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Review: Every Writer Should Read Dorothy Sayers’s *Gaudy Night*

First Edition of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy NightMaybe I should say, every female writer. The book I’m recommending is about women, yes. But was it written for women only? I’ll hold to the faith that my literary male friends might find some familiar sentiments in this story—timeless to my mind—of a woman struggling to balance romance and intellectual rigor with a successful writing career.

As a young woman scribbling away on various unworthy projects, I loved Dorothy Sayers’s whimsical accounts of the escapades of her patrician hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. At a time when the puzzle mysteries of Agatha Christie seemed to be the fashion, I much preferred the slower, character-driven, comedies of manners in Sayers’s accounts of aristocratic England between the wars.

Of course this world was completely exotic to me. A quintessential baby-boomer, I knew no English lords and thus tended to take her depiction as truth. I also knew little about Europe at that time, and skimmed over the occasional reference to world events, most of which were used more or less to demonstrate that Wimsey was not just a chatty dilettante but a behind-the-scenes actor on the veiled world stage. Social commentary in Sayers’s books gently speared the kinds of people who, forty years earlier, would have been the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.

Recently, though, looking for some relatively mindless pleasure while I recovered from surgery, I retrieved some old favorites for bedtime reading. I had always remembered Sayers’s earlier novel, The Nine Tailors, as haunting and original; I was surprised at how slowly it read on new acquaintance, how it relied on stereotypes (I’m now guessing) of inhabitants of the fen country. But I’d also remembered Gaudy Night as more lively—comic, actually—and decided to revisit it as well.

It is indeed lively, comic, sometimes even brutal in its depictions of British social types of the era. But it is more than social comedy. It is about an intelligent independent woman trying to decide whether such a woman can achieve love and marriage on her own terms, especially to a personality as overwhelming as Wimsey’s. It is about a woman exploring what it means to be an intellectual when combining “intellectual” and “woman” in the same breath was both oxymoronic and somehow unclean.

But above all—and hence this invitation to my colleagues—it is about writing. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, grapples not just with how to bring characters to life in the latest of her best-selling mystery novels, but also with writing as a vocation. As a way of touching the heavens, mentally and emotionally. In Gaudy Night, she writes both as a novelist and as a scholar, parsing the definitions of excellence in writing, of finding one’s voice in a fine, close piece of work that requires, and reflects, one’s best self. Watching these three themes—romance, intellectual rigor, and writing—converge is one of the pleasures of this book.

Harriet appears as foil to Wimsey in four of the Lord Peter novels; Gaudy Night is the third. The novel takes place in a fantasy world: Shrewsbury College, a woman’s college in Oxford at a time when there was no such thing! Female administrators, scholars, and students pursue deep, arcane questions just as their male counterparts did and do. But this devotion to academic excellence sets them up for attack from a world that is not ready for them.

Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for a “Gaudy,” which is sort of a homecoming/class reunion, and, seeking surcease from the emotional conflicts created by Lord Peter’s determination to marry her, finds herself drawn into the narrow-focused but fine-tuned academic life—and into a terrifying mystery as well. A “Poison Pen” berates, threatens, and ultimately injures the scholars as punishment for not recognizing a woman’s proper place in the world.

Yes, Harriet must partner with Lord Peter to solve the puzzle. But I suggest looking for a subtle comparison with the relationship we may, all of us, be so lucky as to experience with a superb editor whose fierce intelligence we combine with our own skills to produce something whole and deserving. And again, there’s that lovely convergence of themes: solving a difficult puzzle with high stakes, finding a way to love without surrendering oneself, and turning it all into a work of art.

These are themes that resonate for me. I don’t know a Lord Peter, so I don’t share that precise challenge. But here’s a Harriet I do know, returned to Shrewsbury to escape the publishing circus, and perhaps you know this person, too. This is from Chapter XI:

. . . In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tirnan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the looseleaf notebook that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears—seven marching feet—a pentameter and half:—

To that still center where the spinning world

Sleeps on its axis—

Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

To all our moments like this.

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A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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Filed under Myths and Truths, self editing, style, Writing

Terrific Piece on Working with Critique Groups!

So many books!

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the critique group process, from guest blogger Kathryn Craft posting at Writers in the Storm. It rings true for me on so many levels.

Are you in a critique group? Is Kathryn speaking to/for you?

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Filed under Editing, novels, Plot Development, self editing, Writers' groups, Writing, Writing and Learning

Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

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The Benefits of Joining a Writers Group

As a member of a long-running face-to-face group and now an active online group, I can attest to the truth of what Cynthia Hilston says below: that good groups exist. I spent far too many years writing in isolation; never again. Maybe I don’t like every response; maybe sometimes I’m disheartened. But I’d rather be disheartened now when I can figure out what to do about the problem than when I get that “we’re not the right agency for this project” form letter with NO feedback as to why.

I’ve posted about my group several times (for example, see “In Praise of My Writing Group“), and I did a series on the founding of our group, the Green River Writers, and its leader, Mary (Ernie) O’Dell, here in Louisville.

And I just posted the 2017 Contest brochure for this year’s Green River Writers contest! A terrific contest with low entries fees and lots of cash prizes! Check it out!

A Writer's Path

by Cynthia Hilston

There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM.  Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing?  The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children.  And my library had a writers group.

Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings?  Do they just sit there and write?  Do writing exercises?  Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?

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CONTEST! CONTEST! CONTEST!

Green River Writers Logo

Poetry and Prose Categories, Low Entry Fees, Cash Prizes! For information, email contest@greenriverwriters.org

GREEN RIVER WRITERS, here in my neck of the woods, has opened its annual contest.

Two grand prizes @ $175 for first place, 13 other categories all with cash prizes, $3 entries.

http://www.greenriverwriters.org

Green River Writers 2017 Contest Brochure

 

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Stupid Advice about Writing? Check This Out!

Figuring out if you're a writer: A drive into the dark!

Dodging the glare of negative advice!

Louie Cronin writes for Writer Unboxed: an inspirational tale for all of us who’ve wondered if we’re kidding ourselves about being writers. I especially love her list of things she recommends we deliberately ignore! Enjoy!

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