Originally posted on Oct 28 2011, on Dinesh Allirajah’s Real Time Short Stories blog.
L is for C.S. Lewis’ 5 Tips for Clear Writing
I was reminded of this list when it was posted on a Facebook page for creative writing students at Liverpool John Moores University, where I’ve been luxuriating in short story pursuits since the end of September. The notable thing is not just how much good sense there is in each of these tips, but that Lewis was directing his advice at children, the assumption being that writers will then reach adulthood having dispensed with the bad habits counterposed here. Either they’re starting adulthood a lot later these days or the message needs to get louder:
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
M is for Mr Benn
On holiday in Madrid and Toledo in 1996, only the second time I’d been abroad since moving to Liverpool over ten years earlier, my writing brain started finding points of connection with David McKee’s fancy dress time-travelling adventurer. I was writing predominantly about cultural identity at the time, for performance poetry and for an MA, and the pivotal narrative mechanism in each Mr Benn story – he changes his clothes; steps through a doorway and becomes embroiled in the dramas of a strange foreign environment; changes their lives; then he gets reminded who he really is and he returns with only a memory – seemed to offer a loose parable for the co-mingling of ‘otherness’ and belonging experienced when a second generation immigrant becomes a British tourist abroad. The thoughts found concrete expression when I introduced a Mr Benn twist to the story of San Miguel de los Helados, written after going for an ice cream in Toledo and representing the first time my increasingly prose-shaped poetry took off its bowler hat and donned the apparel of a short story.
Aside from the delightful stories, brilliant illustrations, the iconic cartoon it spawned with Ray Brooks’ narration and a soundtrack by some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians of the time, Mr Benn provides handy shorthand for a number of narrative tropes and archetypes. Festive Road is a terraced row of pathetic fallacy, in which the mood of the street and its inhabitants echoes something in the fantasy world Mr Benn will find. Our hero may as well be carrying a loaf of bread in his briefcase, sitting in the park all day feeding the ducks, and then going home at 5 o’clock to tell his wife (if we’re allowed to speculate that he has a wife) he’s been hard at work, when in reality he was laid off months ago: what does he do in his bowler hat, suit and tie other than take it off in the fancy dress shop? But this sense of him being as escapee from office and suburban humdrum is a huge part of his appeal. The device of the shopkeeper popping up “as if from nowhere” is, at first glance, textbook deus ex machina but this is a text in which Mr Benn too steps out of a machine to resolve the crises he encounters. His role is typically that of a Dr Who bringer of knowledge from other worlds or a mellower version of the ghostly inspector in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, forcing the community to examine itself. The shopkeeper’s intervention, then, is not to impose an artificial or divine solution but to represent reality’s yoke, leading Mr Benn back to that terraced treadmill.
Don’t get me started on the psychosexual undertones in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea!
N is for Pablo Neruda
from I’m Explaining A Few Things
You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.
I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.
[…full poem here…]
And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
O is for Osiris
Because when you’re in the world of words and stories and ideas about words and stories, you sometimes need a purgative, a palate-cleanser, and joining in the chorus of this funk monster should do the trick:
P is for Periphery
What’s everybody looking at? That’s not where your story is.
Q is for Quite
Or fairly, a number of, several, a few…
The trouble with omniscient narrators is that they think they know it all. No, actually, we think they know it all, we depend on that – it’s what we trade our hard-earned suspension of disbelief for. So when the narrative tells us that a place is “quite far away” or that there were “a few” people in the bar, there’s got to be a pretty good reason why we’re not being told the precise distance or number of customers. There was a pretty good reason for me using “pretty” to modify good in that last sentence – two, in fact: one, because it gives the tone of the blog the sense of motivational speaker urgency that seems to go down well; and two, because it sets off a little Larry David in my head, saying “Pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay good!” and that makes me smile. All these weak adjectives have their place, of course, when you need an adjective to express a personal attitude towards a quality or quantity being described, but if you want to give your reader information, and you want them to pay attention to that information, then if it’s quite important that it’s quite accurate, you’re diminishing your intended impact.
R is for Rainy Day In The Park
Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film, Withnail and I, ends with this, the moment Richard E. Grant will carry with him as evidence when he’s claiming a comfortable seat with which to see out the afterlife. Forget everything you know and have ever quoted from this film. Go to that park, stand in that rain, see that man with the umbrella, hear him shouting, and then listen to what he’s saying – your story starts where this one stops.