Writing Great Fiction - Lecture Three Exercise

September 17, 2018, 12:32 pm

The writing for this lecture was to take the styles in the following three novels and apply them to a passage from the others:

  • - The Great Gatsby - First person account.
  • - Mrs Dalloway - Third person stream of consciousness.
  • - The Maltese Falcon - Third person, literal observation.
My first attempt was to re-write this Great Gatsby scene using something like the third person stream of consciousness from Mrs Dalloway.

Original Scene

“Now, don’t think my opinion on these matters is final,” he seemed to say, “just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are.” We were in the same senior society, and while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.

We talked for a few minutes on the sunny porch.

“I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly.

Turning me around by one arm, he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore.

“It belonged to Demaine, the oil man.” He turned me around again, politely and abruptly. “We’ll go inside.”

My Version

“I’ve got a nice place here,” Tom said as his eyes enumerated each feature of garden, lawn and shore, pleased how the magnificent view was presented in the afternoon glow. He liked to impress his guests, but wondered at his eagerness for the admiration of this particular man. Nick was unimpressive in almost every way, at least in Tom's estimation, and yet he found he valued his company, perhaps even his friendship?

Nick watched the restless display with some comprehension and allowed himself to be guided, not impolitely, though certainly forcefully, through a conversation on the virtues of Tom's domain.

Tom, satisfied he had established his preemminance, abruptly turned and guided the two of them inside.

"It belonged to Demaine, the oil man." Tom said before passing into the high ceilinged hallway. Nick assumed he should know who that was and nodded.

My second attempt was taking the third person stream of consciousness of Mrs Dalloway and attempting the impersonal third person literal style from the Maltese Falcon:

Original Scene

She would have been, in the first place, dark like Lady Bexborough, with a skin of crumpled leather and beautiful eyes. She would have been, like Lady Bexborough, slow and stately; rather large; interested in politics like a man; with a country house; very dignified, very sincere. Instead of which she had a narrow pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird's. That she held herself well was true; and had nice hands and feet; and dressed well, considering that she spent little. But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing--nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock.

"That is all," she said, looking at the fishmonger's. "That is all," she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves. And her old Uncle William used to say a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves. He had turned on his bed one morning in the middle of the War. He had said, "I have had enough." Gloves and shoes; she had a passion for gloves; but her own daughter, her Elizabeth, cared not a straw for either of them.

Not a straw, she thought, going on up Bond Street to a shop where they kept flowers for her when she gave a party. Elizabeth really cared for her dog most of all.

My Version

A thin, dignified woman moved from shopfront to shopfront along Bond Street. The grandure of the flags that adorned each was not reflected in the shops themselves. The lady, for that is clearly what she was, upright and deliberate as she moved up the street, considered a roll of tailor's tweed as she passed. Despite her careful manner she was clearly enjoying herself, her pointed face moving quickly to take in each modest display.

Glancing from the fishmongers, with its forlone salmon presented on a block of ice, towards a glove shop. She paused and looked, slightly wistful, on the pitiful spread of gloves, much diminished after four years of war. Her composure seemed to slip and she muttered to herself 'That is all ... that is all', barely audible over the noise of the street.

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Writing Great Fiction - Lecture Two Exercise

September 9, 2018, 9:38 am

Lecture two from Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques is about evocation.

Based on an exercise from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction we are supposed to write a passage describing a building, a landscape or an object from the point of view of a parent who's child has just died. All you're allowed to do is describe the object without mentioning the child, the parent or death. Invoke the feeling of loss and grief without mentioning either.

After a couple of abortive tries where I eventually mentioned one or all, I came up with this:

The swingset was tiny. Much too small for an adult. The worn rubber seat had two leg holes and a pink plastic strap across the front. The purple metal frame was faded and chipped, but you could still make out capering, grinning figures along its length. Under the seat was a muddy puddle, the center of a trail of scuff marks. Footprints staggered and skipped at the edge of the puddle and into the dust beyond. A gust of wind rippled the water and the hinges squeaked as the rubber harness twisted slowly. The wind died and there was silence.

Exercise from Lecture Three >>

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Writing Great Fiction - Lecture One Exercise

September 5, 2018, 9:30 am

I am listinging to the Audible series Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques. I'll be posting my attempts at the writing exercises at the end of each lecture here. Following is my attempt at writing a passage based on a single image that had struck me in real life.

Fisher sat, stooped on the bench outside the cafe. Not an old man, but grey nevertheless, weathered and tired. His faded woolen hat was pulled down over his brow, almost covering his eyes. Sometimes he imagined if he couldn't see people, they couldn't see him.

The birds shuffled forward as another shower of breadcrumbs fell around his feet. He smiled grimly. He didn't really like the birds, but he liked feeling in control. When one brave creature flapped onto his knee he scowled in shock and swept it to the ground. The bird struggled to its feet and returned, pecking and shoving, into the scrum. He stared at the pigeon and wondered.

