Any One For Dickens?

In September last year I was having a discussion with another writer about various things, authorial voice being one of them and Charles Dickens being another. I find Dickens quite a pain to read. I know that is heresy in many literary circles, but the method of first publication for most of his stories shows clearly in his style. Slightly rambling, padded and best taken in small chunks. I’m surprised in fact that he isn’t more popular now. The modern box set for me suffers from much the same problem. These are series meant to be watched one episode at a time, once per week for many weeks. To consume them (and I use the word advisedly) at one sitting is for me complete overload.

I won’t belabour the comparison.

The other writer suggested that it wasn’t as easy as it looked to write like Dickens and wondered if I could write in a similar style?

Rambling, padded, overwritten and, let’s be honest, boring? Easy, I was already there!

So I wrote a Dickens short story pastiche, or at least that’s how it started out. I lost the voice a bit I know because I became engrossed in the plot. It is a sort of light hearted reworking of A Christmas Carol for the Le Carré, post Snowden world.  It starts off with several of the tropes of Dickens Christmas ghost story but does slightly segue into more of a comedy spy story.

The upshot was that I only half fulfilled my allotted task of parodying Dickens, but I did on the other hand find myself with a short story, 3,200 words long, which I felt was quite good. I enjoyed reading it again a few months back when I came across it languishing on a flash drive next to my computer. I read it to the other writer and they were only moderately condemnatory, which from another writer I regard as high praise indeed.

So I looked around for possible outlets. I reckoned seven months lead time might be enough for a short story. Nothing. I have found a ‘competition’ for ghost stories for which I have to give them £5, but calls for stories? Nothing.

Not even non-paying online sites.

Is the (amusing parody) Christmas short ghost story dead? Is the Christmas ghost story dead?

I have somehow recently wandered into writing short stories, having avoided them for years. I suspect this is the product of some obvious but really annoying psychological self programming. When I was playing rugby the approved way of thinking about the actions in the game to come was to envisage making the tackle, getting of the side of the scrum fast, staying with your man. The bad way of preparing was to think, ‘mustn’t miss the tackle, mustn’t stay too long on the scrum, mustn’t drift off outside to soon.’ The idea being that what you think about you do. So even though you are saying ‘don’t’ drift, consciously, you are thinking ’drift’ subconsciously and that’s what you do. Oddly, it works.

I have been thinking of all the reasons I don’t write short stories. So naturally, thinking about them I end up writing them.

On the plus side I’m obviously very bad at judging what is the correct material for a short story as I started one about eighteen months ago which is obviously way too big a subject for a short story as I already have 17,000 words written and I’m nowhere near an ending. Looks like I have another novel on the go. Hope I manage to finish one of them!

Now back to searching for an unsuspecting publisher who doesn’t yet realise they need a 3,200 word parody Dickens comedy ghost /spy story.

Elmore Leonard’s List

A friend from the writer’s group I belong to sent us all a copy of the list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. I guess it has become more widely disseminated in the light of the great man’s recent demise.

I hadn’t realised it was Elmore Leonard’s list until I read my friend’s email. It is a list that has been knocking around the writers’ blogs scene for a while now. Sometimes there are more, sometimes less but I had never heard the list directly attributed to Leonard until his death.

It has the usual dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts. No adverbs, don’t start with the weather (this was on a recent Sins of Literature programme, not attributed I think) and watch the exclamation marks. Fair enough in general. As my friend said in the accompanying email, ‘You don’t have to agree with him.’

I guess if Leonard adhered to this list it may have worked. Of course that assumes that Leonard’s writing would have been either a lot worse or sold a lot fewer copies if he had ignored some of them. We don’t know whether that is true. That’s the problem with listening to good advice from successful people; it assumes they are as good at being self aware regarding what works as they are at doing it instinctively. If this is not simply a generic list slopped out at feeding time for aspiring authors, and is a list that someone as successful as Leonard lived by we still can’t say that makes it something we should copy. We can guess that a book filled with all these forbidden habits is likely to be terrible. If you want to read some, read Dickens, he commits at least two of them in spades, detailed descriptions of characters and going into great detail describing places and things. I happen to agree in this case. There are pieces of Dickens I find so moving as to be almost impossible to read for their poignancy and insight. There are other pieces I can hardly get through because of their tedious attention to irrelevant detail.

Leonard’s tenth commandment is supposedly the most important and is: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ (that in itself makes me wonder whether this is really Leonard –it sound very cautious for him.) I know Dickens was writing pot-boiling serials for magazines but wow! (sorry about the exclamation mark!) But this is good advice buddy.

So do I agree with Leonard? A bit I suppose (whether it is his list or not) but the  most important item that sometimes appears on the list (Elmore’s or not) is : Ignore all these if its right. I’m sure Leonard would agree.