Many years ago, when I embarked on writing fiction, I studied a good number of novels in an attempt to see how they worked – paragraph structure, dialogue, scene changes, pace, characterisation, etc. It’s a useful exercise for beginners.
I’m going to post the occasional analysis in this blog, though it’s a little invidious, analysing a writer with only one sample of his (or her) work, but here goes.
The Writer: D.H. Lawrence
The Work: Love Among the Haystacks, 1930 (reviewed in my blog here)
If you’re intent on writing short stories, it makes sense to read short stories – preferably in the market you’re aiming at. Sadly, in the magazine world, there are no outlets these days for men’s adventure and action short stories; women’s magazines still proliferate, the most popular being Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend in the UK. To counter-balance this state of affairs, there are a good number of online webzine outlets worth investigating.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to review short stories by accredited masters of the form. One of these is D.H. Lawrence, who wrote many, which can be read in collections such as The Prussian Officer, England, My England, The Woman Who Rode Away, The Princess and Other Stories, The Mortal Coil and Other Stories and Love Among the Haystacks.
The stories in this collection (Love Among the Haystacks) are a mixed bag and I feel they are not the best of his work. Of course his bucolic descriptions put the reader into the scene: ‘The two large fields lay on a hillside facing south. Being newly cleared of hay, they were golden green, and they shone almost blindingly in the sunlight…’ This is the beginning of the story. Modern critics and writers tend to avoid setting the scene like this at the start of a short story, and advocate diving straight in, perhaps with dialogue between the protagonists. The scene can be glimpsed through the eyes of one character, too, unlike here where it’s conveyed with an omniscient point of view.
The omniscient POV is sometimes necessary for a short story, due to the limited length. Here, it’s ‘tell’ all the way, with little emotional involvement. ‘Geoffrey turned white to the lips, and remained standing, listening. He heard the fall. Then a flush of darkness came over him…’ (p14) He has just knocked his brother Maurice off the top of the haystack, but there’s no mention of gut-wrenching shock, the stopping of his heart, no physiological change in response to this potentially fatal action.
I was surprised to discover lazy writing, too.
‘Nay, lass,’ smiled Maurice.
‘Aye, in a bit,’ smiled Maurice.
‘There’s nowt ails me, father,’ he laughed. (pp18/19)
This kind of writing occurs frequently in popular fiction, but I’m surprised that it is present in literary fiction. As I’ve written in my book Write a Western in 30 Days: Ever tried smiling while speaking? There should be a full stop at the end of the speech and ‘He smiled’ capitalized. (p125)
You will have noticed his use of dialect, too. This can limit a readership and slow down the story. Is it correct, anyway? It’s so easy to get it wrong. There are little ways to suggest dialect without going overboard. A few recent TV productions have suffered due to a director’s insistence on realistic vernacular. Why do they do it? If we’re writing about French people, or Russians, we don’t write in their language, we use English – perhaps with the odd word or phrase (artificially thrown in). Avoid dialect!
Word repetition. All writers suffer from this ailment and only dedicated self-editing can remove the repetitions. Usually, they’re word-echoes, lingering in the head while putting down the first draft. There’s nothing wrong with using the same word more than once in the text, but preferably not on the same page or even in the same paragraph. On p65, we have ‘look of unspeakable irritability’ and five paragraphs lower, ‘crumpled mask of unspeakable irritability’ followed in the next paragraph with ‘almost gibbering irritability’. That’s enough to make most readers irritable. In four consecutive paragraphs there are four repetitions of ‘repulsion/repulsive’ on p119.
Yet his writing is famous for good reason. Digging deep into human psyche, perhaps: ‘She leaned down to him and gripped him tightly round the neck, pressing him to her bosom in a little frenzy of pain. Her bitter disillusionment with life, her unalleviated shame and degradation during the last four years, had driven her into loneliness, and hardened her till a large part of her nature was caked and sterile.’ (p40) And from the other point of view, we have: ‘Geoffrey pressed her to his bosom: having her, he felt he could bruise the lips of the scornful, and pass on erect, unabateable. With her to complete him, to form the core of him, he was firm and whole. Needing her so much, he loved her fervently.’ (p41) Nothing graphic, but heartfelt, it seems.
No man is an island, yet each person has the potential to be isolated and alone even in a crowded room. In many of these stories, he tackles that aloneness, trying to come to terms with it.
From time to time writers need to read earlier writers’ work, to learn how they did it. And of course if you’re planning on writing a historical piece, then immerse yourself in the work of writers from that period, to gauge the style of dialogue and the vocabulary used.
My favourite D.H. Lawrence books are The Rainbow and Women in Love.