Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers

I've finished Sarah Waters' magnificent ghost story The Little Stranger (in the dark, on my own, the windows unshuttered....in other words, very nervously, but compelled to keep reading, unable to put it down and wait until daylight hours). The ending of this novel is a tour de force - the kind of gorgeous revelation that leaves me hurtling back into those 500 pages  again trying to make sense of the whole thing now I know. And yet the sheer gorgeousness of it, is that I still don't know for sure...

There is much to learn from Waters about pace and tension and layering, and I plan to go back through the novel and make notes. In fact, top of Waters' ten rules about writing (as published in The Guardian UK) is  'Read like mad. But try to do it analytically...' - which I do try to do, but often forget, moving on to the next novel and the next. This time, I have the notebook ready.... and tucked under my belt, number 4 on Waters' list of writing rules:

Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

Bring it on! The full Rules for Writers by Sarah Waters are here with thanks to The Guardian, and there's more on The Little Stranger in my previous post. I am thrilled to see it is on the longlist for the Orange Prize , along with NZer Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal - another superbly crafted book.

5 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

my fav or hers is Affinity - very twisty - fantastic.
Fingersmith was also intriguing. Did see her talk for the Night Watch in Sydney, but I have to say that I was not so enchanted, but I think it was the crowd treating her like some Lesbian Icon which was off putting...

Keri Hulme said...

"The Little Stranger" is a book I have cheerfully given away (why? Hint: I keep books I want to reread.) I find Sarah Water's writing tips okay - the sort of thing you learn as you do - but she could've usefully employed #2 - re cutting- to advantage in "The Little Stranger."

I think the novel might've worked if a reader didnt have my kind of knowledge of spiritualism & English ghostie stories: as it was, I started picking well-known cases pretty bloody soon, and her characters were - for me- sooo flat. There just wasnt any kind of suspense.

I enjoyed "Fingersmith" (thank you Roald Dahl) - but I am not in any hurry to read another work by this writer.

Rachel Fenton said...

Such diverse opinions. Not read the books mentioned yet but will now - if only to see which comment is more accurate!

It's always interesting to read other writers' "how to" tips - they do not always take their own advice me thinks!

Great review, Mary, and thanks - you've given me a brilliant reading list over the past nine months.

Keri h said...

The only writing tip I have given - or would ever presume to give- is, "Read. Read omnivorously. Dont bother with analysis until after the book is finished."

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks for stopping by, Keri. Interesting points. I like the apparently self-effacing doctor protagonist of The Little Stranger and the slow build-up inside the the novel. The latter feels true to the former to me, and to the setting and time and genre... The filching from other ghost stories doesn't bother me either - the author is open about the research she did on poltergeists etc - and I can think of many novels (and plays) which do that sort of thing with great success. Hard to read, though, if you see the joins as you did. Luckily I didn't! Would like to hear what you make of it, Rachel. Thanks for your take on Sarah W, GG, I think Affinity would be a good one of hers to read next.