<![CDATA[Jeremy Dronfield - Blog]]>Sun, 03 Jan 2021 01:25:20 +0000Weebly<![CDATA[Good Writing, Bad Advice: When Vonnegut's rules go wrong: pt 1]]>Sat, 18 Nov 2017 10:25:26 GMThttp://jeremydronfield.com/blog/good-writing-bad-advice-when-vonneguts-rules-go-wrong-pt-1GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. Do I intend to add to the enormous didactic dump-bin? You bet I do. As someone who earns a living from writing books and advising others on their works in progress, I’m a little disturbed by the quality of some of the advice that’s floating around out there, much of it coming from people who ought to know better. It’s hard enough to develop oneself as a writer, without wasting time being guided by bad rules and principles.
I’m beginning this occasional series with massive chutzpah, by taking on a literary colossus who has become a giant in the world of writing advice. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of giving out advice to budding writers. He published his opinions in the form of at least two lists of “rules” for good writing: his “Creative Writing 101” (which was part of the Introduction to his book of short stories Bagombo Snuff Box) and a more serious magazine article, “How to Write With Style”.

Both are reproduced in various forms online, and both of them have issues – elements of bad advice. Any novice writer attempting to stick by all of Vonnegut’s cardinal rules will come badly unstuck.

First let me say that a lot of Vonnegut’s tips are very good. As a writer he knew what the hell he was doing. But some – including a few that get quoted frequently and admiringly (and out of context), even by some of my fellow professionals – are just nonsense. The one that’s exercising my ire here and now is this one, his Rule 4 from Creative Writing 101:

​Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
It sounds so plausible and sensible, doesn’t it? But think a moment and its not-so-greatness is revealed. What about backstory? What about description? A story without any sentences that do things other than reveal character or advance the action would have:
  • no backstory
  • no ideas or concepts
  • no physical descriptions

And without backstory and description, the story would have:
  • no physicality in its characters or their circumstances
  • no setting; no sense of period or place
  • no context; no sense of being part of a bigger story

Now, I’m not saying that a good writer couldn't make a great story while leaving out all those elements. Come to think of it, that would make an interesting creative challenge. But Vonnegut wasn't offering this advice as a creative challenge but as a basic rule for writing fiction. And he disobeyed it himself all the time; his writing, like virtually all great writing, contains many sentences that neither reveal character nor advance the action; there are sentences of ideas, description, and background. Admittedly, in his short stories, for which he primarily intended this particular set of rules, Vonnegut came close to using only those two types of sentence: action and character; however, he got around the problems by smuggling description and backstory into the same sentences, sometimes with convoluted results.

Vonnegut knew very well the impossibility of adhering properly to his Rule 4, and his “Creative Writing 101” was partly tongue-in-cheek. He concluded his list with this eternal truth:
​The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
​That first rule in Vonnegut's Creative Writing 101, the rule never broken by any great writer under any circumstances, was:
​Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
That’s a good rule.

So, what are we to make of Rule 4? What was Vonnegut really trying to say? In my view, the rule could be more profitably and helpfully reworded:

Every sentence in your story must have a vital function within the whole piece; it must tell the reader something that they need to be told if they are to enjoy and understand your story.

That lets in a lot of material while keeping out anything that isn’t absolutely essential. There’s an adjunct rule, without which that basic rule will not work effectively:

Ensure that the sequence of sentence types (action, character, description etc.) feels natural and yields the best, clearest, most engaging telling of the story.

Clive James once said that the fundamental criterion for good writing is to say things in the right order. And he was quite correct; it’s the one thing that all bad or underdeveloped writers (and as a consultant I see a lot of those) get wrong. And it’s the skill that all good writers have to strive hardest to learn. Putting words and sentences in the best sequence is so overlooked because it seems so obvious, so like a truism, that developing writers don’t consider it a thing at all. But word order and sentence order (and the succession of types of sentences) is equivalent to the succession of pitches, intervals, and chords in music.

This is something you can’t learn from rules or nostrums; you learn it by reading the works of others and by experience: write, read, edit, rewrite until you have the balance – or the rhythm and melody – right. Then you’ll be writing with the best.

