Nevil Shute: a Study in Impeccable Writing

RequiemForAWren

I read a lot of Nevil Shute as a youngster – growing up in New Zealand, it was natural that his books should be in the library. I enjoyed them; he writes a good yarn, with plenty of action and interesting storylines, and his characters are strong and memorable, particularly the women. But it’s decades since I last read him, and the one I’m reading now I have never read before.

Requiem for a Wren is an exemplar of Shute’s work, and in particular his skill in purveying vast amounts of background through a few terse sentences. He’s a master at providing information without the reader being at all conscious that he’s doing so.

In the first paragraph of Requiem nothing much is happening. The narrator is an airline passenger, and the plane is beginning to descend. But look at how much information he packs into the first two sentences.

There was a layer of cumulus, about seven-tenths, with tops at about five thousand feet as we came to Essenden airport; we broke out of it at two thousand and we were on the circuit downwind, with the aerodrome on our starboard wing. I sat with my eyes glued to the window looking out at Melbourne, because this was my home town and I had been away five years.

I don’t mean the obvious – cloud cover and all – but rather the great deal of information which is implied. We now know that our narrator is Australian, and that he is an airman (very likely a pilot, given the breadth and complexity of his observations). As the book was published in 1955, the ‘five years’ remark gives us a pretty big clue that he was away at war, so now we know what kind of airman he is.

[The stewardess} smiled and said quietly ‘Would you like any help down the gangway, sir?’

I shook my head. ‘I’ll wait till the others are off. I’m all right if I take my time’

So… an injury or disability bad enough for him to potentially need help, but she is circumspect and he determined to be independent. That makes me think straight away about wartime injuries – and it turns out that’s exactly right. He goes on to meet the foreman from his parents’ sheep station, and discovers that there has been a death at the farm, but even then he’s more interested in the changes in the landscape since the war.

It’s only on page 12 that we begin get a sense of his injury, and this too is in typical laconic style.

Horses were still used by the boundary riders, but … my father drove all over the property in a Land Rover instead of riding on a horse as he always had when I was young. That suited me, for artificial feet are something of a handicap upon a horse. There was a great deal for me to learn about the property before I could unload some of the work from my parents, and I was keen to make a start.

Shute’s style is one I favour, with long passages of narrative interspersed with briefer dialogue and conversation. It’s somewhat out of fashion these days, when we are all being told ‘do, don’t tell’ and ‘don’t infodump’, although in Shute’s case it’s more like info-infusion, and his laid-back style suits the subject. Our protagonist is reluctant to display his disability, or any of the other ways in which war has changed him, and it becomes increasingly clear that this same reticence applies to the other characters in the novel, including the dead girl, whose story rapidly takes centre stage. So much is conveyed in these sparse, careful sentences that by the time he reaches the revelation at the bottom of page 53, it comes with a sense of inevitability. It could only have been this way.

I’m not going to tell you the story. Not all of you will want to read the book, but you can read the first few pages online. Have a look, and see whether you have anything to learn from this master of understated prose.

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Learning to Write

writing manuals

Those of you who know me are already aware that my sense of humour is quirky (and a little black), that my stories all have a bit of a twist, and that although I’m conscientious and thorough in my work, I don’t always do it by the book. The same is true of the way I have learned (and am still learning) the writer’s craft.

I’ve always known I could ‘write’. Even as a very young child I was forever getting in trouble for ‘telling stories’, or drifting off into a fantasy landscape while my Mum was telling me off, or having my nose in a book when I should be ‘making something of your life’. It wasn’t until my thirties that I really understood the way writing is the glue that holds the rest of my life together, and it’s only now my youngest children are nearing the age of independence that I have time. Time to indulge in reading. Time to delve into the black maelstrom of my subconscious and let some of my stories finally tell themselves.

There are lots of good books to help you with grammar and syntax, layout and style, points of view and tenses. But there are also others – books that come at the subject slantwise, that prod your subconscious to create, that pull you up short and make you re-evaluate aspects of writing that you’ve taken for granted, or not really understood. And it’s those books that I find the most valuable. Here are my favourites:

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1934, reprinted 1981. The 1981 imprint is still in print.) Dorothea’s approach is wholly positive. She begins with an assertion that she sets out to prove: “There is a sort of writer’s magic… {but} to be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way.” She proceeds to take us on that way, with chapters such as “The Four Difficulties” (the One-Book author, the Occasional Writer), “The Advantages of Duplicity”, “On Imitation” (the value of mimicking others’ work, to learn how they do it). Her writing is clear and cogent, and full of humour. Read this book, and perform all the exercises she suggests, and that book you thought you might never write will become the project you have to write. It’s joyous reading and I love it.

Starting From Scratch by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam Books, 1988. Still available in the second-hand marketplace). I love Rita Mae’s writing, especially her novel set in southern USA, Six of One, and the murder-mystery novels starring her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. Her advice is very direct, and very personal. She tells you what worked for her. There are no short cuts. There are certain tasks you must perform. Reading it, you feel a bit like Hercules at the beginning of his labours. I must learn Latin? You ask yourself, whining a little. But I don’t have time! Well, she says, you can still write, but your writing won’t be as good. Fair enough. I don’t always agree with her, and it’s pleasant to have those disagreements out with her, in the privacy of my own head. She may not be comfortable, but she gives a good argument, does Rita Mae. I had this book out of the public library over and over again in my twenties, and now I have my very own copy to delve into when I need a bracing dip in cold water, or maybe a bucketful of ice poured over my head. In other words, anytime I start to swell with my own self-importance and need taking down a peg or two. This is the most useful of all my writing manuals – because it forces me to think.

