Learning from great (and not so great) literature

I am stating the obvious here, but you can learn a lot about writing skills by careful reading of books. Here are some lessons from recent books that I’ve read.

(Warning:  spoiler alerts…)

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman:  which is a brilliant book. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel, it is so assured, intelligent, funny and perfect.

  1. How to make a character attractive. Eleanor, the protagonist, is a socially-inept, isolated and tactless, even rude, woman, and the story is told in her voice.  But, despite her flaws, I liked her – I was happy to spend time with her, I wanted her to find happiness. How did Gail achieve this?  Part of this was a hilarious scene with a bikini wax (don’t ask, just read the book.) But I think most of it was the hints of self-deprecation, intelligent observation and humour in Eleanor’s voice. She has a sense of irony and a sense of proportion. Within the first three pages there are some flashes of insight and subtlety e.g. ‘I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable’, ‘I could be issuing invoices for anything really:  armaments, Rohypnol, coconuts’, and, of course, her needle-sharp response to cold-callers.
  2. Extended flashbacks are not necessary and it can be better without them. Part of the story is the gradual revealing of Eleanor’s history. I was expecting the great big extended flashback: all the gruesome, chilling, cruelty of her childhood told in immediate, sensory detail, since that seems to be the usual convention. Instead there were hints here, a sentence there, a brief memory at an appropriate point. The reveal came, partially (never fully, but enough), as her new friend started to investigate her past, and also as Eleanor started to talk to a counsellor. To me, that was much better. It included the past as part of the present, and showed her moving forwards, changing, being brave and taking control.

‘Illusion’ by Frank Peretti:  which was a great disappointment to me, as I have loved the other Frank Peretti books that I’ve read. I didn’t even finish this one. Turgid, slow, confusing.

  1. How to make a character unattractive. The main characters are a widower and a young girl, whose lives become intertwined. I think readers are supposed to feel sympathy for the widower who is grief-stricken over the tragic recent loss of his wife, and also for the girl, Mandy, who is trapped in a strange predicament. But, somehow, I didn’t care about the widower. Probably because he was rich, famous, he’d had forty years of blissful marriage with a woman who sounded too good to be true, and after her death he went off to live in a huge, beautiful, mansion in the countryside. So, why should I care about him? And at the same time, I didn’t relate to Mandy or care about her. She didn’t seem to have anything interesting about her, apart from being able to do amazing magic and being stranded in the wrong place and time. I got the feeling that the author was trying too hard to make me care about them both.
  2. Don’t change the point of view mid-scene. So many experts say that one shouldn’t do this, and this book shows that they are right. There are several scenes involving the main characters which give both viewpoints. This bouncing from head to head is disorientating, as if the two narrators keep interrupting each other. The reader thinks, ‘Well, who’s telling this story now? I thought it was Dane and now it’s Mandy speaking. I’m confused…’


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