Tag Archives: Fiction

Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment

I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.

Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.

My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:

 


Q1: HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ?

HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…

FROSTY: Never.

COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.

SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.

WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.

 

Q2: DID YOU ENJOY READING AT SCHOOL?

HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.

FROSTY: No.

COWBOY: No.

SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.

WISEGUY: Not at all.

 

Q3: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis

FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock

 

Q4: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU READ A SHORT STORY?

HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.

FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.

COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.

SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?

WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.

 

Q5: DID YOU ENJOY TEN INDIANS?

HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.

FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.

COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.

SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.

WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.

 

Q6: DID IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ MORE HEMINGWAY?

HUNTER: No.

FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.

COWBOY: Not particularly.

SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.

WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.

 

Q7: IN A GENERAL SENSE, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE?

HUNTER: Nah.

FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.

COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.

SPACEMAN: Yes.

WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.

 

Q8: WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HEMINGWAY’S WRITING STYLE?

HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.

FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.

COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.

SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.

WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.

 

Q9: DID YOU READ IT ALL IN ONE GO?

HUNTER: Yeah.

FROSTY: Yeah.

COWBOY: Yeah.

SPACEMAN: Yeah.

WISEGUY: Yeah.

 

Q10: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU?

HUNTER: 17 minutes.

FROSTY: 10 minutes.

COWBOY: 10 minutes.

SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

WISEGUY: 25 minutes.

 

Q11: WHERE DID YOU READ IT?

HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.

FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.

COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.

SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.

WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.

 

Q12: WERE YOU IMMERSED IN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, OR DID YOUR MIND WANDER?

HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.

FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.

COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.

SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.

WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.

 

Q13: IN A WORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STORY WAS ABOUT?

HUNTER: Heartbreak.

FROSTY: Racism.

COWBOY: A Journey.

SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.

WISEGUY: Heartbreak.

 

Q14: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR BIGGEST REASON FOR NOT READING IN YOUR LIFE?

HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.

FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.

COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.

SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.

WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.

 

Q15: DO YOU TEND TO READ NON-FICTION FASTER?

HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.

FROSTY: O yes.

COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.

SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.

WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.

 


As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.

So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!

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Notes on Writing a Novel #2

I’ve never been 100% confident in my ability to write dialogue. It’s something I’ve been paying close attention to in my novel. I have to get it right, because dialogue is the roofbeam that keeps this madhouse from collapsing in on itself. The dialogue is what brings the characters of your story to life, and any time there is a disconnect between the reader and your characters, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s an aspect of writing fiction that is easy to learn but so hard to master. It looks simple, but subtlety is required in order to achieve excellence. The writer of great dialogue is perceptive, not just of the conversational habits of real people, but of the craft of storytelling. They have to bridge the gap between the real world and the one on the page, all the while being able to keep each one at an arm’s length away from the manuscript.

What I mean by that is that, to me, the secret to writing effectual dialogue is maintaining balance. You don’t want it to be so realistic that it becomes hard to follow, but you also don’t want it to become so contrived that it feels like you’ve lifted the lines from a bad soap opera. Good dialogue is believable, but also sharp and friendly to readers of the medium of fiction. There’s a reason that news articles and the like will often re-word what an interviewee says, making the subject’s sentences neater and more accessible. They remove repeated words and fill in missing ones to achieve that all-important quality of dialogue: flow. The way we talk in everyday life is often jumbled and rough, and in the medium of drama we are looking to grip people’s attention with speech that is crisp and polished. My favorite example of this kind of excellence is the Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers. Here’s a short extract:

 

“What’s he going to do?”

“Nothing.”

“They’ll kill him.”

“I guess they will.”

“He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.”

“I guess so,” said Nick.

“It’s a hell of a thing.”

“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.

 

As you can see, the dialogue is snappy- each sentence has a way of flowing into the next. There is a rhythm that exists throughout the scene. And, Hemingway has achieved the kind of balance I mentioned earlier. He has captured the essence of how real people speak, rather than replicating it verbatim.

When I took classes in screenwriting at university, my professor reiterated that dialogue should be used only when absolutely necessary. If you can show what’s happening without speech, then do that. Our professors would go through our screenplays and pick out certain lines of dialogue.

“Is this really necessary?” they would say. We were shown the beginning of There Will Be Blood as an example of the power of omitting speech. It would have only diminished the effect of the scene if they had Daniel Day-Lewis exclaim “I fell down a pit mine and done me leg in!”

The same lessons hold true for writing fiction. A sense of balance is yet again required. You don’t want too much of your narrative exposition to come in the form of spoken dialogue, because then the characters will seem less believable. They will seem like mouthpieces for the events of the story, which will then indicate to the reader that you don’t think much of their intelligence. Nothing breaks immersion more than when information is forced into a character’s dialogue. For example, if a character is being cornered by a creepy janitor carrying an Arkansas Toothpick, said victim isn’t going to waste their breath going “Ah, so it was you all along. You must have seen Little Curtis walking home from school and snatched him while no one was looking!” when really they would be using their lungs to call for help.