Watch out for the next post, in which I’ll be looking some more at Vonnegut and sentences.
<![CDATA["A Genius Bar for books": interview]]>Sat, 18 Nov 2017 10:20:27 GMThttp://jeremydronfield.com/blog/a-genius-bar-for-books-interviewSo I did an interview for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. It went like this...
“A Genius Bar for Books” – interview with Jeremy Dronfield, author, ghostwriter, book consultant

You’ve had an unusual career trajectory, going from fiction to non-fiction and ghostwriting. How did that come about?

Being a writer isn’t what it used to be. The joy of creation may be timeless, but the way we research, write and sell books is changing constantly. At the same time, being a writer in the other sense – existing, earning a living from the written word – is changing too. Advances are declining in size and getting harder to come by, we have to work harder (and spend more) to do our own promotion, and sales are weakening as austerity infects the economy. Year after year, writers’ incomes are falling. Even with a bestseller or two under your belt you can find yourself struggling to make a living; luxury money one year followed by bread-crusts the next. Each of us has to have a strategy for survival. For some, branching out is the answer.

I began as an academic archaeologist. In search of a liveable income and hoping to realise a dream, I took up writing fiction (doesn’t sound like such a logical path these days, does it?). With the prolonged downturn in the book business, I eventually had to branch into manuscript reading, which led to consultancy and ghostwriting. Unexpectedly, I found a way of making my life as a writer sustainable. Because, somewhat to my surprise, it turned out that I was as good at reading as I was at writing...
Continue reading the interview at the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency website.
<![CDATA[Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The British Empire's first successful caesarean delivery]]>Wed, 15 Nov 2017 19:47:57 GMThttp://jeremydronfield.com/blog/wonders-curiosities-and-found-facts-the-british-empires-first-successful-caesarean-deliveryWonders, curiosities and found facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable incidental details which rarely make it into the books. Here I bring them out of the margins and explore them in more depth.

Today: Pioneering surgery by a surgeon with a secret!

THE NIGHT OF 25 JULY 1826 was cold and wet. In the small settlement of Wynberg, nine miles from Cape Town, Mrs Wilhelmina Munnik’s pregnancy was coming to a traumatic conclusion. The baby – for which Wilhemina and her husband Thomas had waited for ten years – refused to be born. The midwife had done all she could, and was forced to concede defeat. A doctor was needed.

Thomas Munnik ordered a servant to ride to Cape Town to fetch the very best surgeon available, a man known for his obstetric skill. Dr James Barry was a Staff Surgeon with the British Army garrison, as well as medical attendant to many of the Cape’s rich families and personal physician to the former Governor, Lord Charles Somerset. A fine medical practitioner, James Barry was known not only for his skill but also his eccentricity – particularly his appearance and manner. What was not well known about Dr Barry was that beneath his male attire he had the body of a woman.

James Barry's birth name was Margaret Bulkley. Born in Cork in 1789, Margaret had decided at the age of 19 that she wanted to study medicine (under the influence of her tutor and a maverick Venezuelan revolutionary who was living in exile in London). In 1809 such a course was firmly closed to women, and so Margaret made a courageous, audacious decision. She disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of her late uncle, the eccentric painter James Barry. After successfully gaining the MD degree at Edinburgh in 1812, “Dr James Barry” became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (in effect the first biological woman to do so) and joined the British Army as a military surgeon. In 1816 Dr Barry was posted to the Cape Colony, where he would make a great name for himself.

When Dr Barry arrived at the Munniks’ house on that rainy July night in 1826, he found Wilhelmina Munnik in a terrible state. An examination showed that the baby could not possibly be delivered in the normal way. This left only one option – an option dreaded by all doctors in that era. A caesarean operation would have to be performed.

