivid, but it’s the meaning of that action we are here for.So in the genre story, perhaps Jack returns to the bar to confront his tormentors. There’s a great fight, some gun gymnastics perhaps. End. Maybe, feeling in a good mood, the writer might tack on some guilt, some remorse, or one cool final comment, but it’s still tacked on. The resonance is like a minor electric shock, a tickle, a flourish.

In the more serious story (and it can be as exciting as the genre story) the facts of the return may well be the same but the writer is more interested in motives, reasons, choices made, and why they are made. Why not simply walk away? Why not simply refuse to go back? If he doesn’t go back is it cowardice, apathy or a greater kind of strength? Done well, this kind of work lifts us, makes us learn about life. Both styles of writing seek to entertain, but the genre story does it superficially, on the surface, pressing well-known buttons and, however well it works, it’s still DIM. It doesn’t matter.

But the quality story still entertains. As Raymond Carver said, even literary stories set out to entertain. The differences lie in what we seek. Do we seek cheap thrills or satisfying adventures? OK, so I am talking to writers who want to entertain, but they also want to linger in the heart or the soul. They want to reach the reader in some way, to say something about life, about the human experience. After their story has been read they hope to stay with the reader, ideally forever. Small task, eh? The next question is: How? And the issues are, How do we access these other kinds of stories, these deeper connections?

I’ve mentioned Dorothea Brande before. She posed the situation where two writers see an incident. Let’s say it’s a small dog struck by a car. To one of the writers, this immediately “impinges”. It feels important, and meaningful, it rattles internal connections. The writer can feel the event sticking, and for whatever reason it matters. It is the opposite of DIM. But the second writer? Nah, dog under a car, let’s move on.

What, Brande asks, is the difference between the two writers? Why did the event affect one, connect and impinge for one, but not the other? In other situations the uncaring writer seems to care more. It’s not just “sensitivity”. What it is, Brande says, is connection, something primitive is happening. Some element in the event connects to something in the soul, the heart, the memory of one writer. It’s a key, a viral fit. The question is what is that fit, what is the event saying to me, how can I find the answer without damaging the connection?

Later I hope to show you how to make those connections happen, how to write drunk, to flash, to work without seeing your words, to “spike your soul”. It may or may not be The Land of the Scary, but it for sure is a rewarding place to visit.

To be continued...


CathM said...

Lots of insightful and helpful tips in this interview post. I got a lot out of this paragraph especially:

"In the more serious story (and it can be as exciting as the genre story) the facts of the return may well be the same but the writer is more interested in motives, reasons, choices made, and why they are made..."

TOM J VOWLER said...

Glad you found it useful, Cath. Part Two is particularly interesting, I believe.

Fia said...

What a lesson - and what an emotional read.

Thank you, thank you.

TOM J VOWLER said...

You're welcome, Fia.

avril said...

Great post - even stopped watching the Ashes to read it!


TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Avril, not that I can take credit for it. I think you'll enjoy the other parts.