Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Post: Of Writers And Storytellers

Homer Simpson
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was struck during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature by the difference between writers and storytellers. The two aren't necessarily the same thing, you see. You can be a good writer and a bad storyteller and also a bad writer and a great storyteller. I moderated an enjoyable session with Deon Meyer and Simon Kernick and, reading their books in the run-up to the event, I was surprised at the difference in their styles of storytelling. Meyer's a writer, Kernick's not. He's a storyteller - and he wastes shockingly little time getting you from A to B. Not for Simon long lovingly chosen passages of descriptive prose or even careful word choices: in one scene two cars collide 'with a bang'. Characters aren't plagued by existential angst in the early hours (more Meyer's style: as I told him during our session, his Seven Days is crammed so full of skin-crawling addiction it actually had me wanting to smoke again).

It doesn't detract from the enjoyment of a Simon Kernick thriller - you get what you pay for, a hectic pell-mell dash through the twists and turns of the roller-coaster. And so Dan Brown, Lee Childs and others - storytellers who give enjoyment to millions, but who aren't, well, you know... literary. I do get bored with writers slagging off authors like these. They're selling millions and you're not which makes them right and you wrong.

I was mulling it all as I immersed myself in the finalists of the Canadian University in Dubai's short story writing contest last week (they were mad and misguided enough to invite me to be a judge). Writing hundred word shorts is a horror of a thing: that's so few words you're really forced to come right up against pretty much every word choice - more like poetry than prose. All of them were storytellers, but the writing contained all the mistakes so beloved of the Word Nazis. A few examples for your listening pleasure:

She screamed with her mouth.
She was hardly going to do it with her shoulder, was she? I've seen this used as an example time and again in articles by editors, but had never actually encountered it 'in the wild' before. Similarly, "He grabbed the door handle with his hand".

Suddenly there was an explosion
Have you ever seen a slow explosion?

She cast her eyes across the room
Boing boing went those bouncing eyeballs...

Turning, he opened the door
Using a strange Dervish-like whirling technique? Dangling participles often amuse: "Driving home, he cooked supper" - you can see the bloke, steering wheel in one hand, frying pan in the other.

Louella is a short woman, but as she’s your sister, I’m sure you know this…
When exposition gets clunky, it tends to get really clunky. Having characters who know something be told it always grates.

He was cruelly deceived by her.
Our old friend the passive voice. By all means use it, but know you're using it. She deceived him cruelly is not infrequently the way to go.

He walked carelessly along the corridor. 
Adverbs. Despite knowing this very well, my editors will still tell you I use too many of them. I'm by no means alone - it's the first symptom of lazy writing and we all do it. The trick is spotting it in the edit and getting rid. It's a word choice thing. He sauntered along the corridor.

He looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of him. He knew it was ready to strike. 
Filters - we're in his point of view, so when he saw a snake (presumably not in mid-flight) we can assume he's looking down. And, again in his POV, we know what he knows. So this becomes "Coiled in front of him, the snake blocked his path, ready to strike" and we have a much clearer immediacy.

He saw the flares illuminate
Again, in his POV we know he sees the flares. And illuminating is sort of what flares do, no?

What happened next made her scream in terror.
Editor Robb calls these 'announcements' - it's very lazy indeed and almost invariably sets us up for an anti-climax. Also, screaming in terror is awful.

He creeps up to the door and puts his ear against it, listening for movement
You might be plagued by the image of a man holding an ear to the door at arm's length, but we can lose the creeping and assume movement to the door, listening gingerly perhaps as we can also assume he's not listening for a symphony orchestra.

All of these things (and the many more examples there are out there of poor style and grammar) are there to keep food on editors' tables. But they're about the process of writing, not the skill of storytelling. If that makes sense.

Anyway, I'm in no position to be holier-than-thou about this kind of thing. Reading the printed version of the short story I wrote for Time Out Dubai to run during the LitFest, and of course not before, I caught a repetition of the word 'little' in the second para. There's nothing seeing like your stupid errors in hard print to bring out the Homer Simpson 'Doh'.

It's almost as annoying as finding they've unilaterally removed - for some reason best known to themselves - the word 'God' from the piece, thereby mangling a carefully chosen sentence.

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1 comment:

Rosie Evie said...

it's very lazy indeed and almost invariably sets us up for an anti-climax

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