19th century obstetric instruments. (Science Museum)
In the early 19th century, when surgical science was still horribly crude, the caesarean procedure was invariably a death sentence for the mother; it was only performed as a last restort, to save the life of the baby. James explained the situation to Wilhelmina and her husband. Wilhelmina, in an extremity of pain, consented, and Dr Barry put away his forceps and prepared his surgical instruments.
19th century surgeon’s kit.
Although the caesarean procedure was normally expected to be fatal, one or two isolated examples were known in which a mother was reported to have survived. Such a miracle was said to have happened once in America, and on another occasion in Switzerland; the latter case, performed by a Dr Locher in Zurich, had occurred in 1818 and was published in detail in a medical journal. James Barry would have known the paper well, and probably followed Locher’s procedure. (There is said to have been an earlier instance as far back as 1500, when Jakob Lufer, a Swiss pig-gelder, performed such an operation on his wife. Her survival probably had more to do with luck – or perhaps apocryphal myth-making – than surgical skill.)

Anaesthetics did not exist in 1826, and Wilhelmina, lying on her marriage bed, had to be held down as Dr Barry made the incision.

James Barry never described the procedure in detail, but Dr Locher did:
​The sphere of the uterus, now appearing, extended the edges of the incision, so that there appeared a considerable vaulted surface of the womb. There protruded also a portion of small intestine, which, however, was easily kept back by means of linen anointed with fat. In order not to cut through the uterus exactly in a place where the placenta might accidentally be situated, and thus excite a violent bleeding, I chose a somewhat uneven part of its surface, and there made a little incision, so that I could introduce the index of the left-hand, to serve as a guide for the progress of the knife … Immediately the child presented itself … The nearest part of the child was an arm … Already before the head was freed from the womb, the infant moved its limbs, and on the development of the head, to the greatest joy of the mother and all the attendants, it proved its life by loud cries.
The Munnik baby was a perfect, healthy boy. Dr Barry stitched up the wound, saw that mother and baby were comfortable, and departed, promising to return the next day.

Now began the crucial period; this was the time when infection would set in, the mother falling into an illness from which she would never recover. Death would occur within a matter of days. Infection was not understood in the early 19th century – the very concept was unknown, and would remain so for several more decades. All a doctor could do was treat the symptoms. By the standards of the day, James Barry was a very good doctor.

Miraculously, Wilhelmina Munnik did not die. For the first time anywhere in the vast British Empire, a surgeon had brought a mother successfully through the trauma of a caesarean delivery. How fitting that the surgeon was a woman (a woman who had herself once given birth to a child, and was therefore the only surgeon then living who knew first-hand what childbirth was like). The baby was named in honour of his deliverer – James Barry Munnik – and Dr Barry stood godfather. Flattered and delighted, he gave the family a miniature portrait of himself that had been made in England on his being commissioned in the Army.

James Barry achieved many remarkable firsts in his lifetime – first biological woman (or transgender man) to qualify MD and join the Royal College of Surgeons, and later the first to reach the rank of general in the British Army. But from a medical point of view, performing that first successful caesarean delivery was perhaps the most important.

You can read the the whole story of James Barry’s incredible life and career in Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield.
Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time has been selected for BBC Radio 2’s Fact Not Fiction Book Club – find out more and download a free extract.

<![CDATA[Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: How Lewis Carroll stole the Cheshire Cat]]>Fri, 10 Nov 2017 15:23:17 GMThttp://jeremydronfield.com/blog/wonders-curiosities-and-found-facts-how-lewis-carroll-stole-the-cheshire-catWonders, curiosities and found facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable incidental details which rarely make it into the books. Here I bring them out of the margins and explore them in more depth.

Today: Cheshire Cats, with bonus British imperialism!

​“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
​The Cheshire Cat is one of the most memorable characters in a book which is largely famous for its memorable characters. The Cat’s grin has become part of the language – to “grin like a Cheshire Cat” is a stock expression, with or without vanishing. But, as with the madness of hatters, Lewis Carroll didn’t actually invent the Cheshire Cat – at least, not all of it – though you wouldn’t guess that from the book, in which Alice has clearly never heard the expression:
​“Please could you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, for she was not quite sure whether it was good manners for her to speak first, “why your cat grins like that?”

“It’s a Cheshire-Cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”

“I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.”

