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
Literary Mentoring and Manuscript Assessment.
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