A Roman Column
Storm in a Teacup
Or, we could call it 'Story in a Teacup'; or better still, 'How to Bake a Story from a Mix'. Thing is, I belong to a small writer's group in which we discuss and help each other's work-in-progress; and at our last session, we got a little tired and started to amuse ourselves by confessing about the worst 'teach-yourself-writing' books we had ever felt depressed enough to buy.
The question that went begging was who had ever felt low enough to actually follow the prescribed dictates and wisdom in these cake-mix books? The response was variously inconclusive. The next day I decided to test the recipes from one of these tomes and bake myself a perfect story. Just holding the authoritative book in my hands, I felt a thrilling quiver in my quill. I grabbed my notebook ready for my masterpiece to unfold.
Let me start out by saying that I am easily cowed down and that my threshold for being mentored and hectored is quite high. But, even I winced audibly as I opened the book-- called 'The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes', on the sternly admonishing contents page with chapters all starting with the word 'DON'T.' To boot:
Don't describe sunsets; Don't write about wimps; Don't Have Things Happen for no Reason; Don't Worry What Mother will think; Don't lecture Your Reader (Hmmm….Physician heal thyself? I murmured); Don't be afraid to say 'said' as an attributive verb (Oops! Correction: "Physician heal thyself!" I said).etc.etc.
I ran a quick finger through the remaining chapter headings. The direct injunction was still the one against describing sunsets. Apparently this is a static act that impedes movement and action which, according to the book, is what fiction is about. I whimpered. There goes my reason for reading and writing, invalidating the best of literature in which landscapes speak just as eloquently as do characters. Remember, John Banville's award winning novel, 'The Sea'? And regarding the other advice, I thought, what about all the great wimps of literature: Hamlet and Devdas, and Charles Bovary, without whom Flaubert's heroine would not exist?
I stopped with a sigh. It was too late to turn back. I had already embarked on my unstoppable writing career with this step-by-step DIY literature kit in my hands. Or did I mean a DDIY (a 'Don't- Do- It-Yourself-instead-let-the-experts-show-you-how-to-write' kit)? I glanced nervously at the final and 38th chapter. It barked: Don't just sit there! I jumped into the fray. The first chapter hollered, I mean said:
1. Don't make Excuses…Start now! So, I pushed away my morning cup of tea and started to write: "She pushed away her morning cup of tea and started to write…." Well, okay, let's say I made a little more effort: "The hair-line crack running halfway down the dusty pink Rosa centifolia foliacea painted and named on the old porcelain teacup was barely visible even to her. But she was aware of it, that thin line between breaking and holding which ran also through her own fragile tenacity. She inhaled the scented vapour, then tipped the flawed rose and took a sip of the perfection it held daily. Now she was ready for the day."
2. Don't warm up your engines…..start right in the middle of the action and don't waste time in description of the setting etc. Oh? Oh! Sorry. But, please sir, what about Arundhati Roy revving her 'God of Small Things' with: "May in Ayemenem is a hot and brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on ripe mangoes in still, dustgreen trees…….." for pages? I guess, she should really thank the God of Booker prize that the panel of judges did not include the author of my instruction manual for flawless fiction, who, according to the blurb, has to his credit seventy-five published novels, whose titles are not given. No, I can't afford to take risks. So let's omit the verbiage and try again: "The hot tea scalded her mouth. She banged the cup down and jabbing at the keys, started to type her resignation letter." That should be action enough.
3. Don't use real people in your story…. You may start with a real person but to make the character vivid enough for your readers to believe in you have to change things and construct something bigger and more exaggerated, providing identifying characteristics. Okay. "The hot tea scalded his mouth. He banged the cup down….." No, wait. "The hot coffee scalded his mouth. He banged the mug down and wiping his moustache with the back of his hand he started to type his resignation letter." There!
4. Don't duck trouble…that is, don't avoid conflict, in the story. That is where the excitement and involvement, as well as reader sympathy for your character, lie. How about this: "The piping hot whisky laced Irish coffee scalded his mouth. He banged the pewter mug down and wiping his moustache with the back of his bandaged hand he started to write his first and last love letter: 'May I never set eyes on you again, you cold, heartless bitch! You are lucky I loved you, or else………' He stopped and buried his face in his hands." WOW! Even if I say so myself. Be still my beating heart!
5. Don't forget whose story it is……that is, figure out the viewpoint. No multiple POV's. Opt for one and once you decide, get inside that character and stay there. Let his thoughts, feelings and intentions dominate the action. Hmmm…….I do like the anguished male character above, but to make him the central device? And stay inside his wildly romantic, possibly sweaty head? I don't think so! Back to the drawing board: "The cup of tea grew cold on her desk as she re-read the letter in her hand. The words pierced and stabbed at her. 'May I never set eyes on you again, you cold, heartless.….' Her eyes blurred but she clenched them shut and rocked back and forth till the pain subsided. Then folding the note carefully she put it away at the back of the desk drawer, under her medical files, the latest of which contained brutal news." Good. Now, should it be fatal or a false alarm? Oh! Dear.
6. Don't wander around in a fog…. beware of late-blooming ideas that seem to come from nowhere during your writing project. Be sure you know what your story is about before you start. Ouch! Caught out! Back to the pavilion: "She took a sip of her morning cup of tea and started to write……. the title of her story."
Maybe she called it 'Storm in a Teacup, maybe she didn't. I really don't care, because I threw away the book of 'Don'ts.' However well-meaning the advice of the fiction doctor, if I accepted him as Guru I risked ending up fatally writing palpitating pulp fiction, or something excessively streamlined, ironed out and inauthentic. I DO want to describe sunsets and take risks on the wrinkles and 'don'ts' that give fiction its truth and vitality. I think I WILL describe the teacup with the Rosa centifolia foliacea even if it scalds my story and spills on my prose. Here's drinking to the 38 happy mistakes I hope to make in my fiction writing!
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