A car horn burped in the distance and he stood abruptly, hurrying to the nearby stairs leading up to street level. He was late and the scowl returned to his face. His employer only seemed to acknowledge his presence to rebuke Fisher for some minor, though admittedly frequent, infraction. His tardiness would certainly be noticed.

Exercise from Lecture Two >>

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August 8, 2009, 12:16 pm

The other crews in C company made jokes about Lieutenant Jordan's tank, it was lucky they said, or haunted, depending on who you asked. The boys in Jordan's crew knew better, they didn't talk about it, but they had all had glimpses of the thing that kept them safe. A flash of brilliant blue scales twisting behind the ammo store. A blinking green eye deep in the breach when they cleaned the barrel. Something lived in the battered old Sherman, something that hid in the dark places and came out to play when bullets ricocheted and shells roared. The old man knew what it was and Teddy the loader said he heard him talking to it sometimes. They sure as hell never asked him about it.

Lieutenant William Jordan had commanded C company since Sicily, and before that, had fought in Tunisia. He had been one of the few to come out of that goddamn mess at Kasserine unscathed. Nobody in the regiment, and probably nobody in the whole 3rd army, knew more about tanks and the bloody business of fighting in them. He was a detached man, not blustering like some of the officers in the CCA, but not kindly either. Some of the men said he had a thousand yard stare, like he had seen too much and lost his marbles. Anyone in first platoon would throw down with a man for talking about the Lieutenant like that. He might not be much of a conversationalist, but if the tank wasn't lucky, then he sure as hell was.

Tonight the Lieutenant was sitting on the warm engine cover of his Sherman, reading a dog-eared romance book by the light of a kerosene lamp and occasionally taking a swig from a blackened hip flask. There was a dusting of snow on the ground and the tank tracks left an icy brown furrow into the field where it was sitting.

The boys had been given an evening pass and were in the village. He had finished the report the captain had been harrying him for and, until the other officers got back from regiment, had an hour or two to take his leisure.

He saw the blue flash of movement at his elbow, but chose to ignore it. He didn't feel like playing the creature's games tonight, he was tired and felt a surge of jealous indignation that this brief period of relaxation would be so interrupted. The creature insisted, as he knew it would, as it always did. He didn't hear a voice and barely saw the creature itself, but it always managed convey it's meaning directly to the core of Jordan's consciousness. Something was happening over the eastern horizon, something was coming.

Everything that had happened in the last few months told Jordan that the creature was wrong this time. The Germans had kept up a dogged, tenacious and bloody defence since the Normandy landings, but they had suffered so many reversals and had been constantly pushed back all along the line from the channel coast to Switzerland. They had even bigger problems in the east, the Russians now taking full and horrific revenge for the atrocities of Barbarossa. Surely the last German offensives were behind them. This must be a feint, a local counter-attack to shore up their lines, it couldn't be a major offensive.

Jordan sighed, he hoped the boys had found what they were looking for in the village tonight, because they wouldn't get another chance for R&R for who knows how long. How the hell was he going to explain this to the captain. The company, the division, probably the whole damn third army would have to move quickly for this thing, if what the creature had murmured was right, and Jordan knew it was. It always was.

Mercifully, he was spared the frustration of trying to explain to the captain that he had a "hunch" that a massive armored spearhead was about to punch through the Ardennes forest right between the American and British lines. Captain Forester met him on the road, flying back from regiment with news of the attack already in hand.

"Will ! Get the boys back in formation and fueling those tanks. Looks like the Krauts have got some fight left after all. Report to the company CP when things are moving and I'll tell you the rest."

With that, he slammed his hand into the door of the jeep and careened down the road, tires sending up plumes of muddy ice. Peering after him for a moment, Jordan shook his head, stomped on the gas of his own jeep, speeding off in the opposite direction. He would pick up his boys first, he might need their help persuading some of the other C company men that leave was canceled.

I would like to finish this story some day ...

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July 27, 2009, 12:01 pm

Sam liked to imagine how things might be different. He was a pedestrian man, tetering on middle age, moderately succesful and in his solitary existance, lavish with his own obsessions. Unable to commit to the occasional and passing infatuations with women, cars or any other fragments of the real world, Sam cultivated the less demanding and infinitely more rewarding imaginary worlds that crowded his existance. He poured his substantial salary into comics, toys, movies and games and his own wide screen, surround sound and leather bound heaven to enjoy it all.

He found like minded individuals to share his obsessions, but he struggled to build relationships that weren't based on some fantastic premise. So on this particular friday evening Sam sat comfortably at his computer, completely imersed in a digital, virtual world and in particular the welfare of a particlarly pretty woodland elf who had sought his aid.

The reality of the situation, that Sam was being seduced by a balding and, at the same time, unusually hairy, middle aged Russian man, had not escaped him but was entirely unimportant. Indeed this was Sam's power, his ability to effortlessly suspend disbelief was unmatched.

He had left the mundane world behind and given substance to his digitally fuelled imaginings.

... something something something ...

Sam rushed to cross as the lights changed. The car flying silently into the turn barely clipped his body, but generated a frantic twisting motion that was punctuated with terrible finality when Sam's body lay, completely still, in the gutter.

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