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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write IV

Started the day by surfing a little. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just something I slipped into. I set off in one direction, really intent on being productive but got waylaid by the scenery and let all ambition evaporate.
I came back with this:


If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower not faster.
Gustav Mahler

and for a while I thought it was about music. But Mahler was concerned for the creative process and although his references were musical they can be descriptive of all the arts, including writing.

Think about pace. In life, if you rush through the day or the week do you end with a sense of achievement?

In writing it is important to be able to pace the narrative. Longer sentences and the ability to retard the action are equally as important as short sentences and fostering the illusion of break-neck speed.

But the Mahler quotation is much more profound than this. It’s something to take through the day with you. Remind yourself of it from time to time. Let it do its work.

10 Responses to “Learning to Write IV”

  1. Joel says:

    Interesting you see long and short sentences that way John. I suppose it depends on the writer. Clipped and polished prose I often read slower, but long sentences get a momentum going in them, internally, and that can speed up progress. My own long sentences often move considerably faster than my very short ones, zooming off into the sky like a rocket sometimes, whereas my short ones will usually lazily float along like a paper boat on a canal. To me, ‘spare’ writing, which usually indicates a mastery of short sentences, encourages me to read slowly, to savour the carefully-thought-about words. Long sentences often go at breakneck pace around narrow winding mountain roads. But all of this depends on how well it is written. Easy to slow readers in their tracks by making writing stodgy, as some people’s long sentences turn out, but if a long sentence is well-crafted it can go at whatever speed the writer intends. Similarly short sentences.

  2. Keep surfing on our behalf, John, and thanks. What’s interesting is not simply the comment itself – although it is – but what you’ve made of it. That really is thought-provoking.

  3. Steve Allan says:

    When I think of pacing I think about the story of one of the first cuts of The Godfather where the studio insisted on a short running time. Apparently that version felt incredibly slow and they let Coppolla have his cut since audience felt it went much faster, even with the extra hour.

  4. I’m sorry, John, but for the ever so commercial real world we live in and all that, I think this philosophy would lead to a sacking for “non-performance” or the end of contract, if not a permanent employee. It just doesn’t translate.

    The wonderfully good point of this is: that’s why people seek escapism through novels. They want a break from the pressures around them and they seek something else and not the finite, and all too sturdy reflection of their mundane and pressured day, on the fictional page. They seek empathy but they also seek to be released and that’s what fiction does.

    Having worked in the hard line, profit seeking commercial world, I can also say this: anticipating (the most important in a good company); responding to and reacting to customer needs often requires some creative thought. If the “associate” gets it right and the systems facilitate, it will be a practice adopted as routine.

    Time does not allow anything.

    I called what happened to be a call centre yesterday and I received the verbal script of an outsourced Indian representative. Not only was it all “off pat”, due to the translated and fixed script, but the purveyor of those words sounded scripted, and also, oddly, robotic. I wanted to scream down the phone that I needed to speak to a real person. As it was an insurance CLAIM, I was quickly transferred to someone in the UK, script willing, again. Sigh…

    But when it comes to the basics of day to problems, I have seen this in a call centre in the UK, where I once worked. Those who are lowly paid still need to think, assess, react and resolve a customer’s problem, creatively on times, where time is of the essence (as it costs money).

    The essential thing here, is that TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE. In reality this means ASAP and not to slow down the process. As someone who has made a call too, I know that I don’t want a slow process. I want to be “resolved” right now, this instant in fact, if possible.

    For me, that makes Mahler and his music and his thoughts apropriate in a defined set of circumstances, but not all. It also means that creativity cannot necessarily delay.

    When I started to try and write fiction in the late 90s I had a topical story and plot. The world moved on so quickly, it left me behind, and the plot.

    Mahler’s thoughts may have been true to his day; I argue that his thoughts are, at best, redundant now. This is another world, a world in which time is of the essence, in the very early new millennium.

    It’s in our leisurely recreational time where we can enjoy a fictional suspension of disbelief, if related to time and if time allows. Otherwise, life’s simply too fast these days to take Mahler at his historic word and believe in his pronouncements, good as they are.

