Read to write

Posted on April 12, 2011

One thing I’ve heard over and over again: if you’re going to write, you need to read. And since reading is such a pleasure, this isn’t a problem.  I really appreciate an author’s sensibility; it’s fascinating to unravel (and bask in) their style. This blurb is about learning from a novel – not just having a bubble bath and diving into a good* read.  Here is what’s on the go:

The Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan

At the moment I’m reading the Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan, which is a classic adventure novella that has the protagonist (who has gone through so many identity changes I can’t even remember his original name) running from  a mystery threat and trying to save England before a war descends. It’s the Borne Identity of the early twentieth century (pre WWI).

Honestly, I cannot say the writing is exactly to my taste. I loved the opening, which focuses on the boredom of Richard Hannay (have now looked up the protagonist’s name) – because since when do you read openings about boredom? Isn’t that a publishing no-no? Except in this case that boredom is immediately contrasted against an unexpected event when a panicked man appears with secret papers, and quickly gets a knife in the back. So there is a lesson for you, still the waters before making a splash. It appears to work well.

And while this book has captured the imagination of Hitchcock and playwrights – now a mystery comedy on the stage – I’ve never been in love with the type of adventure that causes a character to note every step of his journey. From apartment to train to foot to bike to car, and from milk man to inn keepers to a rich Politian – all acting as check points in the narrative, this story is essentially plot driven rather than character. As a writer who loves to stew in character, this is far too much ‘and then’ ‘and then’ ‘and then’ for me. Mind you, Buchan does handle his procession of events very well, and I can imagine how this adventure would thrill many readers. But as a writer, I’ve never been on board with plot-driven narratives. However, that’s just my taste.

But here is what I really do like: the dedication page

“My Dear Tommy, You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write on for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts. J.B.”

I love how fiction marches just inside (and sometimes out of) the borders of the possible.  This is an approach on which Mr Buchan and I can agree. And when writing for oneself, don’t we fall into a dream world anyhow? A good writer should get carried away by the story, and writing for yourself is always a smart idea. Though I bet Mr Buchan was writing for Tommy as well – sitting in his chair with blankets, nose sniffling and pen scratching. And in that way, it’s very helpful to write beyond yourself too. Imagine the audience, become friends with them, see what happens.

Interestingly, this wasn’t his first novel – but it was his most successful piece of writing. See what having a little fun can do? And that is an inspiration.