Tag Archives: Colm Toibin

Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:

Write

Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?

 

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My name in books

Here’s an idea that took my fancy which I first saw on A life in Books blog in August this year. Susan got it from someone who got it from someone else. It’s a satisfying idea: an acrostic of my name in books I have read in the last 12 months. The quality and my enjoyment of these books are variable. I reviewed many of the ones I thought were really good and have included the links to the reviews.

The Acrostic

220 Fernet BrC Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

A All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

R Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

O Outline by Rachel Cusk

L Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

N Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

E The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

220 Little Girls

L The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen

O In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

D Do It Like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez

G Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

E Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

 

 

 

Excuse the little cheat. It was impossible without. Can you do one with your name books?

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

Woman Reading by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) in Tokyo National Museum via WikiCommons

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Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I love to read a book that isn’t brash and that has something quiet to say. Nora Webster is such a read. The story moves steadily but without dramatic events, at the tempo of ordinary lives. The significant events are the daily interactions with neighbours and family, someone’s choice of words, the purchase of a recording, a short drive to the coast. This is the work of a writer who knows and understands the warp and weft of life.

195 Nora W coverThe story

The novel opens when Nora Webster has just been widowed and we follow her life over the next 3 years in Wexford, Ireland in the late 1960s as she moves through her grief.

Nora has four children: two young boys who live with her and two girls who are older and making their lives elsewhere. The death of Nora’s husband Maurice means she has to has to help her children with their grief as well as her own. She struggles to find what she wants from her life without her husband, and eventually without her four children as they grow up.

The novel shows us the important of small things as we see Nora almost knocked sideways by grief and the difficulties of raising the boys on her own. We enjoy her steely independence of spirit as well as the consistent if quiet support of her family. Her progress is gradual and there are set-backs. She is unable to prevent damage to her young boys and in some ways contributes to it for she does not invite conversation with those around her about the difficult things in life.

Driven by her circumstances to reconstruct her life she reluctantly embraces a return to work, new friendships, new projects, and repairs her connections with her family. She stands up for her sons in a manner that demonstrates her determination and her ability to take on the educational establishment in 1970s Wexford. By the quiet close of the novel you have come to realise that Nora was diminished in some respects by her marriage. Her spirit along with the passage of time and the needs of her sons has brought her to a new way of being Nora.

Nora

In Nora Colm Toibin has succeeded in creating an engaging character. She goes a long way not to offend her community, but increasingly undertakes small acts of resistance. We are introduced to her in this way.

‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could go back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house. (1)

From this opening paragraph we already understand a great deal about Nora’s character and that something has changed in her life that allows a man to shift his behaviour towards her. It establishes that the novel will deal with the changes she faces and how she navigates them and how she responds to people around her. Acutely conscious of her own discomfort, but also intensely private about her reactions, she is neither put down nor defeated.

In addition we can catch the Irish lilt, the intrusiveness of Tom O’Connor, and Nora’s apparent passivity. And the simple sentence ‘Nora closed the garden gate’ adds a small beat as we contemplate the scene, an everyday exchange between neighbours. The resistance to Tom O’Connor is slight, but such acts grow to include a misguided haircut and taking up singing.

Other things I liked

The quiet style of the writing matches Nora’s character. It means that the novel is compelling without it being a page-turner. Here is an example: Nora’s reflections on the different pace at which she and her sons are coming to terms with Maurice’s death.

She pictured the house, how strangely filled with absence it must be. She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her sense of watching every scene, every moment for signs of what was missing, or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years. (116)

While I wished that Nora would accept the support and help offered, her struggle with grief, with the enforced changes to her life, with making her own way is a very affirming story.

I enjoyed the themes of music in Nora’s life and photography in her son’s. Both come to these arts knowing little about them and with some perseverance both find their feet and new connections with others through their interest.

The novel has been well received: Nora Webster won the 2015 Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2014 and the 2015 Folio Prize.

There was an excellent review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times in October 2014.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (2014), published by Penguin 311pp

 

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