#Authors – An Infinite Writer’s Resource

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Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Writers are always looking for resources, whether it’s for technique, style, how to get published, or ideas for a story. The single best resource is using other authors as a reference for better ways of working.

During my Creative Writing Certificate course at Sussex University, we spent one semester on  ‘Special Author’.  We each chose an author, and a particular novel, whose work we thought would most benefit our own. I chose The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. We looked at all aspects from first encounter, tracing sub-plots and the climax of the story to name a few.

At the end of the semester we each gave a verbal presentation to the class, which forced us to study the work, and think about it in a critical way we’d never have done otherwise. We were lucky to have Susannah Waters as our tutor – a stickler for precision in technique and critique skills,  with an incredible passion for the process. (FYI Susannah does independent mentoring and manuscript assessment, as well as  teaching at Arvon. See *below for contact details)

The purpose of the course was not to necessarily emulate the author, but to look at how they might deal with different aspects of writing from dialogue to creating suspense, character and setting and thereby learn from them. A simple example is in my novel Radio Echo– the first scene in Bologna is set in a graveyard. I’d had no thought of using that location until our tutor asked us to create a scene in a setting used by our Special Author.

As an example of how to learn from another writer’s work, I’ve chosen two pieces of text from The Blind Assassin to look at dialogue and description, and see what Atwood does with them. The sparingly used dialogue in Atwood’s novel, functions as an insight into character relationships, rather than moving the plot forward.  The immediacy is emphasized by the use of present tense. The dialogue is tight, short phrases back and forth, rarely interrupted by gesture. This accentuates the intimacy and envelopes two individuals in their own world during the scene. It’s the lover’s first sexual encounter; this is never stated, but just enough information is given to spark the reader’s own imagination.

 

Don’t worry so much, he says. Lie Down.

Don’t you’ll tear it. Wait a minute.

She hears her own voice. It isn’t her voice, its too breathless.

 ….Smoke  taste on his mouth, salt in her own; all around, the smell of crushed weeds and cat, of disregarded corners. Dampness and growth, dirt on the knees, grimy and lush; leggy dandelion stretching towards the light.

Below where they’re lying the ripple of a stream. Above, leafy branches …the blue sky in splinters. Hard dirt under her back.¹

 The text shows Atwood’s excellent use of metaphor and simile. Her descriptions are not elaborate: they simply use evocative words to show what’s in the scene. Once that is established, she then places the character, in a physical sense, into the scene, which highlights the physical nature of the encounter, but also grounds the reader.

The second text shows description of setting that also conveys the mood of the scene. It’s the last time the lovers meet and the scene depicts resignation, a bleak encounter in a rundown motel.

A carpet once dark blue and red. A pathway strewn with flowers, worn down now to the roots.

I’m sorry, he says. It could be better. ²

 

Painters are renowned for learning from other painters – “learn from the masters”. So why should it be any different for writers? We’re not talking plagiarism, but simple learning by example.

At the end of the course I realized as a writer I’d always have an infinite resource if I was stuck and wanted to know how to deal with a scene. Looking for a spare style?  – go Raymond Carver, or Cormac McCarthy. Want to portray a character who’s fraught to the point of despair? – go to the scene in ‘Anna Karenina’ leading up to the suicide. Write text that will push emotional buttons? – Jodi Picoult.

Etc. ad infinitum.

We first learn to love books by reading them. Learn to love writing from the same source.

Who or where do you go to when you’re stuck? What authors would you recommend for particular styles?

Let me know. For me, learning is an ongoing process.

 

 

Excerpts from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Paperback 2001 Virago press

¹Pg 32 -33 Chapter – The Lipstick Heart

²Pg 563 Chapter – The B Rage Room

 

*Susannah Waters:-

susannahwaters@yahoo.co.uk

Literary Mentoring and Manuscript Assessment.

