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Do YOU know your authors? Follow the clues below. Twelve manuscripts have been used to illustrate the talk. How many books have you read? The answers are
but ONE of them is incorrect. Which one?
How to write a bestseller? That is a problem. How DO these authors come up with the winning formula:- the wonderful plot, the thrills, the characters, emotion, pathos? How to start, even? Perhaps I should start at the font of all wisdom: the authors themselves.
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any to start....
(1) "Chapter 1. Elements of Education." Education. Hmmm. This author sounds like he knows his stuff. What does he say?
"If anybody cares to read a simple tale told simply, I, John Ridd, of the parish of Oare, in the county of Somerset, yeoman and churchwarden, have seen and had a share in some doings of this neighbourhood, which I will try to set down in order, God sparing my life and memory." Well, that's a bit strong. Writing - for me at least - is not a matter of life or death. He has told me an awful lot about himself, in one sentence. And he goes on, "I am nothing more than a plain unlettered man, not read in foreign languages, as a gentleman might be, nor gifted with long words..."
Note to myself - Go easy on the long words and, at all costs, avoid breaking into foreign tongues. What else?
"In short, I am an ignoramus, but pretty well for a yeoman." Taking a sneak preview at the end of the book, I see that this 'ignoramus' has managed to struggle through writing 517 pages, before he's run out of steam. Perhaps I should seek simpler fare, for my inspiration.
(2) "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting with her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversation in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversation?' "
Well, this is of no earthly use to me. I may be able to use lots of scintillating dialogue, but my bestseller will not be illustrated. Better look elsewhere, then.
(3) "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve."
This sounds more promising. Introduce the elements of woman's patience, add man's resolution, and you have the ingredients for meatier fare. Read on, then,
"If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed.." God, he does go on. I'd better skip that bit and try further down the page, "..we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement..." blah blah"..cloud-shadows on the cornfields..."blah blah"...autumn breezes on the seashore..."blah blah"...fading summer..." Very poetic descriptions, but it doesn't help me with my scene-setting.
Oh, hold on. This is more like it,
"I turned my steps northward in the direction of Hampstead. Events which I have yet to relate make it necessary to mention in this place that my father had been dead for some years...and that my sister Sarah and I were the sole survivors of a family of five children." How sad! Perhaps I should have a bash at writing a prequel, covering these sad events. He has given me lots of background information: "My father was a drawing-master before me...my mother and sister were left, after his death, as independent of the world as they had been during his lifetime. "Lots of details to play with. Maybe too many...what's this about a dwarf? "Without exactly being a dwarf - for he was perfectly proportioned from head to foot - Pesca was, I think, the smallest human being I ever saw out of a show-room." Funny. The sort of showrooms I frequent don't offer a line in small Italian professors. My knowledge of this sort of character is decidedly limited. Let's opt for something more my line,
(4)"Knowing that Mrs Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death."
Now, here's something to get my teeth into. A woman with dodgy arteries being faced with the news of her husband's 'demise'. The possibilities are endless. I could have her made responsible for the accident which killed her husband; throw in some sex and violence; maybe include a reincarnation and a sex change ("Newsflash - ' Husband rises from the dead and He's a She' "). I can see the tabloid headlines, now.
Well, that's the beginning taken care of. Now for the middle...
I need a lot of elements here. A plot with twists and tangles. Starting with something to raise the tension:
(5) "The band were in the gallery, already.
' Make the drummer announce me,' I whisper to Clarice. 'Make him beat the drum. You know how they do. I want to surprise them from below.'
My heart fluttered absurdly and my cheeks were burning. What fun it was. What mad, ridiculous, childish fun. I picked up my skirts in my hands. Then the sound of the drum echoed in the great hall, startling me for a moment. I saw them look up, surprised and bewildered, from the hall below.
I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture."
Yes, it has something. A sense of childish glee. A frisson of anticipation. What's missing is the sexual tension,
(6) "When he got through with Iz, Clare returned to Tess. Now it was her turn. She was embarrassed to discover that excitement at the proximity of Mr Clare's breath and eyes, which she had condemned in her companions, was intensified in herself and, as if fearful of betraying her secret, she faltered with him at the last moment.
