Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Breeding words


It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. – Friedrich Nietzsche

My novel, Milligan and Murphy, is 169 pages long. On page 131 I end the sixth chapter with the following three paragraphs:

This is where their story could have ended. Indeed in one way it did. They had ended up where they had started off and it hadn’t taken them too long to find a new life that so closely resembled their old one; it was almost indistinguishable from a distance. Not all stories are epics and very few epics are that interesting; even the ones involving lots of Russians. If everything were interesting then nothing would be interesting. Interesting things are not always significant things either. Think about that.

Would this be a happy ending, though?

Happy endings are nothing more than matters of timing. We are in the midst of beginnings and endings all the time. Every sentence has a beginning and an end and they’re supposed to make sense in between; that’s the rule: a grammatical unit that is syntactically independent; that has a subject that is expressed or, as in imperative sentences, understood, and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb. This book may end—there are no never-ending stories; we could just quit right here—it’s as good a place as any other—but the story goes on and who is to say that the ending we finally decide upon; the one that ends up at the end, is really happy or not so happy? It all depends on what follows. If we quit here you might draw the wrong conclusions about these two entirely. That’s the thing about being an omniscient narrator, I know where things should end and, if the characters start to veer off in the wrong direction or get too settled, well, I can always gee things up for them. Sometimes, however, all you have to do is wait a bit for the action to catch up…

You see, at this point in the story the brothers have gone full circle, i.e. they’ve basically gone nowhere. Since the novel was based on a book by Beckett whose characters famously never go anywhere in particular I could have stopped the book there and I even thought about it. It’s hard to know where to stop especially when you’re not reliant on a conventional plot. Plots lay out everything for you and we really don’t appreciate the storyline dawdling around on after the hero’s quest is over. A short coda is permissible but only a short one. And often writers use these opportunities as an excuse to lay the groundwork for the next book.

When I wrote Living with the Truth a sequel was the furthest thing from my mind. Just writing a single novel felt like such an achievement and to top everything off I killed off my protagonist at the end of novel which pretty much put the nail in that coffin. Or so I thought. Death ain’t what it used to be though, certainly not after George Dixon was resurrected in 1955 for Dixon of Dock Green (his character having been killed by a young Dirk Bogarde at the end of The Blue Lamp): Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower in the May 1986 cliff-hanger episode of Dallas, Superman’s died and come back (actually several Supermen did), Spock was reborn, Buffy made a veritable habit of resurrection but she’s a rank amateur when compared to Kenny from South Park. Be it through revivification, reincarnation, mucking around with time, cloning or some form of magic, death these days may still be quick but seldom permanent. The thing I’ve come to realise with hindsight is that I really hadn’t done all I intended to with that first novel. As much as it rankles me to admit this—and it does because on the whole I’m not a huge fan of sequels—the two books do form a cohesive single unit; Living with the Truth feels like a better book once you’ve read Stranger than Fiction. And yet I left Stranger than Fiction on a cliff-hanger with absolutely no intention of ever writing a third book and, nearly twenty years on, I still feel no inkling to return to that universe; it’ll just have to limp on as a duology. (No, I didn’t make it up.)

I have a motto: Say what you have to say and get off the page. Despite the lengths of some of my blogs it’s something I take seriously when it comes to my creative writing. I’m not saying there haven’t been worthy sequels but I’m struggling to think of any. But when exactly have you said what you need to say? It’s a hard call. I mean you can always think of something more to say, that little bit more, that teensy tiny smidge of a bit just so you don’t have to hit that final full stop and be done.

Schopenhauer said that life is “too short for bad books” and “a few pages” should be quite enough, he claims, for “a provisional estimate of an author’s productions.” I think most of us put this into practice, even if we’ve never said as much out loud. In bookshops we open a book, perhaps in the middle even, scan a few lines—perhaps a whole paragraph—and judge the author based on one- or two-hundred words. But let’s say he or she has roped you in based on those words, you take the book home, settle down with your beverage of choice, commence reading, enjoy what you’re reading, get to, say, page 131, and think: This seems like a good place to stop and so that’s what you do, you stop there, shelve your book and never worry for a moment what might have happened next. No one does that, do they?

If it was a bad book I can fully understand stopping when you’ve had your fill. There aren’t a lot of books that I’ve never finished but there are a few. Three that jump to mind are: Gertrud by Hermann Hesse, Dangling Man by Saul Bellow and the second volume of Don Quixote; told you I’m not one for sequels. There will be more I am sure but not many mainly because I buy books with care. And there have, of course, been books that I’ve attempted to read but returned to years later and wondered what the problem was the first time. The best example of that is the book that was the inspiration for Living with the Truth, The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind which I failed to get through twice before finally, recently, reading it through to the end and thoroughly enjoying it too.

