Thursday, February 25, 2010

Your rules for writing

I really enjoyed Saturday Review's Ten rules for writing fiction feature and, judging by the stats for page hits and the buzz about it on Twitter and other sites, so did many others.

While Jonathan Franzen's point that "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction" certainly hit where it hurts, I was struck by how many of the writers emphasised the point that, if you want to write then – to paraphrase – "just bloody write".

As Anne Enright says, "The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page." Neil Gaiman suggests, "1 Write. 2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down." PD James urges [oops, that's one of Elmore Leonard's rules broken] "Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style", while AL Kennedy says: "Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go."

It comes down to discipline, says Jeanette Winterson: "Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom".

I disagreed with very few of the rules, however odd; I'm sure that if any children read the rules they will find Zadie Smith's first rule: "When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else" helpful. Adults, I'm not so sure. I have to confess to being baffled by Andrew Motion's rule number 9: "Write for tomorrow, not for today". What does that mean?

- Michelle Pauli,

Read the rest of the article and readers' comments here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray. Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don'ts

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Helen Simpson

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it."


Read the rest of the article here, and the follow-up article here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Commonwealth Writers' Prize shortlist

2010 is the year to show the rest of the world what we can do!

Listed below are the books from Africa that made the Commonwealth cut:

(find the rest of the finalists here)

The shortlisted writers for Africa's Best Book are:
Trespass by Dawn Garisch (South Africa)
The Double Crown by Marié Heese (South Africa)
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Eyo by Abidemi Sanusi (Nigeria)
Tsamma Season by Rosemund Handler (South Africa)
Refuge by Andrew Brown (South Africa)
Kings of the Water by Mark Behr (South Africa)

The shortlisted writers for Africa's Best First Book are:
I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Nigeria)
The Shape of Him by Gill Schierhout (South Africa)
The Shadow of a Smile by Kachi Ozumba (Nigeria)
Come Sunday by Isla Morley (South Africa)
Sleepers Wake by Alistair Morgan (South Africa)
Jelly Dog Days by Erica Emdon (South Africa)
Harmattan Rain by Aysha Harunna Attah (Ghana)

Some cherry-picks below; just let me know if you would like info on any of the others.

The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Paperback, 217 pages
September 2009
Published by Fourth Estate
Available to order – 3 weeks

From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Orange Prize-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, come twelve dazzling stories in which she turns her penetrating eye on the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Nigeria and the West. Searing and profound, suffused with beauty, sorrow and longing, this collection is a resounding confirmation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's prodigious storytelling powers.

Tsamma Season
Rosemund Handler
Paperback, 289 pages, June 2009
Published by The Penguin Group (SA) (Pty) Ltd
Available to order – 1 week

An intrepid couple spurn their former lives to take on the challenge of building a home in the Kalahari Desert. The family’s story is told by their precocious daughter, Emma. Tsamma Season explores the themes of love and loss of love, challenge and betrayal. Handler’s prose vividly evokes the limitless horizons and rugged beauty of the Kalahari.

Kings Of The Water
Mark Behr
Paperback, 243 pages
October 2009
Published by Abacus
Available to order – 6 – 8 weeks

When Michiel Steyn returns to the family farmstead in South Africa for his mother's funeral, he has spent close to half his lifetime abroad. But even after fifteen years' absence, neither Michiel nor those he left behind have truly come to terms with his terrible flight from the farm they called Paradise.
Elegant and chilling, poignant and profoundly thoughtful, Kings Of The Water is at once a lament both personal and political, and a meditation on the potency of reconciliation.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Paperback, 368 pages
4 March 2010
Published by Phoenix
Available to order – 3 - 4 weeks

In Adaobi Nwaubani's vivid, often hilarious debut novel, we learn how one young man gets sucked into the 419 world, losing himself in the process. Kingsley is fresh out of university, eager to find an engineering job so he can support his family--descended into poverty after his father fell ill--and marry his sweetheart, Ola. But jobs are not easy to come by, and out of desperation he turns to his uncle, Cash Daddy, who runs a successful empire of 419 scams. Unconditional family support is the Nigerian way, but the hand Cash Daddy extends in charity has consequences. As Kingsley is drawn into this outlandish milieu, he soon realizes that nothing in Nigeria comes for free. Like Monica Ali, Kiran Desai, and Lisa See, Adaobi Nwaubani captures her distinct world in unputdownable ways. Accomplished, lyrical, and enlightening, this is a debut that is destined to stand out.

