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Tricks and trade - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
Tricks and trade
Sorry, I mean tricks of the trade. The writing trade.
 
Now that the HDBB’s done and dusted, let’s talk about writing, shall we?
 
I cannot impart talent: haven’t any to give. (It’s not as if I’m possessed of it, after all.) Technique, however….
 
I shall as always take the greater part of my examples from my own writing, for several reasons. To begin with, criticism in the comments then comes only to my work. Also, I know the author can’t object to my use of these passages. And then, as – Montaigne, was it? Shocking state my memory is in these days – as Montaigne said, I shouldn’t write so much about myself were there anyone else I knew half so well. Certainly in using my own words I know that I can say truly how a particular passage was constructed.
 
One of the reasons why I did the Draco Big Bang and this year’s H/D Big Bang is quite simple. I know full well that I am a Marmite writer, and I certainly didn’t do these for the exposure: it’s not as if I anticipate a sudden access of fans and followers. My reward was, as I intended, in my getting scrumptious illustrations to my footling fics.
 
I have after all noted before, with no particular pride in the fact, that I am a writer whose work is sparked by a sensory motive, a visual image or a scent or a sense of place, or is motivated by a particular set of someone else’s words, commonly poetry. This is not uncommon: the Chronicles arose from Jack Lewis’s vision of a lantern in a waste, and the Legendarium finally moved from private linguistic parlour game to publication when Tollers idly scribbled, In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.
 
Illustrators or no illustrators, if one can write visually and capture sense-impressions – and anyone may do with a bit of work – one’s streets ahead already.
 
Look, for example, at Kenneth Grahame, properly annotated (with the kind permission of my co-editor and annotator):
 
Purple loosestrife arrived early, shaking luxuriant tangled locks along the edge of the mirror whence its own face laughed back at it. Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow. Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white, crept forth to take its place in the line; and at last one morning the diffident and delaying dog-rose stepped delicately on the stage, and one knew, as if string-music had announced it in stately chords that strayed into a gavotte, that June at last was here. One member of the company was still awaited; the shepherd-boy for the nymphs to woo, the knight for whom the ladies waited at the window, the prince that was to kiss the sleeping summer back to life and love. But when meadow-sweet, debonair and odorous in amber jerkin, moved graciously to his place in the group, then the play was ready to begin.3
 
_____________________________
3 If this were a painting, it should be a Gainsborough, not a Constable. Brilliant stuff, this.
 
***
 
Holes, hollows, pools, pitfalls, and other black menaces to the wayfarer were vanishing fast, and a gleaming carpet of faery was springing up everywhere, that looked too delicate to be trodden upon by rough feet. A fine powder filled the air and caressed the cheek with a tingle in its touch, and the black boles of the trees showed up in a light that seemed to come from below.10
***
They were aching with fatigue and bruised with tumbles; they had fallen into several holes and got wet through; the snow was getting so deep that they could hardly drag their little legs through it, and the trees were thicker and more like each other than ever. There seemed to be no end to this wood, and no beginning, and no difference in it, and, worst of all, no way out.11
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10 This phenomenon has rarely been better described than by the American writer Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
11 Shades of Bilbo in Mirkwood.
 
Well, you take the point. Hemingway is all very well if that’s your preference, but if you wish to enrich your prose, sensory description does stand you in good stead.
 
But note also that you are naturally not the first to remark upon any sight or sound or scent, and that to evoke any such sensory experience is also to invoke the shades of the writers who have come before you: in the above passages, Tollers and Annie Dillard, for example.
 
