THE STORY SO FAR
By my calculations, this is my ninth meeting with Evelyn, my neighbour.
Back in October when I agreed to try and help her with ambition to become the next Margaret Atwood, I never thought we would get this far.
But here we are, almost at Christmas, and still speaking.
Evelyn’s moods are like the weather. A week ago she was on the crest of a wave. She has a new boyfriend, Lenny. And her son, Nigel is coming home for Christmas from Australia. She told me she felt blessed.
This evening she has arrived with a face that tells me all is not well.
Maybe she is tired, or has a hangover.
Maybe she is frustrated by her attempts to write.
I must remain aloof from Evelyn’s moods. Although she and I have been discussing what goes into writing a novel for several months now, it’s been a rambling approach – deliberately so. Evelyn can dip into a hundred different books and websites which headings such as:
Point of view
Each one of these headings is a valid topic for consideration by someone beginning to write fiction. For example, when you pick up a novel by an author you may not have read before, if your attention is not grabbed in those opening lines, you may not persist. This is the harsh reality. Look at people browsing novels in a bookshop. Watch them flick past the cover blurb to the opening lines. This is the author’s elevator pitch. Flunk it and you die.
Some of the best opening lines to a novel I’ve read in the last twelve months are in Ithaca by Alan McMonagle.
‘I am the cancer-ridden only son of a dangerous driver who has thoughts about turning herself into a man. The cancer is in my testicle. The left one. Every day it’s getting worse. Black, tarry urine is coming out of me. My goolie is the size of a tennis ball. I won’t even begin to describe the smell.’
Why is this such a good opening to a novel? It’s not just because of the shocking picture it paints of the protagonist, it’s because in just a few hard-hitting opening sentences the author has established the protagonist’s voice and character.
I relay these sentiments to Evelyn and she yawns. I can tell that her mind is elsewhere. Since she is my sole audience, I take this indifference personally. I know I shouldn’t, but I do.
‘So character is what we keep coming back to,’ I say. ‘Evelyn.’
‘I’m sorry, Peter,’ she says, ‘yes. Character.’
‘I have a surprise for you.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she says and brightens up.
‘Advice from another writer. From Paul Lynch,’ I say.
‘Really? Such a serious looking young man,’ Evelyn says, ‘and he writes like an angel.’
Paul’s riveting novel ‘Grace’, set in the Great Famine, and told from the point of view of a young woman, won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year in 2018.
‘Here’s what he’s written for you.’
PAUL LYNCH JOINS THE CONVERSATION
Character lies at the heart of all fiction. Nothing can happen without it. And yet it is perhaps the most mysterious of all aspects of writing. The trouble begins with the fact that there are no rules for character, just as there are no rules for fiction. There are major and minor characters, round and flat, internal and external, talky and quiet. But they all have one thing in common. The reader has to believe in their aliveness.’
TELLING VERSUS SHOWING
‘The way in which we express the aliveness of a character can be boiled down to two ways — static and dynamic description. Or, to put it another way, telling versus showing.
Static description at its laziest sounds like a description of a photograph. We describe what a character looks like, or explain something about them. But at its best, static description appeals to the senses. One precise and palpable detail can evoke something strong in the mind of the reader. We are able to grip and hold on.’
Evelyn is tapping the table with her pencil. ‘I’ve heard this before. I mean, what Paul has just said. Static description at its laziest sounds like a description of a photograph.’
‘You heard it from me, weeks ago, but differently.’
‘Yes, you were talking about labels,’ she says.
‘I said you sometimes read novels and it’s as if there’s a sign hanging around a character’s neck. These are cardboard cut-outs, they’re not characters.’
Evelyn relapses into introspection and I return to Paul Lynch’s letter.
‘Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s description of Professor Pnin in his 1957 comic novel Pnin:
“Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper life, thick neck and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.”
Nabokov’s famous injunction to “fondle detail” is evident here. This is supreme static description. We do not see Pnin in action, but we can infer so much of his character from Nabokov’s robustly physical descriptions.
Pnin is presented as an impeccable man bordering on academic cliché (“ideally bald”), but Nabokov is determined to free Pnin from caricature and create for us a man of contradiction.
He begins with strong, masculine details — “apish”, “thick”, “strong-man” — but ends “somewhat disappointingly” with descriptions that are increasingly ladylike: “spindly”, “flanneled and crossed”, “frail-looking”, “feminine”. Pnin is laid bare with comic bravado as a middle-aged, infant-faced, man-on-top-of-a-woman’s-body.’
‘Lenny is small and short but he’s also very strong,’ Evelyn says. ‘He was a PE teacher for thirty years.’
‘You did mention that, yes.’
‘He’s able to move my hen house on his own.’
‘Shall we resume?’
‘When he was young he won medals for boxing,’ she says.
The gratifying image of Lenny with a black eye pops up.
‘Sorry – where were we?’ Evelyn says.
‘By showing how a character behaves, we can learn a great deal about them. Consider the following detail from Ivan Turgenev’s The Virgin Soil, which concerns Alexey Nezhdanov, the poor but dreamy student and illegitimate son of an aristocrat, who is leaning towards socialism and anarchy:
“In the morning, Nezhdanov had gone to the box-office, where he found a good many people. He had intended to take a ticket for the pit, but at the very instant he went up to the desk, an officer, standing behind him, held out a three-ruble bill right across Nezhdanov, and shouted to the clerk: “He is sure to want change, and I don’t, so give me, please, a ticket for the front row, at once… I’m in a hurry!”. “I beg your pardon,” Nezhdanov rejoined sharply, “I, too, want a ticket for the front row,” and thereupon he flung into the little window three rubles — all the ready money he had”.
In a masterly stroke of the pen, Turgenev has Nezhdanov fling all his money down to reveal his rancorous pride — “I too belong in the front row” he wants to say — a trait that changes his fate and sets in chain a series of events that carries us through to the last page. Nezhdanov has acted, and in that moment of action, we know exactly who he is.
NADIR OF THE YEAR
A quickening always occurs as we approach the shortest day, a feeling that after the equinox all will be well. In Newgrange they had this all figured out six thousand years ago.
‘All well?’ I ask as we prepare to wind up another evening.
‘Please thank Paul Lynch for me,’ Evelyn says. ‘It’s been just brilliant hearing what he has had to say.’
And yet, and yet…I just know she has something else on her mind tonight.
She sighs. ‘Nigel comes home in ten days,’ she says flatly.
The last time when she mentioned Nigel coming home it was as if she’d won the Lotto.
‘Yes, I know. Great.’
‘Christ,’ she says, ‘I don’t know what to do.’
She is standing there, gripping the rail of my Aga, and looking grim.
She shakes her head as if to rid herself of demons. ‘Tell anyone else this and I’ll kill you. I promise.’
‘Lenny has been…staying over…now and then…with me…at home…’
‘And now he’s asked if he can stay for Christmas,’ Evelyn says. ‘When bloody Nigel will be home…’
‘Oh,’ I say as I get it. ‘And you don’t want…’
‘No, I bloody well don’t!’ she shouts. ‘Why does life have to be so fucking complicated?’
As I close the backdoor behind her I realise that this is the first evening on which Evelyn has not brought me any goodies.