The Shape of Him
Gill Schierhout
Hardcover, 224 pages
June 2009
Published by Jonathan Cape
Available to order – 1 – 2 weeks

Sara Highbury, now forty-eight years old and the manageress of a boarding house, is living in the aftermath of a love affair with Herbert Wakeford, a one-time diamond digger who suffers from a degenerative brain disease. Years after their relationship ended, Sara is still haunted by Herbert and what passed between them. With the backdrop of a rural landscape and characters that are as memorable as they are unexpected, "The Shape of Him" introduces a writer whose spare, exquisitely crafted prose places her deservedly in the tradition of the best of South African literary fiction.

Sleeper's Wake
Alastair Morgan
Paperback, 180 pages
July 2009
Published by The Penguin Group
Available to order – 1 – 2 weeks

The novel is set in modern day South Africa and is the story of 46-year-old John Wraith, a freelance journalist, who regains consciousness after a car accident to learn that his wife and 5-year-old daughter died in the same accident. What is all the more traumatic for him is that he was driving the car.
At the urging of his sister, John decides to recuperate in her holiday chalet in Nature’s Valley, on the South African coast. It is winter and Nature’s Valley is mostly deserted - except for a disturbed young woman of twenty one called Jackie and her equally strange brother and her father, who is a born again Christian. John's uneasy yet intense involvement with this trio, particularly with Jackie, to whom he is sexually attracted, and with the few other characters that inhabit Nature’s Valley, provides the novel with its driving narrative and tense denouement. It is a haunting, evocative, disturbing and very powerful study of man at his most naked and vulnerable.

Jelly Dog Days
Erica Emdon
Paperback, August 2009
Published by The Penguin Group (SA) (Pty) Ltd
Available to order – 1 – 2 weeks

Jelly dog days is a story told through the eyes of a young girl, Theresa, who grows up in the racist working class suburbs of Johannesburg during the 1960s and 1970s. After living in Turfontein, Bez Valley, Little Falls and Malvern, the family moves to Claremont when Theresa is eight where they seem to settle down. She is forced to confront challenges that no young person should have to deal with and maintain some kind of mechanism to survive. The story is set in white Johannesburg of the period; it is a tale of trust and treachery. But most importantly, it is about survival and to some extent redemption.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ordinary Thunderstorms

Novelist William Boyd’s latest is a thrilling story of an innocent man forced into hiding in the underbelly of London. Olivia Cole spoke to him about his new work and why he aims to entertain.

The everyman hero of Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd’s new novel, is a climatologist, Adam Kindred. An American in London, who with a simple twist of fate loses every semblance of his life when he is forced to go on the run. The novel’s title comes from his specialist subject: "Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity.... It should be noted that even ordinary thunderstorms are capable of mutating into super-cell storms. These storms subside very slowly."

The germ of the novel was an article in The Guardian highlighting the 50 to 60 bodies pulled from the Thames every year. “It’s more than one a week,” observes Boyd gently. “I mean, who are these dead people?” Adam’s tragedy, too, on the run from his own life, is similarly unremarked on, the kind of “ordinary” calamity that the great pulsing city of London can safely ignore.

“If you are going to write a novel that’s over 300, 350 pages, I sort of feel you’re obliged to provide that element of suspense or compulsion to read on.”

The novel’s cast of characters spans the boardrooms of the City, the coked-up dining tables of Notting Hill to the most frightening estates around the Isle of Dogs. Adam finds himself in the homes and beds of drug addicts and £50 hookers: people thrown about, like him, by life’s storms. By letting go of his phone, his credit cards and his name, he too can join the ranks of the habitually peripheral, like Icarus, falling to his death, ignored, in Auden’s poem.

- Olivia Cole, The Book Beast

Read the rest of the interview here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Drinking and Grieving

They travel to St. Kitts for winter breaks and to Florence for their 20th wedding anniversaries. They play CDs of Joan Sutherland in their car radios. When crises arise they take to bourbon in the midafternoon and snack on olive tapenade. Rome’s air pollution is a likely subject of conversation over their dinners, which might feature gnocchi in basil cream sauce and radicchio and orange salad, washed down with a St.-Amour Beaujolais. They read The Economist and go to psychiatrists who subscribe to Paris-Match. Readily dropping foreign phrases, they flatter a woman by saying that she looks like a Balthus or that she has a lot of chien.

- Francine Du Plessix Gray, New York Times

Read the rest of the review here.