Thursday, 12 April 2007

The wrong end of the stick is the right one

The History BoysI’ve been listening to a CD of The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s brilliant play about a group of boys preparing for the Oxford entrance examinations. The headmaster, desperate for good results, hires spin-master Mr Irwin to help the boys stand out in the crowd.

Suddenly it’s not just the story the boys can tell, but how they tell it.
The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back or, better still, the side.
Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse.
And since I mention Orwell, take Stalin. Generally agreed to be a monster and rightly, Sow dissent. Find something, anything, to say in his defence.
The advice struck a chord. Isn’t this what I’ve been trying to do, in the name of resisting cliché and sparking well, sparks, in my novel-writing? When my characters want to head in one direction, I do everything in my power to make their progress difficult. When one character expresses a conviction, I set another character to thwart him. When someone says no, another says yes.

Contrariness is just the thing to oil the engine of a plot. Sol Stein, in Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, writes:
Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit demonstrated in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal.
But he’s talking about craft. What about the whole submission process? Agents want quick sales, grabby manuscripts – why not give it to them? Surely, this is a technique that can also help sell novels.

“I get it,” says Rudge, the most working class of the History boys. “You want us to find an angle.”

An angle, a unique selling point, a hook. “It’s a performance,” says Irwin. “It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.”

If you read through the blog of Miss Snark, the anonymous literary agent, who disguises her excellent advice with hard-hearted wit, you find the whinings of writers who are trying to find just the perfect angle to make that connection with an agent. Which chapter should I send? What should I say in the query letter? How should I package my manuscript? Etc etc etc.

Miss Snark’s response intermittently repeated throughout the blog is the best advice to all who are searching for that angle:

"Write well."

And how.

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