'I may be able to climb along the bank, perhaps? I can climb better than they. You must be so tired, Mr Clare.'
'No, no, no, Tess.' said he, quickly.
And, almost before she was aware, she was seated in his arms and resting against his shoulder."
We're getting there. But there is still something missing. These women are like children, with no drive or ambition. The modern woman would sneer at these naive milk-and-water females. I need someone with a bit of backbone, someone who is determined to get on in the world, against all odds. Someone superior. Aha! Here she is, the modern 19th Century woman;
(7) "The Moffats were very fashionable, and simple Meg was rather daunted at first, by the splendour of the house and the elegance of its occupants; but they were kindly people, in spite of the frivolous life they led, and soon put their guest at ease. Perhaps Meg felt, without understanding why, that they were not particularly cultivated or intelligent people, and that all their gilding could not quite conceal the ordinary material of which they were made; but, the more she saw of Annie Moffat's pretty things, the more she envied her, and sighed to be rich."
So, I've got the anticipation, the promise of sex, the striving to get on in the world. Who does it remind me of? Of course...
(8) " 'Oh, I'm nearly distracted, Nellie!' she exclaimed, throwing herself on the sofa. 'A thousand smiths' hammers are beating in my head. Tell Isabella to shun me. This uproar is owing to her; and, should she or anyone else aggravate my anger at present, I shall get wild. And, Nellie, say to Edgar if you see him again tonight that I am in danger of being seriously ill. I wish it may prove true. I want to frighten him.' "
I can't see it, somehow. A man easily frightened by a woman throwing a tantrum is a man I have yet to meet. In my experience, men usually beat a hasty retreat to the pub. Still, nothing ventured...
How to resolve the conflict? Time to take a peek at some endings.
(9)"On they danced to the strains of the piano and the violin. Tereza leaned her hand on Tomas's shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together. The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.
They went back to their table. She danced twice more with the collective farm chairman and once with the young man, who was so drunk he fell with her on the dance floor.
Then they all went upstairs and to their two separate rooms.
Tomas turned the key and switched on the ceiling light. Tereza saw two beds pushed together, one of the flanked by the bedside table and lamp. Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below."
I do like a happy ending. God's in His heaven, and all's right with the world. I don't know, though. I'm left feeling unsatisfied; like someone who was promised a Knickerbockerglory to finish; and was offered a choc-ice, instead. Very acceptable, but no fireworks.
Unlike this ending:
(10) "So they decorated the city in a magnificent manner, the like of which had not been seen before, and the drums were beaten and the pipes were sounded, and all the performers of sports exhibited their arts, and the King rewarded them munificently with gifts and presents. He bestowed alms also upon the poor and needy, and extended his generosity to all his subjects, and all the people of his dominions. And he and the people of his empire continued in prosperity and joy and delight and happiness until they were visited by the terminator of delights and the separator of companions." And he goes on to bless everyone and to praise 'our Lord Muhammed'. But, somehow, I can't see Hollywood producers beating a path to my door, given the vast expense of all those pipes and drums, gifts, presents, etc etc.
Of course, I could follow the example of the following 'epilogue' and leave everyone up in the air...
(11) "One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times..Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved?" And he, too, goes on and on, speculating as to what actually happened to his hero; leaving room for a thousand sequels to his book but no satisfying ending for me, the Reader.
(12) "It's very fortunate for her that she - took an overdose. Death was really the only way of escape left to her." Ah, Death. The final and simple solution. Everyone likes a good death. If the reader doesn't like the character, it's a relief all round. If it's a sad resolution to the story, then it's a Greek tragedy. Just as satisfying.
How does this book finish?
" 'Yes - very fortunate she took that overdose - or - was given it?'
His eyes met hers, but he did not speak.
He said brokenly, 'She was - so lovely - and she had suffered so much.'
Miss Marple looked back again at the still figure.
She quoted softly the last lines of the poem:
'He said: 'She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
Well, I think I've got enough bones to play with. Time to get down to business..
...and, don't forget, the answers are
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