But of course, you don’t want to have too little dialogue that your story becomes vague and boring. What dialogue you include should not be inconsequential. It should be striking and colorful. So once again, a sense of balance is needed- don’t be too vague, and don’t include too much. And if you get it just right, you’ll hopefully have written a scene that readers find compelling.

The Abuse of Realism

Any writer- whether you’re penning a swashbuckling, steampunk romp through the clouds with Victorian gentlemen poking poison-tipped canes at zeppelin-hungry dragons, or simply a meditative portrait of an unraveling sexless lesbian marriage in Bucharest- needs to have a good handle on that eternally disrespected noun “realism”. Before I continue writing my current novel today, I wanted first to do a short piece on how you can still have a story that’s “realistic”, even as it throws the laws of physics out the window and into a river of magma teeming with hammerhead sharks that breathe radioactive lasers.

Let me ask you, have you ever been watching a show set in a fantastical world like Game of Thrones and thought to yourself “That’s just not realistic”, or better yet “How did she know where to find Jon Snow?”. Of course you have. I was watching one of my favorite shows recently- The Walking Dead– and as the season concluded I found that I and almost everyone I know uttered an audible groan. Has this show started consciously making fun of itself? I wondered. One moment that stood out was the episode where our heroes kept reiterating how they only needed to kill the main antagonist, that nothing else mattered. In the next scene said antagonist brazenly opens a door onto a balcony with about twenty assault rifles aimed squarely on his big brass gonads, only for the heroes to sit there and listen to him mock them. But take that or any of the increasingly ridiculous moments from this once gritty drama and lament its approach to realism and you’ll often be met with the response “You’re going to complain about realism in a show with brain-chomping zambers?”

I personally find the word “believability” to be more helpful than “realism” when swatting aside such retorts. Audiences and readers will accept zombies, dragons, and what have you, because their existence makes sense within the context of the world. Applying realism to your story is not some kind of creative shackle; you can add as many fantastical elements as you like. You, as the creator, can have fun with creating your own set of physical laws in the process of world-building. You just have to be consistent, and not break your own laws. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi can’t teleport themselves, but in Harry Potter, wizards “apparate”. If Luke Skywalker suddenly started hopping from planet to planet like a great big interdimensional space bunny, then the audience would start to feel disconnected from the story. At that moment, you’ve yanked them out of their immersion.

The most important thing about creating “believability” in a story is to carefully craft the relationships between people and institutions. That’s where real life and fiction from other genres can help you with your story. To write fiction that resonates, your characters and the dynamics between them have to resemble believable human behavior. I’ve seen countless authors describe the same thing- that same, all-important element of a story- when giving advice to young writers. I was watching an interview where author Shelby Foote reflects on the novels of William Faulkner. How much truth is in them? Do they reflect life in the Deep South during the early 20th century? Foote answered that the stories don’t strive to be truthful in the journalistic sense; they just have convey something that is “basically real”. I think what Foote means by that is that a good story will communicate something about the human experience that resonates with people. As readers, we can imagine the angry Jason Compson; the way he and his brothers are so profoundly affected by their sister’s free-spirited sexuality. We find their inner conflicts compelling because we can imagine them each reacting the way they do to the events of the novel.

Another author I was listening to recently was Salman Rushdie, who echoed these sentiments. Using an example of a flying carpet, he said that a writer must approach writing about such a thing in a realistic way in order to make it compelling. To make a scene about riding on a flying carpet interesting and to make it resonate, you have to think about little things such as how the rider keeps his or her balance, or the way the surface of the carpet might become uneven as it ripples in the wind. Rushdie goes on to say that the truth of fiction is not literal truth, since the premise of fiction is that it is unreal. Truth in fiction refers to the way it acts as a mirror to the human condition, and tells us something about the way we interact with each other.

At the moment I’m writing a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist starts working in a kitchen. I’ve recently started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea (in the UK) and I’m trying to absorb everything I can. I go out of my way to know the source of every smell, the name of every item, and I pay special attention to the way my new coworkers talk with each other. I make a note of every phone call, every order, every supplier that shakes hands with the head chef. Even if I weren’t writing a book that features a kitchen in it, I think a kitchen is such a visceral and interesting environment to be in as a writer. It’s like a prison or a circus or a whorehouse; so alive with energy, where everything titillates the senses, where every day is different. As I came towards the end of my shift the other day, a friend asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my day.

“Probably more writing,” I said bashfully.

At that moment the head chef came past and quipped “Whatchya gonna write about tonight? Confessions of a Dishwasher?”

I laughed, and thought to myself: not too far off, actually. But the kitchen I write in my book doesn’t have to be a real kitchen, it just has to seem real. And I think the same is true for whatever environment you want to create; don’t worry about recreating your inspiration in exact detail- just include enough interesting observations to make it a place that could exist. Then, hopefully, you have achieved that much desired quality of believability.