Writing Right with Dmitri - Learning from the Best

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Learning from the Best

Writing right

So you have a bit of downtime. Or you're in bed with the sniffles. Or your TV is on the fritz. Now is a good time to catch up on your reading. Yes, yes, I know you don't like to admit it, but you'd prefer to read something undemanding and lazy – like that trash thriller you picked up at the corner shop. Or some of your favourite genre fiction, the stuff that goes well with your snack food of choice. But every once in a while, you really ought to do yourself a favour and lay off the mental junk food long enough to read something that will help you write better.

While those shades of greyscale make you chuckle, and give you that validating moment when you say to yourself, 'I can write better than that. Heck, my cat can write better than that,' you could challenge yourself, you know. I don't mean by reading what Miss Crabtree told you in English class was Great Literature. Unless, of course, that's the way you try to write yourself. You know who you are: if you aspire to be the next Virginia Woolf, by all means read that lady. And if you can do so without falling asleep, more power to your spectacles. Me, I can't, and I don't, and I wouldn't, anyway, because I don't want to write like Virginia Woolf, whom I find incomprehensible.

I don't want to write like Dashiell Hammett, either, so I don't read him when I want to learn how. I read Thomas Harris and Scott Turow, among others. Why? Because they write so well that I am riveted. Once I've read their books for the story, I go back and read them again – just to understand how they did it. I use these books – which, after all, I paid for – as a low-cost writing tutorial. There, see how that works? Didn't think of that, now, did you? Nope, I didn't. Thank you, kind writer, for teaching me that trick.

What do I learn from them? And how could I apply this knowledge? Let me illustrate.

Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris' books, which include Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising, all feature a serial killer who eats parts of his victims. No, not like that – with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Hannibal Lecter, the suave Lithuanian, gives a new meaning to the term 'iron chef'.

Harris' reputation is getting quite a push among the non-literary these days because his books have inspired a hit television series. Fans of the series, called 'Fannibals', have spawned the latest in internet memes. In response to the network's reluctance to renew the series, they sent placemats featuring a knife, a fork, and the network's logo. They pointed out that Hannibal only eats rude people. Cancelling Bryan Fuller's series before its time, they opined, 'would be very rude'…

The series has been extended for at least another season.

Wait, you protest. I do NOT want to read another book about serial killers. They are distasteful to me. I particularly do not want to read about cannibal serial killers. This sort of thing puts me off my dinner.

I hear you. But wait. Mr Harris, a sensitive, caring individual – himself a gourmet chef – who hails from Cleveland, Mississippi, is not writing about serial killers to revel in gore. No matter what his audience does with it. Harris' novels constitute a profound study of the depths of the human psyche. Sort of like what people claim Virginia Woolf does for them. I'll take their word for it and read Harris. Maybe it's a Mississippi thing, but I get where he's coming from.

What does Harris teach me? For one thing, how to make a story vivid. No, not the murder part, anybody can do that. The sense of place. The sense of time. Harris reaches the insides of his characters through their senses. Oh, let me quote you an example:

Hannibal looks at the painting he took from his mother's hands and knows the past was not the past at all; the beast that panted its hot stench on his and Mischa's skins continues to breathe, is breathing now. He turns the 'Bridge of Sighs' to the wall and stares at the back of the painting for minutes at a time – Mischa's hand erased, it is only a blank square now where he projects his seething dreams.   – Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising.

Harris finds these characters. He stays with them. He sees what they see. He feels, hears, smells, and tastes with them. That may be why fans of the novels call Hannibal 'haunting'. The stories are a deep investigation of the evils of the 20th Century, the legacy of the Second World War, and the unplumbed depths of post-traumatic stress. But they're more. They're an examination of civilisation itself. That said, there's not a word of theory in anything he's written. It's all concrete: sight, sound, smell, taste. Showing, not telling.

Which might be why this writing is not to everyone's taste. The Guardian published a rather facile parody, which will not be linked to here. The New York Times has what is no doubt intended to be a scathing review, which accuses the author of 'pretension', among other sins. You might agree, and you're welcome to your opinion. Me, I think that reviewer has a short attention span and wanted more thrills in her 'thriller'. I think I can learn a lot from a writer who can create that much space between his book covers.

Scott Turow

Scott Turow is more universally liked, one suspects, than Thomas Harris. After all, nobody doesn't like a good police procedural or courtroom drama, right? Okay, me. But I'm weird. I yawn a bit over Maigret (which one was he?) and, frankly, Wallander was so gloomy and dreary and dull that I stopped watching, and he was being played by KENNETH BRANAGH. I can't help it. There are only so many ways to say, 'Just the facts, ma'am,' before some of us nod off. Turow, however, isn't merely writing courtroom drama – although, being a very erudite lawyer, he does this extremely well. He's writing powerful mainstream fiction about human relationships and the meaning of life.

In his 2010 book, Innocent, Turow has written a sequel to his 1987 bestseller, Presumed Innocent. You've probably seen the film. In case you haven't, Presumed Innocent tells the story of a prosecuting attorney in an imaginary city in the US Midwest who is accused of killing a colleague with whom he had a brief sexual affair. The twists and turns of the plot are quite elaborate, and the conclusion is shocking. Psychological, not unbelievable, but shocking, nonetheless.

In Innocent, Turow turns in a bravura performance in which he takes the same characters, twenty years later, and does it again. The same antagonist prosecutes the same man – who is now a judge – for a similar crime. The story is just as closely plotted as the first, and even more satisfying to read. Therefore, there will be no spoilers from me. You should read it at the beach this summer. You'd enjoy it. But more than that, I hope you would learn something about technique.

What can you learn from this novel? The level of plot development is frankly daunting. Most of us don't aim for that, nor should we. But I think we can learn a couple of things:

  • Make your images count. I wouldn't advise trying to write like Turow. He's one of those rare writers who come up with mind-tickling similes: the overweight lawyer wears 'suits as snug as sausage casings' and 'the same lousy rug, which looks as though he skinned a poodle'. But however you choose your images, you can learn from this master of technique.
  • Decide who's doing the talking.   Innocent is told from four different narrative viewpoints: The accused's, his son's, his son's fiancee's, and a third-person narration centred around the prosecutor. It works beautifully. You'll probably never need to get that fancy – but a study of this novel will make you more aware of where you're putting your POV.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

You know what they say: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' That may be true, but don't flatter. Don't even think about imitating these writers. Learn from them. Put the techniques you pick up into your own voice. Then, instead of becoming a pale imitation of something you've admired, your work will become a genuine product of your own sensibility.

Performers watch each other and learn. Chess players learn from the games of the masters. Writers are lucky: all we have to do is read. We can learn from the best.


Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

17.06.13 Front Page

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