This sort of thing was once expected as a matter of course in statesmen, Front Bencher MPs, and that but seventy years ago. Let me append a passage from my The Confidence of the House: May 1940:
 
The Prime Minister was impaled upon the point raised, and knew it. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
 
‘I … I appreciate the point.’ The Prime Minister steeled himself to answer. ‘No, it was not before the Norwegian operations; it has only been made recently and did not arise out of the Norwegian operations, because the change would have been made in any case. For the purposes I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend has been provided with a small personal staff under a distinguished staff officer, Major-General Ismay, and General Ismay has been appointed an additional member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. I have no doubt other changes in the form of Government or the functions of individual members of it may from time to time suggest themselves as desirable. I think it is very likely that changes of that kind in war-time are almost bound to take place. As far as I am concerned, I shall endeavour to keep my mind open to any fresh considerations and to take any steps which may seem to be called for if they will help the country. Once again I want to urge hon. Members that in these strenuous days we should do better to occupy ourselves with increasing our war effort rather than disputing about the form of Government.’
 
Major Attlee, that Old Haileyburian who read no poetry later than Browning’s, and the First Lord, that Old Harrovian who had the corpus of English poetry off by heart, caught the echo of Pope. For forms of government let fools contest; Whate’er is best administered is best. Yet that was the question before the House, a House not precisely crediting the Prime Minister with possession of an open mind: this was the question, What were best administered, and by whom? For this was wartime. Shall burning Etna, if a sage requires, Forget to thunder, and recall her fires? On air or sea new motions be imprest, Oh, blameless Bethel! to relieve thy breast?
 
The Prime Minister, a Being darkly wise, and rudely great, with Europe’s laurels withered and stained with blood upon his brow, ill-exchanged for the trumpery, tinsel promise of a peace that had not lasted, drove onwards under his ill-omened and unfortunate star. ‘It is in the production of materials, the production of planes, the production of tanks and guns, and munitions, and all the countless articles of equipment which are required to fit out our weapons and make them useful; it is in the production of these things that we want organisation, energy and good will. As far as we in the Government are concerned, we are doing all we can to overtake the start which Germany has obtained during her long years of preparation.’
 
Now. Let’s tease that out, shall we? The PM – Neville Chamberlain – was replying to the Right Honourable Member for Hackney South, Herbert Morrison – Lord Mandelson’s grandfather – who was a Labour frontbencher and was blind in one eye. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. That, of course, is a Latin proverb much quoted by Erasmus.
 
For forms of government let fools contest; Whate’er is best administered is best. Here one catches and ironically subverts the PM’s incautious and possibly unconscious echo of Pope’s Essay on Man. And of course that same poem contains the scornful lines,
 
Shall burning Etna, if a sage requires,
Forget to thunder, and recall her fires?
On air or sea new motions be imprest,
Oh, blameless Bethel! to relieve thy breast?
 
and, still more, a characterisation that fitted the PM all too well:
 
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
 
And of course the MPs of that day caught that echo as well, many of them, and thought of the PM in just such terms. So also would they have known another passage in Pope’s poem, considering statesmen:
 
There, in the rich, the honoured, famed, and great,
See the false scale of happiness complete!
In hearts of kings, or arms of queens who lay,
How happy! those to ruin, these betray.
Mark by what wretched steps their glory grows,
From dirt and seaweed as proud Venice rose;
In each how guilt and greatness equal ran,
And all that raised the hero, sunk the man:
Now Europe’s laurels on their brows behold,
But stained with blood, or ill exchanged for gold;
Then see them broke with toils or sunk with ease,
Or infamous for plundered provinces.
 
A glancing half-reference, even, to the vast treasury of English literature, can deepen what you write. (If it can make Hansard sing, it can do anything.)
 
There’s another trick I wish to bring to your notice: an old Oxford trick, famously employed by Clever Undergraduates who seek to eke out the merit of their work by sheer style.
 
Take this passage from Potter’s Lock:
 
London town, London town, damnable influence, spreading by river, road, rail and canal. Once these were fields before they were Metroland: high narrow houses all semi-detached, with high narrow minds in them, twitching the curtains, suburban houses where once there were farms. No more, farms and cottages; farewell, cob and thatch.
 
