I read out my Chapter Three at our first evening workshop last night. I’d actually forgotten many of my misgivings about the piece and now I wish I’d ploughed ahead more over Easter and been able to submit the next chapter — which will move fast from place-to-place and start to build a bit of intimacy between James and Kim.
The first two chapters were comparatively much faster paced and had a lot more action as well. However, it seemed to be necessary to use the third chapter to slow the pace to seed a lot of plot elements and themes: Kim was given more reasons to get away (health, debts), it established James liking of cooking and explained why Kim would be a good person to try and get to run a pub. I also tried to dampen the reader’s expectations of a possible romantic involvement between the two in the next chapters.
I was concerned that I might have been accused of homophobic stereotyping as I added at a late stage an idea that James might think Kim was a lesbian, based on the ‘a little knowledge’ principle. I actually did quite a bit of research on body piercing (which James had supposedly read about in Time Out) and one person wrote on the script — ‘like a Prince Albert’. Obviously Kim wouldn’t have one of these (click if you want your eyes to water like James’ did) but she may have slightly less spectacular piercings. (I did once know someone who had a Prince Albert.) There was a discussion about whether James would be quite so ignorant of gay culture as perhaps he came over but no-one objected to sowing this seed of doubt in his mind as a plot device, which was a relief. I’m still not sure whether I’ll continue with it but my objective is to have them both bond together without cranking up the sexual aspect.
I took the attitude that if I sent out a piece of 2,600 words that was basically just two characters in a confined space then I’d be doing well just to sustain people’s interest to the end.
I deliberated about sending out one of the first two chapters, which had both come back from Alison with positive feedback, but I thought that might have the effect of both wasting her time by going over familiar work and it would also perhaps be fishing for compliments on work I knew she generally liked.
Maybe I should have done this as, in the event, I felt I got quite a negative reaction to this new piece from Alison. I think her comments were generally fair in that the piece was probably too long to sustain pace and that Kim’s voice didn’t come over as distinctly German — I was a bit annoyed with myself that at a late stageÂ I’d cut and pasted a bit of Kim speaking German (translating musical chairs) out of the extract it Â to use in the next chapter. However, at least one person had picked up on parts of the dialogue where she is struggling to find the correct vocabulary and the speech patterns of young Germans who are fluent in English are not actually that different to many native speakers — they’re quite close to American English.
So I think the way that I’d read out the extract probably did no justice to any subtleties in the dialogue. Â And I’m not much good at reading aloud anyway so me rushing it must have been really bad — and I was hampered a bit by wearing contact lenses that are not good for reading close up — at times I was struggling to read my 12 point Times New Roman, even though I’d written it myself!
Paradoxically the pace would probably have come over better if I’d have added in some dramatic pauses and the like. On the other hand, I was quite struck by the number of comments, both written and spoken, that said they’d read through it quickly and easily and thought it had a good pace but then seemed to have second thoughts on hearing it read out.
I’m not sure it’s going to help people write novels, though, if we get encouraged to write prose that sounds better read out loud than on the page — you could understand that with poetry or drama. I’m a bit perplexed by that aspect of the course — it’s not much good for someone writing prose fiction if someone says ‘now I’ve heard you read it out then it seems better’ as the ordinary reader will never hear it read, they just have to go with what’s on the page. Perhaps it’s to prepare us for the reading event at the end of the course?
An average reader isn’t going to read the prose three times over in order to fully appreciate it or have the experience of the dialogue being brought to life by a lively authorial reading. That’s why I find the written comments enormously useful as they generally tend to be more individual observations. I find we don’t really get long enough to hear others’ comments and my tactic is to hear people out and listen as much as possible, although I was dying to say ‘yes, but wait for the next bit’ or ‘that was explained in the chapter before’ a few times.
I respect everyone’s opinions, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything. I think I was quite loose with the use of adverbs in some parts of the extract but I’m not sure that a zero tolerance policy towards them is entirely necessary — sometimes they can be used very effectively in the free indirect style to establish a character’s POV. Â I think perhaps I have a prose style which makes the odd bit of ornamentation stand out.
One point I was very pleased about was that the rest of the students were very divided about James. One or two people loathed him with a passion while others thought he was potentially quite nice. Some thought him a blundering clown and others a straight banker. This shows that he’s got contradictions and people seem to be reacting to him like a real person. Also, a lot of that chapter was very close to his point-of-view and some objected to him looking at Kim supposedly as a sexual object and how dare he make judgements over her appearance — but this is all going on in his mind. Unless he’s being very unsubtle in his observations, she isn’t going to know any of this unless he cares to tell her. The controversy is such that I even got an e-mail of support from someone the day afterwards in support of him.