But what, as I said, if it was a good book. Why would anyone decide to stop reading a good book. I know it’s said you can get too much of a good thing but seriously, if you’re enjoying something surely you want to prolong that experience for as long as possible? That’s why we get so many sequels and threequels and quadrilogies and whatever made-up names marketers think will convince us to buy. (Seriously what’s wrong with ‘trilogy’ and ‘quartet’?) Here’s a wee anecdote from novelist Tim Parks:

One of the strangest responses I ever had to a novel of my own—my longest not surprisingly—came from a fellow author who wrote out of the blue to express his appreciation. Such letters of course are a massive pep to one’s vanity and I was just about to stick this very welcome feather in my cap, when I reached the last lines of the message: he hadn’t read the last fifty pages, he said, because he’d reached a point where the novel seemed satisfactorily over, for him.

Naturally I was disappointed, even a little angry. My leg had surely been pulled. Wasn’t this damning criticism, that I’d gone on fifty pages too long? Only later did I appreciate his candour. My book was fine, for him, even without the ending. It wasn’t too long, just that he was happy to stop where he did. – Tim Parks, ‘Why Finish Books?’ The New York Review of Books, March 13, 2012

There are a number of unfinished works out there that we treat as if they are complete. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is the one that obviously jumps to mind even though attempts have been made to polish it off. But is it incomplete and is it fair to compare a symphony to a novel? Wikipedia has a whole page full of unfinished novels which leads me to believe that there is definitely something to be gained by not reading to the very end but in these cases all we have is all we have and I imagine most people reading those books wished they knew just how the author would have ended it. I mean that adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Dark Towerwe had over Christmas last year was fine, it made sense, but is that what Dickens would have done? We’ll never know. The only book I’ve started where I knew it was unfinished was The Dark Tower by C S Lewis and I can tell you I was disappointed by it leaving me hanging in mid air.

“You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” So said Lewis. I have to disagree on both counts. A while ago I read my first—and I can pretty much guarantee it will be my only—1000-page novel, The Instructions by Adam Levin and, in my review, I wrote, “no book needs to be 1030 pages in length, I don’t care who wrote it or what it’s about.” I stand by that and I have to say that final chapter dragged. I could have easily stopped short and been completely satisfied. But if I had I wouldn’t have seen his full vision and I might not have been quite so disappointed because I wasn’t that crazy how he chose to end things; unbelievable as it sounds, the ending felt rushed.

Of course it all depends on the book. The only point in reading an Agatha Christie (I’m being facetious here) is to get to the drawing room scene at the end. But then again her books are plotted and once you know who did it and how they were found out you really don’t want any more. I read a thriller many years ago—I think it was a le Carré—and the climax arrives one page before the end of the book; I remember being quite impressed by that at the time. It’s the kind of thing one expects from a good horror film: the monster dies and the film ends a minute later. That’s what we came to see, we’ve seen it and so we can go and queue for fish and chips now.

I look at the books coming out at the moment and I think all of them are too long. I’m a self-confessed lover of the novella even though I’ve never actually written one. I’ve always thought I would but I always seem to have another 10,000 words in me. And I can live with that because four of my five books are all under 60,000 words. The fourth novel clocks in at 90,000 and I consider it a ruddy epic. I can’t believe I managed to write a book that long. In his article ‘Why modern books are all too long’ Robert McCrum thinks he has the answer:

Literary elephantiasis starts across the Atlantic. North America has a lot to answer for. In the "pile 'em high" tradition, US bookshops love to display big fat books in the window. The cut-and-paste technology of word processors must bear some of the blame, but overwriting is part of the zeitgeist. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is highly enjoyable but who's finishing it? The novel is at least 100 pages too long.

He believes, as many others do, that The Great Gatsby is the greatest novel in English in the 20th century; it weighs in at under 60,000 words. He calls it “a miracle of compression” and goes on to point out that between them Waugh, Greene and Orwell all wrote books that average out between sixty- and seventy-thousand words apiece. Stephen King says he has to cut at least 10% on every novel he writes to sharpen it up.

"If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and engagingly said in one, then it's amateur work." — Robert Louis Stevenson

"Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress?" — Samuel Johnson

I have to disagree with him as far as Cervantes goes although maybe not. Once I’d finished the first volume I did dive into the second but why I gave up on it was because the second was just the same as the first; I wanted the same but different. Alien 3That’s why James Cameron’s sequel to Alien is such a damn good film and why its sequel, Alien3, is a better film than people often give it credit for.

Part of the problem is that people set down arbitrary rules for how long a book, especially books of certain genres like science fiction, ought to be. Most publishers—for first time authors—want something between 80,000 to 120,000 words. I just don’t get that. A book is finished when you’ve said what you had to say. Why all the padding? Problem is the padding will likely be evenly spread throughout the book and so you can’t just skip the last fifty pages and be done with it. More’s the pity.

