Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

The principle difficulty with mystery fiction is the business of telling two stories at once. There is the leading narrative, which must be lucid as any story, composed of incidents and characters that are intelligible and reasonable to the reader, and then there is the covert narrative, built out of clues, hints and sheer misdirection that keeps pace with the primary narrative but must ultimately be unravelled and accounted for as clearly and logically as its counterpart.

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time cleverly plays with the conventions of mystery by shifting this difficulty from the mystery (the murder of the eponymous dog) to the character of the detective. What is most engaging and moving about the novel is that it forces the reader to read its narrative as though it were a case and points to the distinction between the bare facts and meaning on which detection itself depends.

To explain: Haddon's protagonist and nominal detective, Christopher, is autistic. The condition is never named, but Christopher cannot tolerate lying, cannot read faces or parse the complex emotions that expressions communicate, and cannot tolerate figurative language, although he is an extraordinarily precise observer of facts and details, with a mathematically acute mind. Christopher's revulsion at lies is perhaps aligned with his desperate need to maintain distinction, order and unambiguity in the face the overwhelming stream of reality. His memory for facts and details makes him, in the Holmesian mode, a perfect observer, potentially a perfect detective. All this we understand by inference and reading.

But although Christopher discovers the truth about the mystery, and thereby the suppressed truth about his own family, the solution is trivial compared to the complexity of adult emotions, needs and betrayals to which Christopher is almost completely blind. As a detective, Christopher can uncover the means, but the motives are forever obscure for him. As the last pages in the book outline Christopher's mathematical proof, ending with the triumphant QED, we realise that some proofs and some mysteries will remain outside of Christopher's perceptions.

The reader's task, then, in this work, is not to puzzle out the solution but to experience Christopher's puzzlement, and to understand that though plots are resolved by logic, stories are only brought to life by imagination and sympathy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Novice and master

I've been writing fiction, serious, publishable (if not actually published) fiction, for over twenty years. I've taught composition and academic writing in the classroom. This semester, I also taught creative writing for the first time. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not only to address my own passion as a teacher but to see creativity and inspiration develop in the classroom.

I believe that there is no endpoint to writing, only the continuous review and reflection of craft through practice. Writing is holistic and integrated, and so there is no one element of a work that can stand without the others, or be adjusted without affecting the others. We may attain mastery only as long as we think as novices.

But I have noticed that with novice writers I've read over the years there are one or two aspects of craft or 'tells' that show us a beginner's style or voice. This is not a list of pointers on 'how to write' — just a list of writing habits that mark the student.

Show and Tell

I don't wholly follow the workshop cliche 'show, don't tell'. Sometimes, we have to tell, and mostly we choose to show because it is better to let the reader see than force the point. But novice writers often show and tell in the same passage, as if reluctant to trust the details to speak for themselves:
Her hands shook minutely when she took up the scalpel, as her nerves took over her thoughts.

Let speech be speech

Often, dialogue can't be left as dialog. She said, he said, seems too pedestrian. So he commanded. She challenged. He argued. But then the verb drifts away from speech. He chuckled (but that's laughing, not speaking). She keened.
Sometimes it's important to know who is speaking and how, but mostly dialogue should be strong enough to carry its own sense. But then (see show and tell) the novice writer can't let that stand, so:
'Please leave my children, I beg you,' he pleaded.

The stock phrase

Not just the cliche but the familiar phrase, something out of our vast collection of idioms and metaphors that still carry meaning but lack the capacity to surprise, or the precision to make something feel authentic and present. Even when the cliches are deleted, the sense that this has been said the same way before remains.
The same goes for turns of plot and character motivations.

On the other hand, there's also the word, the turn of phrase, that is intended to be poetical and becomes awkward or murky when rendered.

The Auto-correct malapropism

This is a technical point. We all know about Autocorrect, which along with spelling checkers is a fair tool but a terrible master. But the word that Autocorrect introduces unseen is often close but not quite, or unintentionally funny. 
The room was closed up, dusty and dinghy.
I don't trust spelling and grammar correction in any word processor. Machine logic can't produce or apprehend meaning, and so these tools can only apply regular rules to irregular cases.

I won't say anything here about faults in narrative structure or characterisation, although in the end all these things become connected. But all of these tells command attention because, no matter how experienced I become, I will see them or do them again. Seeing them, knowing them, working through them: that's the craft of writing, the path from novice, to master, to novice again.