And this from Chì mi na sgoran fo cheò: Only winds and rivers, life and death:
 
Well and good, that bold assertion; yet the Finfolk had their plans laid, Huldrefolk on land their kinsmen. Rumour passed from trow to hogboon: that was of the Finfolk’s doing, knowing Wizards were in Orkney, though they took not those men’s measure. Only had they felt a presence, sensed three Wizards here amongst them, one a shifter of his seeming, two the elder, of great power. Little did they know who walked there, one the Master of the Hallows; only did they seek a vengeance, foment mischief, never knowing that the Master had they marked here. Foes beyond the Finfolk’s power, as the dwellers on the dry lands whispered howe to howe at midnight, marking down as foes three Wizards, each of whom could strike them reeling. Fatal was the Finfolk’s malice – fatal only to the Finfolk, and the beings they had called on.
 
The first, obviously, with its reference to Metroland, evokes Betjeman and the lost Elysium of rural Middlesex. The second is saga, apt to Orkney and Orkney waters.
 
But now look at them:
 
London town, London town, damnable influence,
Spreading by river, road, rail and canal.
Once these were fields before they were Metroland:
High narrow houses all semi-detached,
With high narrow minds in them, twitching the curtains,
Suburban houses where once there were farms.
No more, farms and cottages; farewell, cob and thatch.
 
Well and good, that bold assertion; yet the Finfolk had their plans laid,
Huldrefolk on land their kinsmen. Rumour passed from trow to hogboon:
That was of the Finfolk’s doing, knowing Wizards were in Orkney,
Though they took not those men’s measure. Only had they felt a presence,
Sensed three Wizards here amongst them, one a shifter of his seeming,
Two the elder, of great power. Little did they know who walked there,
One the Master of the Hallows; only did they seek a vengeance,
Foment mischief, never knowing that the Master had they marked here.
Foes beyond the Finfolk’s power, as the dwellers on the dry lands
Whispered howe to howe at midnight, marking down as foes three Wizards,
Each of whom could strike them reeling. Fatal was the Finfolk’s malice –
Fatal only to the Finfolk, and the beings they had called on.
 
That’s right: disguised verse (hardly poetry), the first cod-Betjeman indeed and the second in the metre commonly used for English translation of saga and of Eddaic poetry (and, confusingly, to Americans, of Longfellow’s Hiawatha).
 
In the same way, I employed in Chì mi na sgoran fo cheò: Only winds and rivers, life and death Scots Gaelic (there is even a Gaelic-English pun) and Norse tropes as corroborative detail to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
 
To have said, baldly, that the Blacks and their kinship had Scots-Norse roots had been unconvincing. To let the seannachie bard and the scop or skald do so in the terms they might have used, was less so:
 
‘O great, great and lengthy is the tale of their ancestors, lofty and high of birth, men of war and cunning, and fit to be named aright in the sloinneadh, the Naming of Forebears, by the seannachie before all the chiefs and in the hearing of the clans. Bride the foster-mother of Christ, bless the work; Mary Mother, bless the work; Christ, bless the work...’
 
Hvat! Hush hall: now skald is singing, blazoning boast of blood and breeding; noble the names of lofty lineage; listen whilst the wise unwind it, high the history they are heir to!’
 
And in the latter, of course, I borrowed the stresses and the alliteration that the Beowulf poet has taught us long since:
 
Hvat! Hush hall:
now skald is singing,
blazoning boast
of blood and breeding;
noble the names
of lofty lineage; listen
whilst the wise unwind it,
high the history they are heir to!’
 
Now, that sort of thing is, or ought to be, a doddle. If, as Pope put it in that same Essay on Man, the proper study of mankind is man, so also is the proper food of writers, words, the books of one’s predecessors in the art. Look if you like at the epithets and kennings borrowed for the Orkney passages from the Norse and Anglo-Saxon sagas: the Raven Banner, the ‘skull of Ymir’ for the sky, ‘the greyhound of the whale-road’ for the ship, the ‘daughters of ægir’ for the waves; Harry as ‘troll-basher, raven’s feeder’; ‘hard rede and warlike, words of war from his word-hoard’; ‘the chiefs, arm-braceleted, gold-givers, masters of mead-halls’; the sun as ‘jewelled sky-candle’ and the seas as ‘swan’s way, whale-home’.
 
