By John Fullerton
Perhaps you are not old enough to have begun your writing career with a typewriter.
I certainly am. Aged 19, I joined my local paper as a trainee – a cub reporter – and sat facing a large, heavy-duty manual machine with keys that made a satisfying clatter like the bursts of a submachinegun. On one side of the desk lay a pad of cheap, off-white paper sheets about the size of a large postcard along with a pile of carbons, cut to size.
Inserting three sheets of paper and two of carbon, I’d bash out the lead paragraph – a single sentence with the what, who, where and when, and including the source. Forty words were the maximum.
Ripping my paper sandwich out, I handed two copies to the ‘copy boy’ standing by. He ran down the length of the newsroom – dropping one carbon copy into the news editor’s in-tray. Then he inserted the top copy into a pneumatic tube which wheezed and gulped as it sped its way to the sub editors’ room where it popped open and regurgitated my not-so-very precious copy. The Taster marked it up for length and headline typeface and passed it to a downtable sub-editor, pencil at the ready. And, yes, the subs really did wear green eyeshades in those days.
The third sheet was stuck on a metal spike – later to be filed away as a record.
I thumped out a single sentence on each sheet, the copy boy running back and forth as the first deadline approached.
Like Pavlov’s dog, I found it became a subconscious process.
Before long, the form of the newspaper story would pop into my head as I scrambled for a telephone to call it in to one of the copy takers or, if there was time, raced back to the office to write it up. I didn’t have to think – it was there in my head, fully-formed.
Technology changes, of course, and writing news is a lot easier today. Yet some things don’t change. The agency news story still has the same basic shape: an inverted pyramid.
The most important facts go into the lead paragraph, the second paragraph is often a direct quotation from the source that backs up, or justifies, the lead. The third paragraph is the capstone: it provides context and sets out why the story is significant.
The rest is a downward spiral of decreasing importance. The news story can be cut at any point and what remains will still make sense, even a sole first paragraph would be able to stand alone as a filler.
News writing certainly can be taught.
At Reuters, the ability to write clearly, using short words, brief sentences and paragraphs in the appropriate format became second nature. Accuracy was the primary goal, but speed came a close second. On a breaking story, the ‘timings’ versus those of competing news agencies were circulated down to the second for all to see – and to fail to be first was a matter of some professional embarrassment, even shame, and it could be the stuff of a painful post mortem by editorial management.
Losing was agony, winning glorious – until the next newsbreak.
Just this week a remarkable ex-colleague and fellow author – remarkable in that he’s fluent in several languages, and showed himself to be a brave and resourceful Reuters corespondent in dangerous circumstances – reminded me just how effective Reuters was in teaching us to write fast, workmanlike prose.
That ability helped me write my first book, The Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, some 60,000 words written in six weeks on my beloved Olivetti portable back in 1983.
Does this apply to fiction?
I don’t think it does.
By the time came to write my first novel, The Monkey House, I had bought a refurbished, second-hand ‘green screen’ from Reuters, which was a big help. It did have a delete key and backspace, after all.
Yet I didn’t think at all about style, and after it was published I realised that it showed.
The obvious course of action was to sign up for a creative writing course, but these don’t come cheap, and I did wonder if the collegial way of working – submitting material for fellow students to analyse – was the way forward.
So I started reading books on writing, and as I did so I began to realise that at least for me, writing is something one does. The learning comes from the doing – and reading widely and attentively – and not in a classroom or lecture hall.
Not everyone will agree.
Out of date, probably, but there are some eternal truths in legendary critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, first published in 1938.
‘Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious,’ he wrote.
‘Popular success is a palace built for a writer by publishers, journalists, admirers, and professional reputation makers, in which a silent army of termites, rats, dry rot, and death-watch beetles are tunnelling away, till, at the very moment of completion, it is ready to fall down.’
Of more practical help is the ‘New York Times bestseller’ Reading Like a Writer, by novelist and creative writing tutor Francine Pose. She sets out the written and unwritten rules and conventions of fiction, then cleverly dissects and demolishes them.
She has some wise words to say at the outset: ‘What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I’ve been committing criminal fraud.’
Reading widely and reading closely is her answer.
‘Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.
‘I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.’
Prose has written another book useful to students of fiction and a remarkable volume of literary criticism, What to Read and Why. I have to say that I did work my way through her list and even now I take her books down from the shelf from time to time to refresh myself with her literary acuity.
For me perhaps the single most important book I’ve read is How Fiction Works by critic and author James Wood.
His first chapter, ‘Narrating’, was – to me, anyway – a revelation, especially his explanation of free indirect style.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Mediterranean Noir trilogy seems a fine example of this.
Another is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s extraordinary The Sympathizer.
These novels read so well, I suggest, because we, the readers, see through the eyes and language of both character and author – and it’s not simply because in the novels I’ve mentioned that the authors happen to have chosen to write in the first person.
‘This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see (an unreliability identical to the unreliable first person narrator’s),’ writes Wood.
So I’m still a student of fiction. I do read and I do write and that’s how I intend to become a better novelist some day.