Robert Pimm

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How to write a novel: edit as you go along, or not?

I once visited a wonderful friend who was a successful writer.

At the time, I was struggling to complete my first novel.

When she suggested we go for brunch at her local cafe to read the New York Times and the Washington Post, I was delighted.  As I waited to go out, I glanced at her writing desk, filled with admiration for her hard work and achievement.

On the desk was a book about writing technique.  Intrigued that she, a well-known author, should need such advice, I leafed through it.  A sentence leapt out at me.

You can see the results of all this in my Berlin thriller Blood Summit

“Don’t keep writing and re-writing the same chapter or the opening to your book,” the guide said.  “Doing that risks preventing you from completing the task.  You must keep moving forward.”

At that point my friend was ready and we went out for a terrific brunch in Alexandria.

But I never forgot that sentence.  I have found it invaluable in helping me to complete many novels.

“Wait!” I hear you cry.  “Surely I shouldn’t write (more…)

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How to write gripping fiction: scenes, sequels and cliff-hangers

An experienced commissioning editor told me recently that one of two main reasons she rejected manuscripts was “no story”.  The other was “overwritten” – I’ll write about that another day.

How can you make sure your fiction has a strong story, that people will want to read?

To put it another way, how can you make sure your fiction has bite?

I recommend a simple technique, developed by an American writer, Dwight V Swain, using two elements called scenes and sequels.  Each is divided into two sub-elements.

‘How the hell do I apply these techniques to my writing?’

Swain said that to have a cracking good story you should start with a scene in which someone is trying to achieve a goal.  The sub-elements are:

(i) goalthe character is trying to achieve something;

(ii) conflictsomething prevents the character achieving that goal;

(iii) disasterthe quest to achieve the goal ends in catastrophe. (more…)

Waugh, Wodehouse, Durrell & Alan Clark: four quotations

Do any of our actions make any difference to anything?  What makes us happy?  What makes us laugh?  What about the power of memory?

This week’s quotations look at all these issues.  The scandalous Alan Clark, whose remarkable and disturbing diaries I have reviewed, clearly thought that sexual activity was keeping him young.  Evelyn Waugh, in his elegiac Brideshead Revisited, blows us away with his reminiscences.  P G Wodehouse, on whom I blog frequently, is the one of the best comic writers on earth.  Lawrence Durrell, meanwhile, is sceptical that any of our lives achieve anything.  I disagree!

Personally, I am a strong believer that our lives can make a difference

4 quotations

Why am I still, in the main, so zestful?

I know, but I don’t like to say

In case the gods take it away.

Alan Clark, The Diaries (more…)

Trollope: “He Knew He Was Right”. A masterpiece of dry comedy

Trollope is, perhaps, my favourite novelist (although PG Wodehouse is up there).

I have described before 11 life-changing reasons you should read Trollope, including his views on religion, sexual politics, and the media (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

But not everyone is convinced.

So I thought I would give an example of the brilliance of Trollope by quoting an entire chapter from his 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right.  

He Knew He Was Right deals with the breakdown of the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a wealthy young Englishman, and his wife Emily.  As a description of how jealousy and stubbornness can destroy a relationship, it could have been written yesterday.

My Trollope Society edition of “He Knew He Was Right” has 823 pages

Emily’s father is Sir Marmaduke Rowley, Governor of the fictional Mandarin Islands, a distant British colony.  An old friend, Colonel Osborne, who is also Emily’s godfather, arranges for Sir Marmaduke to be summoned back to London, ostensibly to appear before a parliamentary committee, but in fact in order that he can return to London at the taxpayer’s expense to see Emily.  Sir Marmaduke acquiesces in this subterfuge; yet is dismayed when he is summoned before the committee of Members of Parliament, which is chaired by one Major Magruder: “a certain ancient pundit of the constitution, who had been for many years a member, and who had been known as a stern critic of our colonial modes of government”.

I have reproduced here Chapter 68 of He Knew He Was Right, giving an account of Sir Marmaduke’s appearance before the Major Magruder’s committee.  I often counsel people who want to understand politics, and British parliamentary procedure, to read Trollope.  Chapter 68 (out of 99 in the book) illustrates why.  The procedures described; the emotions of the elderly Sir Marmaduke as he is questioned; the chairmanship and motivation of Major Magruder; and the outcome of the hearing, including the way Sir Marmaduke is treated compared with the incomparably more competent “Governor from one of the greater colonies” who has also been questioned  by the committee, could describe the proceedings of a British parliamentary committee in 2019.

Read, and relish.  I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 68

Major Magruder’s Committee

Sir Marmaduke could not go out to Willesden on the morning after Lady Rowley’s return from River’s Cottage, because on that day he was summoned to attend at twelve o’clock before a Committee of the House of Commons, to give his evidence and, the fruit of his experience as to the government of British colonies generally; and as he went down to the House in a cab from Manchester Street he thoroughly wished that his friend Colonel Osborne had not been so efficacious in bringing him home. The task before him was one which he thoroughly disliked, and of which he was afraid. (more…)

“Like all young men I set out to be a genius, but…” three quotations

How seriously should we take ourselves?

One of the keys to happiness is not to take yourself too seriously.  You can take life seriously, and your family, and your work.  You can, and should, take pride in yourself and your achievements.

But the minute you start thinking that you are a rather amazing person, and better than other people, you are in danger of taking yourself too seriously and should stop it at once.

“Thank you, Jeeves” is an absolute corker

I was reminded of this wisdom by one of this week’s three quotations, which are below. (more…)

James Bond and salad dressing? Nein danke!

Ian Fleming’s James Bond, created in a series of novels and short stories from 1953 to 1966, is unforgettable.  But his attitudes often now feel dated (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

Can one dislike Bond’s views, for example on women, yet still admire, or enjoy, his single-mindedness and style?  I think so.  If you cannot discount dated attitudes in cultural artefacts, you risk missing out on countless historical treats.

For writers, a character like James Bond is gold dust.  Like him or loath him, he is well written: he thinks about his actions, has values and opinions, behaves within a clearly defined framework, yet is full of ambiguity.  No wonder movie-makers want to exploit him.

Mention of movie-makers raises a key question: can you, or should you, attempt to update or adapt a character such as Bond?  That is what movie makers do, drawing on the original material in Fleming’s novels to create stories set in the present day which seek to update Bond selectively.  Results are mixed, although as I say in the piece at the link, many of us keep going back to cinemas in the hope Bond’s next outing will be better than the last.

Debate swirls around a black or female Bond: my view is that this would be perfectly permissible, so long as the character retained key characteristics such as sophistication, humour, gadgets, great grooming, and a merciless streak.

The cover of my Folio Society “Casino Royale” is suitably dated both in style and content – get a whiff of that cigarette smoke

Some adaptation and updating is essential.  A modern movie which used Bond’s line about a key – and formerly much-loved – female (more…)

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