And then look out the Scots passages as Orkney is left behind and they come to Inverness: ‘And so they came singing to Alba, to the Kinrick of Scots, to Caithness, Gallaibh, and the birds of the sea flew with them, calling’; ‘and Scotland bides yet a land of canny sorcery, and they in it’; ‘a wee bittock ship it may be’; ‘the lock an’ the weir and the meetin’ o’ bricht watters, the River Ness and the Canal joining but a wee scrappie of land between, and the Floral Hall, nae flouers o’ the forest but aye of far-aff lands, under glass, beneath the Hielan skies’. And of course ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ is meant to evoke that saddest of laments, as well.
 
And finally, when all is well and they are come to the West and the Isles, ‘all their time together was as birdsong, the ceilear, and they cèilean, mates espoused, and they smiling joyously at each new discovery (an dèidh sin, phòg iad a chèile, kissing one another after each, ae fond kiss and then the neist and anither), and the days and nights one grand cèilidh of celebrated fellowship and the Piper piping them in their hours’; ‘[t]heir love was like the red rose in the white heather, and they the kings amang the heather, in a time out of time amidst the wild mountain thyme, and they walked upon muir and ben and in the great Forest of Caledon, the Land o’ Licht, hand in hand’; and
 
And it was not typical only, but deeply apt, that Harry and Draco should find here not the end of a voyage but its beginning, upon the margins of Ocean in storm, beyond which is the sunset and the Land Beyond, the Isles of the Blessed; and their end was balance hard-won, and challenge, and the seeking quest not ended and unending, the city built to music and never built at all and built for ever: here, in a liminal and numinous space where peaks and depths met and kissed. Apt to them at the end of voyaging were Loy Sluice and the great draining aqueduct of Shangan Burn by Torcastle, the Allt Sheangain ancient and firm in stone, balance and craft at last; and the very names of the land were proper to them: Banbhaidh, Banavie, the place of feasting upon the suckling pig; Muir Sìorralaich, Muirshearlich, the sea of broom; Fort William itself, the Garrison, An Gearasdan; Acadh a’ Phùbaill which is Achaphubuail to the Sassenach, the pavilioned field, the camp; and Lochaber itself, Loch Abar, the loch of the confluences, the coming together of the waters.
 
Forgive me if I delve a bit deeper here. ‘Ae fond kiss’ is of course Rabbie Burns, but subverted, as these lovers are not parting; their love is like a red, red rose; the white heather is a vast complex of allusions in itself. The wild mountain thyme (‘Will Ye Go, Lassie Go’) and the Land of Light are songs auld an’ new; Ocean as thus written is – look out the context – an allusion to the Classical idea of the River Ocean surrounding the world; the Isles of the Blessed merge into Avalon, referenced in the Tennysonian ‘city built to music and never built at all and built for ever’; and the literal meanings of the Gaelic place names have I think their uses here. And of course the end and the beginning, the beginning in the end, is deeply layered, but surely recognisable at the least as the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots: ‘in my end is my beginning’ (with all the theological implications in it to boot).
 
These are not difficult tricks to learn and deploy according to your own terms and preferences; they’re perhaps only a sophisticated counterpart to song-fic, really. May I commend them to you?

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wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 5th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

We Eljaenglinga in geardagum....

How very kind. I do hope the journey goes well.

And I have been known to edit, yes....
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: September 5th, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Potter's Lock/Chi Mi Na Sgoran Fo Cheo

Now I get it. Yeah, kind of a bummer of an ending, although I'm a complete sucker for all that elegaic Anglitude...
wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 6th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, well.

They won through in the end, at least. Once Draco learnt to fight for himself.
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