Okay, what am I going to say now? I’ve reached that point in the article where I think I’ve made my point and I’m not sure what else I have to say but I haven’t managed to tidy things up. I don’t have a nice pithy (or even pissy) punch line to leave you with and so I keep typing hoping that something might come, something clever to leave you with. I even let the whole article sit for a day before I started writing the sentence I’m typing just now. I read through from the beginning (as it my habit) hoping all the time that something would jump out at me that would enable me to maybe write another five-hundred words and, perhaps, think of a decent ending but it doesn’t look as if that’s happening and yet I just keep on typing and typing and typing…

Nope. Can’t think of anything. So I’m just going to stop. Wait! No! I’ve just thought of a great quote to leave you with:

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

Dr. Seuss

So that’s you left. And I’ve got the title for my blog.


martine said...

Couldn't agree more, War and Peace was a huge drag, only finished it because I had invested so much time in it already. I detest obvious padding. my main complaint about the last 4 Harry Potter books was that they were several hundred pages to long (when you're reading them aloud to a very demanding audience the word count can get you down). I know if I start to skim read something it means the writer is just marking time to make up the pages.
And Dr Seuss definitely has a quote for every occasion:-)
thanks for sharing

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, Martine, and probably never will having seen all the films which I did not hate although the last two dragged a bit but then, as with you with War and Peace, I’d seen all the rest and I damn well wanted to know how it was all going to pan out. I’m swithering whether to bother with the three films of The Hobbit. I enjoyed the book well enough as a kid and immediately sat down and began to write a sequel—you can imagine my disappointment when I learn one existed—but three films! Seriously? If a scriptwriter can come along and compress the four seasons of The Fugitive into 130 minutes and still make it entertaining then how come it’s going to take some 9 hours to bring Bilbo’s wee adventure to the big screen? I’m being facetious here but you see what I’m driving at. If there’s one thing TV and films do so well it’s compress. You can take in four pages of Dickens in ten seconds—now there was a guy who milked his descriptions but then again he was being paid by the word.

Intangible Hearts said...

I liked your post even though it was a bit long but since I've never read your work it's good to get to know another author by delving into their mind. Love the Seuss quote but you might like this one even better:

Everything stinks till it's finished.
Dr. Seuss

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by, Eve. Actually this was, for me, a short post. The last couple I’ve just written are both 5000 words each. I know the general consensus is that people won’t read stuff online if it’s too long or if the paragraphs are too long or the sentences are too long or the words are too long (okay, I added that last bit) but if people are interested they will and you can usually tell within a couple of paragraphs whether it’s going to be. People will rise to the challenge.

I agree totally with Dr Seuss. I’ve got 6000 words of my new… let’s just call it a ‘thing’ for the moment… done and apart from the first page—which is actually salvageable—I pretty much hate everything else and want to start from scratch. At times like this is probably good to sit and watch someone paint because when they start off it never looks like the finished product and it continues to look a mess for quite a long time usually. I’m lucky in that I have finished five books so I know not to pay too much attention to these feelings; they’re all part of the deal, for me at least.

Gwil W said...

Jim, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book Milligan and Murphy. It's one of those books I'll be reading and discovering again and again. Well done! Gwilym

Jim Murdoch said...

It pleases me no end to hear this, Gwilliam. I’ve read the book from cover to cover many times now and I’ve yet to get tired of these two. It’s generally an insult when people say of someone that they like to hear the sound of their own voice but I would be most puzzled by any writer who didn’t. I remember a couple of years ago picking up the manuscript to The More Things Change (my third novel—Milligan and Murphy is actually my fourth) and reading a paragraph at random and being so delighted by the words on the page. How on earth had I managed to write something that good? I’m really not one for blowing my own trumpet and am riddled with self-doubt far more than I with overconfidence (can one be riddled with overconfidence?) and so I need moments like that every now and then to bolster me. And, of course, comments like this don’t hurt either.

Dave King said...

I guess you've come across the eternal problem that most artists have to face up to at some time or other: how do you know when a work is finished. With a painting - and especially with a water-colour - it's when the next touch of paint will spoil it.

With a piece of writing you can now save what you have and then add a bit more knowing that you can go back to the saved version if the extra bit proves a disaster.

With music I suppose it might be different: there could come a point at which there is a natural resolution of the tensions.

Wit sculpture now, one sculpt too many and...... DISASTER!

I do know the experience of typing on hoping that something will materialise - it usually ends with me pruning back beyond what I had.

Jim Murdoch said...

I find I never have that much to say in the first place, Dave, and it doesn’t take much saying. I’ve written one poem in my life that you couldn’t fit on an A4 page. With the prose it’s a little different but I think in musical terms there—I suppose I do with the poems too—and finish when a natural cadence comes. I can see a lot of newbie poets don’t know when to shut up but even right back at the start I was never attracted to the epic. I’ve just finished reviewing a book of poetry that contains a forty-page poem and it works but I could never produce something like that.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm happy with both, the overwrought and the spare. If you pull it off, great.

