Monday 16 February 2015

Learning to Write (cont...)

One of the things that Andrew Derrington has been coaching me about is the use of the assert-justify structure in my writing, rather than argue-conclude.

He found a classic example in one of my chapters he was reviewing the other week: 'You start here saying what's wrong, and then, where is it, four, five, six (!) paragraphs later you say what should be done instead! Don't do that!'

I think he is right about this, in the type of book I am writing. However, where I think he is wrong is in his (I suspect somewhat tongue-in-cheek) next comment. 'You're humanities, aren't you: I think humanities people write like that because they have nothing to say!'

I think I write like that because so much of what I read is written like that. After all, it is how novels and drama work. They set up the suspense precisely by delaying explanation and dénouement. It provides narrative drive. 

All of which reminded me of a wonderful speech in Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood (Stoppard, of course, is a master-craftsman as a writer). The speaker, Kerner, is a Russian physicist, who has defected, and got tangled up in the spy world (incidentally, part of the play is based on Heisenberg: the act of looking determines whether an agent is a double or not...).  Anyway, here is what Kerner has to say:

Safe house, sleeper, cover, joe… I love it. When I have learned the language, I will write my own book. The traitor will be the one you don’t like very much, it will be a scandal. Also I will reveal him at the beginning. I don’t understand this mania for surprises. If the author knows, it’s rude not to tell. In science this is understood: what is interesting is to know what is happening. When I write an experiment, I do not wish you to be surprised, it is not a joke. This is why a science paper is a beautiful thing: first, here is what we will find; now here is how we will find it; here is the first puzzle, here is the answer, now we can move on. This is polite. We don’t save up all the puzzles to make a triumph for the author - that is the dictatorship of the intelligentsia.
So what I have to remember is that my book is more in the line of a Haynes Manual than an Agatha Christie whodunnit.
My job is to help the reader to understand and to be able to do certain things that I believe will be helpful in order to accomplish specific desired outcomes; not to provide a thrill-a-minute or a gradual build up of suspense and a cathartic resolution.

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