Sunday, November 7, 2021

Adding To The Toolbox

In this week's article taken from the writing I did for my second year in BA Creative and Professional Writing at Derby University, I will look at how the differing forms of storytelling and the increased practice of reading widely have contributed to a seismic shift in my perception of what it means to be a writer, and how the addition of each to my own writing toolbox have affected my craft moving forward.

Stephen King talks about a writer having a toolbox from which to draw everything needed to tell a story[1]. After his usual poetic descriptions of his grandfather’s actual toolbox and the screen door they fixed together when he was a child, King goes on to explain that the writer’s toolbox should have several levels, starting with Vocabulary, followed by Grammar and then Form and Style. I’ve spent many years getting those levels of my own toolbox stocked and well-practiced with each new story I’ve written over the last thirty years, but taking a look at the work I’d produced, it was obvious that my tools could only take me so far. They were good stories, fun to read but they could be better. I just needed more tools.

Till recently, I have focused on writing commercial genre fiction, tales packed with mass-media popcorn entertainment; monsters, explosions and horror . . . oh, my! I’ve had some success with optioned scripts and published fiction for games companies. During this semester I fell in love with Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and wrote a crime novel called Dirty Little Secret, again using my well used three layers of toolbox to produce an eighty-five-thousand-word novel. But as the semester continued, and this module especially, I started to see the potential for several new layers to be added to my toolbox, and in so doing, gain the confidence needed to start writing a book that has sat in my Compost Heap of ideas for several decades. 

Being within arms reach of 50, I have obviously known about the different forms of storytelling. Poem, novel, short story and so on; I’ve known these in the same way I’ve known the differing types of music: classical, rock etc. What I hadn’t known on a conscious level were the many varied styles in which these stories took form and the countless ways these influence the way the story is told. For example, the Greek mythological tale of Medea, taken from Ovid’s great work the Metamorphoses, is a grand sweeping epic of daring and adventure, but told in a poetic, lyrical style[2], one which modern authors of Games Workshop’s Black Library fiction mimic very closely in their tales of epic warfare amongst the stars.[3] I have tried many times to write such stories when they had submission windows for new authors, but was never able to capture the tone or style they were looking for. I now know why. Their chosen language and style was that of myth, of the retelling of great deeds of heroes and legends, the word choice deigned to evoke feelings of majesty and wonder. Despite having read many Black Library books, until I learned of Ovid, I couldn’t see what I was missing in my submissions which were always getting rejected.

In a similar fashion are The Sagas of the Icelanders, a great body of mythic prose that the Czech writer Milan Kundera classed as possibly the foundation of the European novel[4]. From oral tradition down to written form, the Sagas utilises all forms of narrative from the mythic to the fairystory, and I achieved a greater understanding of the work after learning the details of the forms of narrative from this module. For example, Egil’s Saga uses both long form and poetic didactic narration to teach the reader the history of the Icelanders.

It was the realisation that the style of story affected the way it was told in everything from sentence structure, pacing and word choice that led me to look hard at my reading choices. I have always been an avid reader, but I could see now that I was drawing from a very limited palette, much in the same way that my writing wasn’t using the full capacity of the toolbox as I could, or should, have. Stephen King, Terry Brooks, Ian Rankin and John Grisham were my staple go-to’s, a generous mix of horror, fantasy and crime – all of which classed as commercial genre fiction; all of which my own style of writing lent towards.

Thanks to this module I was led to great works such as the Metamorphoses and the Sagas of the Icelanders. While researching Japanese tales of Kanashibari, I became aware of Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor. The story is one of love and revenge, a staple of commercial fiction, but I could see it was written poetically, almost as a tale of legend[5]. The writing is extremely evocative, suitable to the era in which the story is set, and not usually associated with genre fiction. At least, not the sort I have been used to. This in turn led me to writers such as John Irving (Last Night In Twisted River, A Prayer for Owen Meany) and Paul Auster (Leviathan; 4,3,2,1), authors whose language is so clearly and precisely chosen; a layer of toolbox to which I aspire.

With a greater understanding of the different forms of narration and how they impact the creation of a story, along with a much broader scope of reading to draw upon, two new layers were added to my toolbox, bringing to my writing (I hope) a stronger, more confident tone.

[1] King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. London, UK. Hodder & Stoughton. “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behoves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”

[2] Ovid. (2014). Metamorphoses. London, UK. Penguin. “For he who was all the world to me, as well thou knowest, hath turned out the worst of men, my own husband.”

[3] McNeill, G. (2006). Horus Heresy Book 2: False Gods. Nottingham, UK. Black Library Publishing. “She had waited for this day since the great warriors from the sky had brought word of the sacred task appointed to her when she was little more than a babe in arms.”

[4] Milan Kundera quote on the back of the Sagas of the Icelanders: “(if the Sagas had been written) in one of the languages of the major nations… we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”

[5] Hearn, L. (2002). Across The Nightingale Floor. London, UK. Macmillan. “Whatever I had inherited from him, I was also my mother’s child. I was woven from two strands that could hardly be less alike, and both called to me through blood, muscle, and bone.”

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