“They all can,” said the Duchess; “and most of ’em do.”
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832–1898) in June 1857.
​In fact, “grinning like a Cheshire cat” had been around for at least eighty years when Carroll wrote this story in 1865, as a curiously obscure piece of slang which puzzled lexicographers even then. Where does it come from, and why? I stumbled across it while looking in an early 19th century slang dictionary for a reference to the early days of the Chelsea military hospital, where “to get Chelsea” appears alongside “Cheese toaster” (a sword) and “Cheshire-cat”. I decided to look further, and found a mystery.

The earliest citation in the OED is from 1770–1819 in a satirical poem by John Wolcot (1738–1819), who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Pindar. “A Lyric Epistle to Lord Macartney”, written 1792, was an epic swipe at George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1737–1806), diplomat, British Ambassador to China, and coiner (in 1773) of the notion that the British Empire was “this vast empire on which the sun never sets”.*

​The poem’s last stanza addresses Macartney’s China-bound mission, which began that year (1792):
​Yet, if successful, thou wilt be adored:

Lo, like a Cheshire Cat our Court will grin
John Wolcot, alias Peter Pindar
1st Earl Macartney
(The embassy was not successful; Macartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor, they failed to understand each other, and the hoped-for trade agreements were stillborn.)

But what did it mean? Why a cat, and why from Cheshire in particular?

There is a slightly earlier usage, in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (where I first stumbled upon it) by the soldier, antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731–1791). This volume was first published in 1785, and includes this definition:
​Cheshire Cat. He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shews his teeth and gums in laughing.
​Grose gives us no idea of where the phrase originated, an no earlier examples have been found. Lexicographers of slang were continually puzzled by the origin of the Cheshire Cat, which in its day competed with some even odder expressions. Writing in the Newcastle Magazine in July 1828, one author pondered the popularity of the phrases “squint like a bag of nails”, “grin like a basket of chips”, as well as “grin like a Cheshire cat”. “This particularizing of the cat’s locality is odd,” the author wrote. “We should like to know what is there that is remarkable about a cat from any part of the British empire?”

In a letter written in 1808, the essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) hazarded a guess: “Why do cats grin in Cheshire?—Because it was once a county palatine, and the cats cannot help laughing whenever they think of it, though I see no great joke in it.”** – a line Lewis Carroll himself might have written.

It’s possible that the original Cheshire cat wasn’t a cat at all – in the 18th century “cat” was slang for both a spiteful woman and a prostitute. Also, to “shoot (or whip) the cat” meant to vomit, which might be connected humorously with grinning. But again, why Cheshire?

A further possibility is the legendary (at the time) fondness of rats for Cheshire cheese, as celebrated in this poem from 1787, “The rat who had retired from the World”, written by “a Lady":
​Tir’d of the noisy joys of life,

Where hope and fear are still at strife,

A Rat within a Cheshire cheese

Retir’d to mortify at ease
Francis Grose
​And wherever one finds rats, one may find happy cats: “Gainst all the perjur’d race of Cats / Vile murth’rers of us harmless Rats” as the same poet has it. According to 18th century ratcatcher Robert Smith (“ratcatcher to the Princess Amelia”),*** in his Universal Directory for Taking Alive and Destroying Rats (1772), “some pieces of strong old Cheshire cheese” made a favourite lure. A Cheshire cat might be a happy hunter indeed.

Carroll must have grown up with this puzzling phrase, although it must have been rare and quaint in his day, and rather than inventing it, merely purloined it from the mouths of rustics, repurposed it and added the curiosity of the Cat’s disappearing trick. And so a strange and quite obscure phrase which would surely have faded into invisibility just like the eponymous feline became rooted in the modern language. All thanks to literature.

… Now, which one of us is going to bring back “squinting like a bag of nails”?

* Though Macartney was first to apply this epithet to the British Empire, he didn’t invent the notion. It had been said previously about various empires, the earliest known instance being the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century.

**A county palatine was a county with special autonomy within the kingdom. Cheshire was one such, as were Shropshire, Kent, the Isle of Ely, and Pembroke.

*** Princess Amelia (1711–1786) was second daughter of King George II.