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark (Penguin 2008). This hilarious trawl through the vast array of mistakes writers make, with cringe-worthy examples, is worth reading for entertainment alone. If you’re still confused about what exactly ‘info-dumping’ is, or why editors don’t like POV changes in the middle of a chapter, this book will give you examplars of how not to do it. I’m a great fan of Sandra Newman’s work, and this book is no exception. On first reading, I spotted an even dozen ‘errors’ I’ve made in my published writing to date. I stand by some of them, but possibly not with quite so much conviction as when I wrote them. Improving your writing while having a laugh – what could be nicer? If you enjoyed this, you might like to try The Western Lit Survival Guide, also by Sandra Newman. A sweep through the entire Western canon at breakneck speed – a good way to spot gaps in your knowledge.

Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998). Ursula Le Guin is my favourite living writer; she’s the consummate author, writing beautiful fantasies and perfectly-crafted essays, creator of universes, true disciple of the word. There is much useful advice, and many pertinent exercises, here (“Being Gorgeous”, “Telling it Slant”). Much like her translation of the Tao, Steering the Craft is the kind of work that you can dip into, reading a few paragraphs or performing just one exercise, and it will rest and open your mind just as meditation and tai chi relaxes and realigns your body. “Writing… is a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it… To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”

Creative Novel Writing by Roselle Angwin (Robert Hale Ltd, 1999). Roselle teaches writing, and she’s no mean poet and author herself. This book is still available, and you can get the link from her website, http://fire-in-the-head.co.uk/. This is the most traditional of my manuals. It gives lots of good advice about POV, characterisation, structure but also about inspiration, imagination, how to get started and how to drive the work forward – and how to identify whether your work has that extra factor, which sets it apart from other people’s writing and makes your story unique. In essence, all writers are alone, and it’s how we approach that solitude that determines how successful we will be in dragging our stories out of the darkness and committing them to screen or paper.

Stealing Fire From The Gods by James Bonnet (Michael Wiese Prodctions, 2006). It’s early days for this one – I only began reading it a few weeks ago. Like Rita Mae Brown, James Bonnet makes some assertions that I don’t completely agree with (although on flicking through it now I can’t quite spot any of them). This is a book about how the human mind works – how humanity has told itself stories, and how the writer can identify and employ the great archetypes of human storytelling to may his/her own writing more convincing. He progresses from potatoes to heroes, and along the way we visit Jungian archetypes, listen in on the fascinating thoughts of Joseph Campbell, and call in on all sorts of well-known writers and their characters to see how they did it, from Aristotle to Mel Gibson, Dracula to Frodo. This is a book for prospective film-makers as well as writers, and its approach is very visual. I’m not yet 100% sure this is going into my canon of classic writers’ manuals, but I think it will. It’s already challenged me to think.

Employing the God Perspective

There you are, writing your story, deep in the minutiae of your characters’ lives, living it along with them. You know their points of view, their weaknesses, their strengths. You’re able to explain quite a lot about the world they live in, through their actions and their words. But it’s very hard to give any real perspective on this imaginary universe, without being restricted by what your characters know or are able to explain directly.
That’s where, in a film, they use that lovely cinematographic trick of pulling back the camera, back, still further back, until the people vanish into the distance and you can see the full, panoramic sweep of their environment. All of a sudden, their small, petty stories become part of a much larger perspective, even though at the same time their importance diminishes. The onlooker might even glimpse, in the corners of the picture, some suggestion of what is coming up: storms looming on the horizon, vast obstacles that await the travellers on their journey, of which they themselves are not yet aware.
So, how do you approach this as an author? It seems to me that there are two main ways in which writers do it. One is the Jane Austen style, Dear Reader, approach, where the writer addresses the reader directly from the page, bypassing the book’s characters altogether. The other is the God Perspective.
Here’s a bit: “…far below the tiny figure of a girl laboured up the mountain-slope, bent double under its load. It skirted a vast expanse of white, trudged slowly across the gravel slope of the saddle, and made its way down the far side of the pass to the tree-line. For a moment a white face paused, turned up to the sky, then the figure shrugged its load more securely onto its shoulders and was gone, vanished into the trackless maze of the ranges…”
Whose viewpoint are we using? Who on earth has the ability to step right back from the characters in this way, and view them dispassionately as objects on a stage? Only the author, right? Writers’ manuals warn against using the god perspective – we shouldn’t be able to tell our readers stuff our characters wouldn’t know. So how do you get away with it? One way, at least the way in which I’m hoping to get away with it, is through the use of magic. If it’s plausible in your imaginary world for a distant character (one whom we, the reader, may not even have met yet) to see through the eyes of another, for instance an eagle, soaring over the mountain pass below – then we can see what the eagle sees. God perspective with a coherent explanation.
I’m liking this idea. It solves a major problem I was having with my work-in-progress. Is it a good enough excuse for using godlike perspective? Maybe. I’d be interesting to hear what you (dear Reader) think about it.