Ripley’s Scoop

I’ve found over the years that approaching a book having already seen the film adaptation causes some problems. One of the obvious and most enjoyable aspects of reading is conjuring up the characters in your mind’s eye, and having them as yours only. My image of Holden Caulfield, for example, is probably vastly different to yours, and for that matter, Salinger’s. This is all to the good, for the author really only supplies the hook, it is the reader’s imagination that provides the rest.

So when reading The Talented Mr Ripley, our first choice this month, I already had Matt Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley firmly in my mind, and this lessened the enjoyment somewhat. I saw the film many years ago, and remembered little of the plot, but when reading the book, certain scenes gave me a flashback to the movie and blurred the lines of what I was reading a little bit. The other problem with reading after watching the film is the inevitable conflict over omissions, stuff that was taken out of the film or amended. I struggle not to think of these things when in this situation and it does cause frustration,.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book – I found it an enjoyable read and scarily plausible. Patricia Highsmith’s great strength is her ability to ratchet up the tension throughout. The pacing is exemplary, and the prose is seeped with paranoia as Tom has to keep looking over his shoulder to stay one step ahead of the police after his murder of Dickie Greenleaf.

One negative point – I inadvertently caught a glimpse of the last pages, which contained reviews of other Highsmith novels featuring Tom Ripley. I suspected that the novel would conclude with Tom escaping justice, but it would have been nice to find out for myself rather than have it given away. I suppose it taught me a lesson, not to go sneaking into the book and take it one page at a time.

A complete change of pace saw us look at Evelyn Waugh’s satire Scoop, written in the 1930s and poking fun at the journalism industry, I’ve always felt that satire must be one of the hardest genres to write well. It strikes me that comedy is easier to relay vocally than in the written word, which is why I admire those writers who can do it successfully.

And Waugh is certainly one of those; the novel tells of a man who essentially becomes a war correspondent by accident. A recipe for farce, sure, but Waugh keeps it hilarious without descending into the realms of ridiculousness. The novel feels relevant even 80 years after publication, particularly the idea that journalists can create news when there isn’t any through their sheer presence and influence. In a world now heavily commanded by social media, where seemingly innocuous tweets can suddenly become the news after being picked up and reported by journalists, this still resonates. The novel’s great strength is its timelessness, its sharp realism, which pins the dark art of journalism like no other before or since.

Novella and Trying to Stay Positive

I recall writing a few months ago that I was working on a short story. Well, in the last couple of days I’ve finally finished it. Problem is, it didn’t end up as a short story, it’s now a lengthy novella of over 30,000 words. I hate the word novella, it seems like a clunky publishers term to describe something of a vague number of words. I’ve no idea how many. Novelette is even worse. Is 15,000 words a short story or a novelette? Is 25,000 in novella country or not? Who cares? For this post I have used novella just for clarity, but I despise the term. Anyway, I digress…

First up, the good bits: the story didn’t turn out as I was expecting, which is always nice. The idea behind it was sparked from a song by one of my favourite bands The Hold Steady, and a couple of scenes came into my mind more or less whole. The rest came with the characters. It has a noirish, offbeat style that I like. I have been reading a lot of hard-boiled stuff recently and I think some of that has flowed into my work. Which is never a bad thing. The relationship between the two central characters is, I think, interesting and goes off in an unexpected tangent.

So far, so good then, right? So why do I feel so bad about it? For a multitude of reasons which I’m sure most writers are familiar with. First, I’m sure there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. I don’t tend to do any plotting before starting a piece of writing, I just let the characters take the story where they want. I guess following this method makes it impossible to avoid plot tangles but I feel disappointed whenever i do it. I know the obvious answer is to plot more, but I want to resist the temptation of I can. In my opinion plot is anti-creative and a barrier to story, not a help to it.

Next up is the age-old problem for me, length. I always aim to get rid of 10% or so in the rewrite, but even then I’ll be left with approximately 25,000 words. I guess every story ends up at the length it needs to be but this feels like too much for mine. I have a very bad habit of over-describing, particularly in dialogue. I tend to drift too much too, especially early on when I am still struggling to find the narrative voice. I know a lot of this will be pared down in the rewrite though, and I’m going to have to be extra ruthless when I go back to it. I have been guilty in the past of keeping stuff in because I think its well-written, despite it probably being extraneous to the story. I cannot be self-indulgent this time around.

Third is continuity errors. I know everyone has them but I get really downhearted when I find one, more so when it’s something completely stupid. Again, these are normally ironed out but I always worry that a whopper will slip through the net.

So all in all I’m a bit dispirited on completion, which is new for me. Usually I feel at the very least relief. I should be more pleased as this is the most fiction I have written in years. I am my own harshest critic.

Once the rewrites down I’m tempted to put it up on this blog and get some feedback. If anyone out there would be up for that, feel free to comment and I will give it some thought. Fuck it, I may do it anyway…