It wasn’t a huge class – just the four of us. Alan noticed the very small table and the select few people around it. Perhaps Alan Bennett would have attracted a bigger crowd, although a play by George Bernard Shaw was showing in the main theatre. All it really came down to was more individual time with Alan.
In the opening introductions I think I revealed how much of a Philistine I am when it comes to my reading choices. I have tried very hard to read some of these novels that are shortlisted for various awards. I have downloaded a few on to my kindle and tracked down a few in second hand bookshops BUT I always come back to Jack Reacher or the latest Dick Francis novel. I like page turners. I like well-spaced paragraphs and clear fonts. I like a first line that grabs my attention.
The workshop began by exploring first lines and the hook that lures the reader to stay with the book and about building tension. There must be a page of first lines of novels out there in cyber space. I’d seen the sheet before in another writer’s group talking about the importance of opening lines. My own personal favourite was “They’re out there.” I had successfully swallowed the bait and was hooked. Who is out there exactly? Where is “out there”? Am I safe if I am “in here”? If the reader isn’t asking questions by the end of the first paragraph, the writer has lost him (or her) and the chances of them putting down the book has increased.
“Storytelling is the slow revelation of secrets.” I haven’t read enough, or indeed any, of Alan Bissett’s novels to know if these are his words or whether they belong to someone else.
We moved on to talk about the film “Jaws”. We all know that the shark is there. It’s beneath the waves. There are the flurries in the water, the spreading stain of blood and the music in the background. You don’t see the shark and all the teeth until somewhere in the middle of the film. Your imagination is far better at picturing a shark, so they feed your imagination. You know it’s there. You can feel its presence but you can’t yet see it. The longer the shark remains unseen, the more the tension is drawn out.
A good writer helps you to imagine the shark but doesn’t allow the shark to surface for a long time. The reader asks questions. Too many answers provided and reader loses interest.
A good writer uses actions and dialogue and symbols to suggest a secret but doesn’t easily reveal it. The tone of voice, the body language of the characters and the words spoken or even silence can all be put to use to send out clues but let the reader do thinking If you spill the secret early, then what is needed is another question and another secret. You might reveal the murderer, but then the reader must be given a new question like “Why?”
My husband and I watch a number of crime series. The other night we were watching “Elementary”, the US version of Sherlock Holmes. The body turns up and they have a list of suspects which they whittle down. My husband takes a shortcut at this point. He looks for the most famous person on the cast list and declares them to be the guilty party. It’s a given, he says. They are hardly going to give someone famous a small unimportant role and pay them a huge amount of money if they are not the killer. Too often he is right. I have since moved the goalposts. He is not allowed to identify the killer unless he can suggest a motive.
I seriously do not play to an audience! I can’t pull the literary rabbit out of the lets-write-for-twenty-minutes exercise. As I said to Alan, ten minutes into the task, I was writing myself to sleep. Incidentally, he did say earlier that if the writer isn’t excited by what they are writing, the reader isn’t going to be that excited either.
He raised an eyebrow and asked me to explain myself. I wished I hadn’t spoken. Any characters, he said, in any setting talking about any topic can be made to hint at a secret.
OK let’s see if I can put you to sleep as easily as I can put myself to sleep. Here’s some of what I wrote in those twenty minutes:-
“The roses are looking lovely, aren’t they?” said Natalie.
“I’ve always had roses in my garden,” replied Evelyn, “Always. Of course the quality of the soil matters. Something organic to feed the roots.”
“Tea bags,” suggested Natalie, “that’s what my Nan swear by.”
“Hmph,” snorted Evelyn, “There’s no strength in a tea bag, girl. Something more solid is required, something richer and full of nutrients. And, of course, a heavy scent is essential to a good rose.”
So are you asking any questions?
Too much shark? Or too little?