 

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Comments

  1. Hi AK, At our writer’s group,www.brighterwriters.org.uk/, we’ve also recently used a paragraph from an established author (1st paragraph of Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway) as a starting point for writing a piece. The paragraph could be used anywhere, at the start, middle, or end and I found it inspired me to write in an action style. Thanks for your article. I’m sure it’ll be very useful to me.
    @adewils recently posted..prologue …My Profile

    • Thanks so much for your comment – and encouraging to hear about your group. It’s amazing how , as you say, the piece of work that emerged from Hemingway’s paragraph can be used anywhere – and adapted to your own style. Why reinvent the wheel? There’s so many great writers out there that can point us in the right direction.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Authors -An Infinite Writer’s ResourceMy Profile

  2. Thanks, AK, for the well-written and informative blog. In trying to develop the first chapter of my mystery, I turned to some of my favorites: Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Dick Francis and John Sandford. All very unique styles to learn from. Chandler inspires me to write elaborate descriptions with a minimum of word. Connelly sets a mood like no other. Francis introduces characters you immediately have a sense of and Sandford–he’s all over the map with how he starts a novel!

    Thanks for making me think of all the above in a different way.

  3. Interesting post, A.K. Glad you appreciate the talent of Canada’s award-winning author, Margaret Atwood.

    I don’t read much fiction and only write non-fiction, so I can’t comment personally from the fiction point of view. Although even as non-fiction writers, we were taught to emulate writers whose work we admire.

    Writing is just like cooking. We learn from all the great ones whose work we have tasted, and then blend a little of each into our own creations.

    I have a fiction writer guest blogging on my writer’s blog this week, so stay tuned!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..the different stages of a creative writing projectMy Profile

  4. Hey Doreen – good to see you! And how could I not like Margaret Atwood? I also like Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen BTW!

    I thought about non-fiction too in this context and did think that the same principles would apply. Again, it must be a question of going to different writers for different things.

    I have to say, I do like your analogy of writing and cooking, because it’s absolutely true. Getting the balance of flavors just right to make it fresh and different is the hard part.

    Thanks for the heads up on your guest writer. Looking forward to reading the blog.

    As always , thanks so much for your insightful comments.
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..Authors -An Infinite Writer’s ResourceMy Profile

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more. I am dyslexic and a writer. Some would consider that an oxymoron but against the the odds, here I am writing and blogging. My love for writing came from my struggles to learn to read. As you pointed out writers can be, and are, our inspiration if we allow it. I have too many authors to even start to tell you where I draw from when I need to decide on a descriptive passage. The point is that I look to other gifted writers for help and direction. :-),
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Paco Lola AlbarinoMy Profile

  6. Hi Susan, I don’t think it’s an oxymoron at all – who knows perhaps writing even helps your dyslexia. I have joint problems and used speech recognition software for a long time. Fortunately there are tools to help us these days.
    But it’s really interesting thats where your writing actually came from. In a different way , the same was true for me. I was reading so much during a period of ill health that I wanted to get in on the action as it were.
    And really it all comes down to the love of reading – the word on the page – that most of us write. So to get not only our inspiration, but to learn ways of writing from other writers totally makes sense. Thanks so much for your post.,
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..Authors -An Infinite Writer’s ResourceMy Profile

  7. A.K.Andrew,
    I haven’t read any book of Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read fiction for a long time. Harry Potter is an exception. I just looked on the first page of the first book…It took me to a strange world and forced me to live in that world.Was I reading the book? Not sure. Because, it was like seeing with my own eyes. I think that is the power of the writing.
    After reading your article, I think, I will try reading fiction by other authors.
    Bindhurani recently posted..Abstract crochet cats and Crochet GeekMy Profile

    • I hope so too. The world of fiction is an amazing place. There are so many options. If Harry Potter appealed to you, then maybe try other fantasy authors. I read all kinds of fiction now I have more time to read. Your local library is also a great resource. It’s free – so you can try out a number of different books without having to commit to buying and also they usually have staff picks, that will recommend novels you might not know about. I’ve found all kinds of authors like that. Good luck and thanks so much for your comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Authors -An Infinite Writer’s ResourceMy Profile

  8. This is a great reminder that lessons are all around us. Margaret Atwood is a great teacher here. I often find that reading other writers and closely examining how they start a book or finish it — or just how they tell a scene teaches us.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Tower – I’m glad you have found other authors to be such a resource too. Examining them closely, sometimes paragraph by paragraph in how they develop a scene, is incredibly informative. Beginnings & endings also have invaluable lessons. Ah the quest for the brilliant first line!
      Thanks for visiting the site & thank you for your comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Receiving a Versatile Blogger Award!My Profile

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