02 October 2012
Books and Poetry
Caitlin McDonald reports on a recent Off the Shelf at Black’s event
Pic: Helen Smith (left) with David Nobbs and Off the Shelf organiser, Jan Woolf credit: Anne Hogben/WGGB
I was actually there under false pretences. Off the Shelf at Black’s is advertised as ‘A series of monthly, one-day residencies for fiction writers held on Mondays.’ It was that one word – fiction – that kept stopping me from signing up. But each time I saw an article in the Guild magazine about Off the Shelf it sounded like such fun, and so useful, that at last I couldn't resist and I booked a place. I believe that no matter what kind of writer you are it is always possible learn from someone else's experience. There are so many aspects of writing that transcend genre that it’s worthwhile hearing about another writer’s process. Plus, coffee, lunch and the chance to poke about the worn splendour of Black’s... what more could you want?
This particular Off the Shelf was a comic-writing workshop with Helen Smith and David Nobbs. We got off to a very comedic start indeed: as Helen began to read from her darkly comic mystery Alison Wonderland one of our number literally fell through the floor. Or rather, one of the legs of his chair managed to find a large chink in the wood, tipping him unceremoniously on to the carpet. No writers were harmed in the incident.
Once the chair had been extricated from the floorboards, Helen talked about writing what you know, whatever that means to you. For example, Being Light, the second novel to feature her character Alison Wonderland, begins with a man who gets swept away by a freak gust of wind on a bouncy castle. The germ of this novel came from Helen having read about a real Australian man getting tumbled off a bouncy castle by a gust of wind. Helen fictionalised this by allowing herself to consider the ‘what-if’ moment: what if instead of landing a few feet away, the man had bounced away for good?
Following on from this Helen made a point about the need for fiction writers to have the capacity to notice the unusual. Everywhere there is fodder for humour in writing and the comedy isn’t always in the event itself. Instead it is so often in the capacity of the writer to provide a voice, to give a perspective that allows the telling of an event to be framed in a comic way. This echoes Helen’s strategy about the ‘what-if’ moment, the ability to take a real situation and apply fictional possibilities to it. What I took from this was the need to keep an open mind to comedic possibility and to seek out perspectives that might be used to present a situation or an idea in a humorous way.
Another aspect of Helen’s talk was how even a lightly comic description can be rooted in the darker parts of the human experience. The funny image of a man inexplicably bouncing off into a strange new adventure allowed Helen the space to build a metaphor about the unexpected end of a romantic relationship. Drawing on personal experience, she used the idea of her fictional bounced-man to explore feelings about how easily a person can extricate themselves from the bounds of what appears to be a settled relationship. Approaching tragedy obliquely can allow space to explore these darker truths from a humorous angle.
Helen’s advice about style can be applied equally to fiction and to non-fiction. As discussed in the article Non-Fiction: a True Story, non-fiction can be just as rich in description and perspective as any novel; non-fiction can still be a story. While the realm of ‘what-if’ is the province of fiction writers only, the ability to observe keenly for events that might be presented in the desired voice or tone (in this case comic) is valuable for all writers.
David Nobbs, known best for his Reggie Perrin works, spoke next, reading extracts from
The Return Of Reginald Perrin and from his upcoming book The Fall And Rise Of Gordon Coppinger.
Part of David’s talk concerned stylistic choices. In particular he highlighted the power of succinct description to create a full picture in the reader’s mind with a single phrase or even sometimes a single word. As David read from The Return Of Reginald Perrin, I was reminded that lists can be a very effective descriptive tool in this way. Instead of a drawn-out narration of each object or concept, a rapid-fire list can act as a series of metonyms calling to mind a rich kaleidoscope of images. David chose a passage in which Reggie remonstrates with his friend Jimmy about the latter’s new ‘secret army’, in which two lists categorise who might be attracted to or repulsed by its aims. A single word or phrase sufficed to call to mind a whole phalanx of each group being described.
Speaking about the editing process, David focused on being open to criticism and editorial suggestions. David suggested that an editor acts as a reader’s advocate to clarify questions about the story. He discussed how easy it can be to lose sight of what has and hasn’t been revealed about a character in an initial draft because the author is so close to the material that it is possible to forget which parts of the story have actually gone down on the page. A well-placed question from an editor can improve the text by explaining what’s missing from a reader’s perspective. Often the answer to questions like these, regarding, for example, a character’s motivation for a particular feeling or action, is already clear in the author’s mind and the problem can be rectified with a few lines or even a few words.
The key point I took away from David was a very useful bit of advice on how to approach criticism. David always welcomes criticism or commentary before a work is finished because if he agrees with the critic, he is left with a better piece of writing as a result, but if he disagrees, his faith in the strength of his own writing is reinforced. Either way, it’s profitable.
Following the author readings there were questions from the audience. Several concerned the importance of tone in writing. Referring to the bright, gentle world of Wodehouse (often considered the consummate comic novelist), the first interlocutor wondered if it were possible in the present day and age to really create that sort of gently comic fictional universe. In response both Helen and David focused on the importance of personal perspective and the individual sense of voice that can be brought to a piece. Tone is a very personal aspect of an author’s writing and the way each author creates comedy comes down to his or her unique voice.
A related question about tone was raised about the impetus behind humorous writing: should it be rooted in ludicrousness, or should it come from a sense of the lighthearted, a sense of telling amusing tales? Helen suggested that her writing is always an invitation to readers to explore a world view that is not their own. She discussed the idea that comedy can be a way to alleviate some of the difficulties that arise from misunderstandings based on differing perspectives. David echoed this, indicating that comedy is a blend of character and situation.
One writer asked about pathos in comic writing. Helen said that her preferred method of creating a humorous tone was not pathos but bathos, which can help avoid the emotional fatigue that comes from constantly reading one style. She also highlighted the importance of having empathy with characters; regardless of what style you write in, eliciting a feeling of empathy for the characters allows the reader to get a deeper hold on them and become more involved in the story.
As the duckling non-fictioner among the swans at this fiction workshop, I challenged that if we are all supposed to write what we know, why use the medium of fiction at all? David answered that this was a very big question, but that in his mind fiction should always be there to illuminate fact. It is there in the service of truths, whether those be factual events or the emotional truths of human experience. I was able to corner Helen after lunch to answer this as well. Her take was that though much of her writing is rooted in her own life, to write without the veil of fiction would be constraining. Having tried non-fiction in her first book, she felt limited by fears of offending the people she described. She also mentioned the hindrance of realism: sometimes real life just isn’t extraordinary enough to create a compelling a story, while fiction can take building blocks from several sources to create challenging situations for characters. Being informed by situations in her own life, these fictional settings then provide space to explore from an oblique angle the emotional truths that David spoke about.
After lunch three writers shared extracts from works in progress and received feedback from the audience. This was, naturally, valuable for those with work under discussion but it was also really informative for the whole audience to take part in the conversation. There was plenty of rich information to take away and apply to our own writing, regardless of our personal style or genre.
The day was fun and immensely valuable as a source of advice that was platform-neutral: no matter what kind of writer you are, it really is beneficial to hear from others about your craft. Do go along Off the Shelf and get some food for thought.
Caitlin McDonald blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com
Details of upcoming Off the Shelf at Black's events will be posted on this site.