In this video, DD Johnston discusses why novels are structurally similar to fern leaves, analysing JM Coetzee’s Disgrace as an example.
In the beginning, cinema took its inspiration from older forms of narrative including literature. But even in the 19th-century, realist writers were comparing their work to photography, and during the 20th-century many prose authors, including Wyndham Lewis and Christopher Isherwood, took inspiration from film. Published in 1960, John Updike’s present-tense novel Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie”, and he was explicit that “The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.” From what I’ve seen, the cinematic mode of narration often dominates Creative Writing classrooms. But what is it? What are its limitations? And what are our alternatives?
We’ve been picking the brains of Toby Litt. Toby is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck College, London. He has published three collections of stories and eight novels and also writes the comic Dead Boy Detectives.
Photo: Kate Cooke
Have you always been interested in writing? Did you write stories from a young age?
For a long time, I was much more interested in TV and films than in writing. I realize now that I turned to books because of what you might call a sci-fi drought. Once I’d seen Star Wars, I wanted more – but there weren’t that many more decent SF films. (And there were a whole slew of godawful ones.) So I turned to Frank Herbert’s Dune, to E.E.Doc Smith, to whatever I could find with a spaceship on the cover. I was an addict – it was desperation.
I wrote the stories I was required to, by English teachers. But I started writing poetry in little orange notebooks I bought from the stationer’s over the road from my house. This went along with liking Salvador Dali’s paintings – and Magritte’s. I wanted to be a surrealist. But I was much more into painting than writing.
This one could be difficult for your modesty, but when did you realise that you were good at writing? Has it always felt natural, or have you had to train yourself and your craft to feel confident in the process?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. I am writing a non-fiction book called Wrestliana about my great-great-great grandfather, who was a champion Cumberland & Westmoreland wrestler and a brandy smuggler but also a poet and a novelist. He was called William Litt, born in 1785. As I wrote about him, and the little I knew about his schooldays, I found myself writing about myself and my school days. I believe that, from the age of about five upwards More…
Many thanks to RJ Champion who has sent us an excerpt from his novel in progress, Mountain of Souls. (If you missed the feedback on our last free critique post, it’s now available here). Please share your constructive comments below and then consider sharing your own work for critique (see here for all the necessary information).
R.J. Champion is currently working on his first novel, provisionally entitled Mountain of Souls. RJ Champion has taught and travelled around the world. including Peru (the inspiration for his first novel), Jordan, Tanzania and the Czech Republic. Rob has also lectured in History Education at the University of Exeter. R J Champion is currently completing a MA in English at the University of Hull. You can find him online at www.rjchampion.com and he tweets at @r_j_champion.
Mountain of Souls will be an 80,000 word political and historical suspense thriller aimed at an adult readership.
(Please note that in the extract that follows, the swear words have been partially obscured by us, only to stop the post being blocked by corporate profanity filters and over-zealous parental controls – sorry!)
1. The Philosopher
Maximum Security Prison, El Callao Naval Base, San Juan de Lurigancho, Callao, Peru.
The clouds were grey overhead and so thick they moulded into one covering the sky from horizon to horizon. The man walked into his private exercise cage. From afar he had an aspect that would pass for an ascetic medieval friar. Kept separate from the other inmates this was as close to society as he could get. The guards, ever watchful, ever suspicious, waited just inside. He sat on the plastic chair. His body ached. He was old. The wind blew straight off the cold sea of the Pacific Ocean right into the central area where his cage was located. read full extract and feedback comments
D.D. Johnston explains in five minutes everything you need to know to understand every story ever told. Enjoy!
Click this link to open the story planner worksheet that accompanies this video.
read video transcript