As a kid reader descriptions merely meant plot delay and made me impatient. These days I can luxuriate in language the purpose of which is to exist and be large.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s a fair point, Glenn, and I’m not entirely opposed to descriptive writing IF it’s done well. I’ve just started reading a new book of short stories, one I’m not that keen on and’ve been putting off if I’m honest and the first story was 90% description and exposition and I’m probably being generous saying there was 10% of actual story there. It’s like those biographies that start off with the grandparents. Fine, maybe give them a couple of sentences if you feel you have to but come on! What I hate most are blocks of data. You can build up a description over an entire book if you have to. Another book I’ve just finished features a Japanese Garden and that was honestly as much description as I needed; my mind was quite happy to do the rest. The more I write the less I describe. The idea of a novel in dialogue really appeals and if I could get a good idea I’d be at it like… sorry I can’t think of anything I’d be at it like; just fill in the description yourself.

Ken Armstrong said...

I find it hard to write anything long. The first book I've written is just 70,000 and it feels like Moby Dick to me (the novel, not the porno).

I really have no time for telling about the room the action is happening in. I think it's better to give just enough wool for people to knit their own socks. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

As I said in the article, Ken, I’ve only one novel over 60,000 words and I seriously cannot imagine writing anything that long again. I’m actually dreading editing it but I don’t imagine I’ll be ready to start that before the end of the year. It actually took me completely aback when I produced that first book because up until then I’d hardly written a poem any longer than twelve lines. In every case I’ve only ever set out to say what had to be said. I think novelists can learn a lot from film and theatre especially. The audience really needs very little. Descriptions can be fun though like the opening to Nabokov’s Pnin:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey 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 lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

Now, if you can pull this kind of thing off, then fine. Few can and I include myself amongst the throng who can’t. Actually I’m not so bad with people but places are another thing entirely.

Marion McCready said...

I can't even attempt to write a short story without it turning into a poem :) Probably like most people, I don't mind reading a long book as long as the length is justified. When you mentioned a biography it reminded me of a biography I read of Primo Levi. Levi is one of my favourite writers and I was so looking forward to delving into the biography and happy for it to be extremely detailed. But when the biographer somehow thought it necessary to include full histories and life and times of Levi's cousins etc it really ruined the book for me.

Jim Murdoch said...

What got me, Marion, was, after twenty years of writing nothing bar poetry (if you discount the children’s book I wrote when my daughter was born) I sat down and wrote not one, but two novels back to back and in a matter of weeks. So never say never. Poetry has its limitations. Like me you tend to write what I like to think of as chamber pieces and they’re fine but every now and then something symphonic comes along and you need that bigger canvas. The short stories came some ten years later again. Half way through my third novel I got stuck and stayed stuck for a long time and it was during that enforced break I got the idea for a collection of stories which is what I sat down and wrote—again, in a matter of a few weeks—and then, with a clear head and a fresh voice (which is what the book needed)—I went back to my novel. You should try a little flash as a challenge. I’ve little doubt that what you’d produce would be poetic prose but that’s fine. All these labels are off-putting anyway. That said I’m still not comfortable calling myself a novelist. I can live with ‘writer’ but I’m a poet at heart and always will be.

McGuire said...

I too love succinctness. Huge novels are unnecessary. The Nietzsche quote is great, I know him well, I have most of his books and have read them diligently. He is a master of short, succinct, and mind bending sentences turning concepts on their heads.

Novellas, short stories, poems are the best forms to read for me. Gives you less room to say more. I think. Books like 'The Brothers Karamazov' or 'War & Peace' bore from from the shelf. These long, meandering masterpieces often turn out to be long winded, stuffy prose, that sends you off to sleep.

I never managed to finish Don Quixote (I loved it but it is very long-winded, rambling, full of old English style rhetoric, yet it was also amazing. I do plan on starting again) I have tried to read 'Crime & Punishment' not particularly long but - maybe it was the translation - half way through I found it dry and tedious.

I am all for brevity. I am working on a book of short stories/novella as we speak.

Speak soon.

Jim Murdoch said...

I dunno, Colin, I’m reading a book just now which is only 133 pages long and it’s just dragging. The author keeps returning to things she’s already talked about only this time she goes into a little more detail which is fine IF the things she were describing were particularly interesting. This was short-listed for a major award and I cannot for the life of me see what’s so great about it. It’s not badly-written but she’s just taking so long to get to the point and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be disappointed when that point arrives. No, I’ve no patience for waffle. I really haven’t. As the saying goes—which my wife had never heard until a couple of weeks ago—you’re a long time dead. Pleased to see you’re writing. Not sure I’ve ever read any prose by you. Look forward to that.

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