I’m reading Your Voice in My Head at the moment. It’s one of my top books of all time, along with How to be Good, and some books by Ali Smith and Tibor Fischer. I’ve been trying to think what is it about these ones that puts them in my top few. And I’ve concluded that it’s because they are spectacularly easy to read. When I go back to another book after these, I find it a drag to read them.
L was given a copy of Mr Chartwell the other day. It’s an interesting book about a literal Big Black Dog pursuing Churchill. But it suffered because I read it immediately after Forrest. Take this sentence from the beginning of Mr Cartwell.
In a terraced house in Battersea, Esther Hammerhans came tearing down the stairs with one arm through a cardigan sleeve, the rest flapping at her legs, and turned off the hob. The kettle stopped its screaming, throwing out hysterical clouds of steam. Esther found the teapot and filled it with hot water, some spilling over the work surface. The tea leaves had been forgotten, something she discovered live minutes later, after a wild campaign with the washing up.
There’s nothing really wrong with it. The first sentence is active rather than passive. There aren’t lots of sub clauses. The action is at the beginning of the sentence. And something actually happens in it; that is, the character does something.
I mean there are some things you could improve. There are no really short sentences. Most of them have at least two parts to them. There’s a passive sentence: “The tea leaves had been forgotten” which could have been cut. But these aren’t big things.
But compare this to the first section of Your Voice in My Head:
A man hovers over me as I write. Every table in the Los Angeles café is taken.
‘Are you leaving?’
My notebook, coffee and Dictaphone are spread out in front of me.
‘No,’ I answer.
‘I’ll give you a thousand dollars to leave.’
‘OK,’ I say, as I pack up my things.
‘Sure. A thousand dollars. I’m leaving.’
He looks at me like I’m mad and beats a hasty retreat.
I meant it. He didn’t mean it. My radar, after all these years of sanity, is still off when it comes to what people do or don’t mean.
My mum calls my cell phone and I go outside to take it.
‘How do you pronounce Tóibín,’ my mother asks me, ‘as in Colm Tóibín, the novelist?’ This is our daily call, me in America, her in England, every day since I moved here at twenty-one. I’m thirty-two now, and she’s seventy-one, though she sounds like she’s seventeen.
‘It’s pronounced toe-bean. Like “toe” and then “bean”.’
‘That’s what I feared,’ she says. She lets this marinate a moment. Then, ‘No. Not acceptable.’
‘But that’s his name! That’s how you say it.’
‘I can’t be going around saying “toe-bean”. It simply will not do.’
‘Why don’t you just not say his name?’
‘He’s a popular writer.’
‘Read his books but don’t talk about them.’
‘No,’ (I can sense her shaking her head) ‘some situation will arise that requires me to say his name.’
Now, obviously, there are a few differences here. Forrest is writing in the present tense, Hunt in the past tense. Forrest’s is a couple of snapshots. She’s using dialogue. But you know what, I want to keep reading Forrest’s. It doesn’t feel like reading. Hunt’s does. Now, obviously, it is a novel, so that’s not such a bad thing, but of these two, I know which one I’d stick with.
Good dialogue is a wonderful thing. It makes the reading not feel like reading. I’m reminded of Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
[…] once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?’
What’s particularly nice about this section from Alice is the way the narration turns into speech with that “and”. Alice’s thought follows on from the narration.
There’s the old chestnut about writing like you speak:
0. Speak what you write: This is rule zero because all other rules follow on this. Basically: If what you’re writing is hard to speak, what makes you think it’s going to be easy to read? It won’t be. So speak out loud what you write. If you can’t speak it naturally, rewrite it. Simple.
It’s true. I wonder if this is because when writing is conversational it feels more like listening than reading.
Take the beginning of How to be Good:
I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him any more, I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.
Again, it’s in the present tense. Unlike Forrest though there’s no dialogue here. But while there may not be dialogue, if you put speech marks round it you could believe someone was saying it.
Let’s go back to Hunt’s first sentence. I don’t want to rip her apart – I think it’s probably a good book, but it’s just the first book I read after one of my favourites, and I’m trying to work out what’s different.
To be fair to her this isn’t the first sentence. The book begins with:
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill’s mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there.
But the sentence I’m looking at is the bit that caught my attention, and made me wonder what was wrong with it.
The tense is quite a key thing. I used to hate writing in the present tense. I thought it wasn’t “proper” story telling somehow. But thinking about it now, that’s probably what’s so great about it. Writing in the present tense loses the feeling of telling a story. It makes it feel like it’s just happening.
Forrest and Hornby have both been journalists. And I wonder if this is something to do with it too. Newspaper features are generally in the present tense, and you lose that feeling of narrative too.
Of course, the other problem with Hunt’s beginning is how mundane it is. Moreover the sentence is stating where the location is (“in a terraced house in Battersea”). And that’s boring. Compare this to Hornby:
I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more. David isn’t even in the car park with me.
We’ve found out the name of her husband without knowing. That knowledge slips in. It doesn’t say:
It was in a car park in Leeds that Katie told her husband David that she didn’t want to be married to him any more.
Hornby states the location as well. But there’s something about the blandness of “a car park in Leeds” against the emotional nature of “I don’t want to be married to him” that works. In Hunt’s, the blandness of “In a terraced house in Battersea” is set against the blandness of “turn[ing] off the hob”.
The word “tearing”, is a cliché; it has a sense of artifice to it. Ester didn’t really “tear” down the stairs, she ran down the stairs. That’s what happened. Describing it as “tearing” involves translating from the action to the metaphor.
Even having one arm through a cardigan is a cliché; enough of a cliché that it only took me a few seconds to find a cartoon of it.
And at the end of this sentence, there’s no emotion. Just someone turning off a hob.
I think there’s a few things to learn here, one of which really is, as I said the other day, you need to be weird. As readers we crave oddities. If I want to know what it’s like to turn off a hob in a rush, I’ll leave the milk to bubble over. If I want to be surprised by the oddities of a character, I’ll read Your Voice in My Head.
More than that, you need emotion in your sentences, and you need to create that effect of reading without reading. It doesn’t just need to be easy reading, it needs to flow.