  5. Lee says:

    Crimeficreader, I’m afraid I disagree completely. And even today, many of your very fine novelists take years to complete a novel. But of course there’s fiction, and then there’s fiction.

    And I also think this applies, at least for me, to reading: I am reading slower and slower, savouring what the writer has done. It’s a great pity that so many of the lit blogs seem to suggest that racing through one book in order to get to the next and then the next should be our goal.

  6. john baker says:

    What struck me about the Mahler quote was the insight that slowing down the narrative might allow the reader to see more. That slowing things down might create the space which allowed the reader to be drawn into the voice of the narrator.
    I realize, though, that we are in the realm of technique and that technique is inextricably tied up with individual style.
    My original point was rather that the writer of an extended narrative should always make use of alternating pace. As readers we are usually willing to give, and to forgive, much; but if an author makes me yawn it will not be long before I go to sleep or find better company.

  7. Joel says:

    I agree with Lee. The kind of novels crimeficreader is talking about sound like the sort I get through so quickly they couldn’t possibly create enough. Namely, I read the first paragraph or sentence and put it straight back on the shelf. I’ve got better things to do than be entertained in a fast-food manner when it comes to reading books. As I chucked my TV in the bin over a decade ago, I have at least all the time I would have spent watching it to read good books for as long as a good book demands. I am not trying to fit it in between other things.

  8. Lee says:

    Yes, I agree, John, that was Mahler’s point. I’m afraid I was primarily responding to Crimeficreader’s comment.

    However, I’m a bit wary of equating pacing in music with that of fiction.

  9. Hello all. I was trying to pick up on John’s comment “…But the Mahler quotation is much more profound than this. It’s something to take through the day with you…” I interpreted it as referring to life in general. (And I was having a bad day, hence my reference to call centres. Perhaps some of my comments here would have been better in a complaint letter to the company concerned…)

    John’s post also made me think of this from Wordsworth, in 1807 I think, when he penned the words “…Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”.

    I do wish we could slow down. The more we get “in an instant”, the more we seem to expect the same and find that others expect the same from us. There can be both revelry and serene calm in the joy of anticipation. In today’s society, I believe that many of us may need to reconnect with the concept of anticipation.

    When it comes to reading, and crime fiction in particular for me, there’s page turning and page turning. Some novels are like fast food and are produced in almost the same way. Either case does not necessarily represent the best. An exceptional book and one worth reading is one that appreciates and capitalises on the power of anticipation. I tend to prefer psychological “thrillers” for this reason. But neither is that type of book exclusively pursuing that route.

    I’ll hang my coat on the honesty hook here. I started out reading north American crime/thriller fiction, as I was based there at the time. The books were fast and I devoured them with a speed that would get me some points on my licence, if driving. (No more please!) I returned to the UK and over the years, I discovered British authors and found that my tastes also changed and that the British way of writing in this genre was different – often slower and often, also simply superb.

    What I look for now is the following:
    – realism in the story
    – characters I can believe in
    – good plotting
    – evocation of place/setting including the period of time in which the book is set
    – a pace that urges me to read more, be it by the minute/hour/day/number of days.

    What I also often find is this:
    – excellent commentary and insight within the story on specific contemporary issues in society, for the present or the past,
    and sometimes
    – believable humour (who goes through a day without laughing at something or trying to make light of something?)

    I love crime fiction. It’s my escape route in this world, but it’s also, sometimes, a thought provoking reflection of the world in which we currently live.

    Interestingly, my mother used to quote that line from Wordsworth in the 70s. Written in 1807; it still stands for me. I believe that if I had teenagers now, those words would be on the tip of my tongue, too.

  10. term says:

    I loved crime fictions too. But now you can read those everywhere in new papers! There are 5-6 crime fictions per day. It’s horrifying. Sometimes I think about starting to read again children stories. But even there the bad character dies every time! Not that he doesn’t deserve it… but it’s still about death!