Welcome back to Alone in Babel, The Missing Slate’s book blog. Here’s what you’ve missed in the last six months…
Actually, you haven’t missed anything at all: the blog’s been either dormant, extinct or quietly smouldering (select strained volcano metaphor of your choice) for a good half a year, but we’re back for 2012, kicking off with a new series on Elmore Leonard’s widely-admired rules of writing (several of which have already been broken in this rather ungainly sentence).
Even Elmore Leonard realises that the best writers have always been able to break the rules, but what exactly are the rules and how exactly can they be broken? Let’s start with number one…
1. Never open a book with the weather
Elmore says: “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
Apart from repeating the tired old gag about Eskimos having dozens of different terms for ice and snow (untrue, as all fans of QI will know), this seems to be sensible advice. Why waste time describing the weather when you can introduce a memorable character or hurtle ahead into the main action? It’s relatively widely-known that the most ridiculed opening to any novel involves a description of the weather: the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (‘It was a dark and stormy night…’) seems to have attracted derision from just about everyone who has ever read it. Surely not an example you, the budding novelist, would wish to follow…
Five good reasons to ignore him:
George Orwell, 1984
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions…’
Like Bulwer-Lytton’s opening line, Orwell’s contains a double adjective and a description of the weather; unlike Bulwer-Lytton’s line, it is commonly regarded as a great opening to a great novel. Admittedly, the real attention-grabber here is the extra hour struck by the clocks, but the visceral descriptions of the ‘vile wind’ and, a little later, the ‘swirl of gritty dust’ behind Winston Smith do the novel no harm at all.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights…’
Another celebrated first page, which moves from an opening paragraph describing ‘implacable November weather… As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth’ to a spellbinding second paragraph about fog, fog, lots of fog. The weather descriptions here are fairly obviously intended to establish atmosphere rather than introduce particular characters, and establishing atmosphere is exactly what Dickens succeeds in doing. It’s hard not to picture the scene: at once, you find yourself immersed in the fog of the book’s language and forget all about Elmore Leonard…
Orhan Pamuk, Snow
‘The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver… As he watched the snow outside the window fall as slowly and silently as the snow in his dream, the traveller fell into a long-desired, long-awaited reverie…’
Books frequently attach themselves to specific places, and Snow always takes me to Gardermoen (Oslo Airport), where I bought it for an outlandish price that seemed far more reasonable in Norwegian Kroner. As with Bleak House, repetition establishes atmosphere: snow is everywhere in this novel, filtering down from the title into the name of the main character (Ka) and the city he travels to (Kars) — Kar is, it soon becomes clear, the Turkish word for snow. ‘The silence of snow’ soon becomes ominous: Kars is cut off from the outside world just as tensions between Islamists and secular, ‘Westernised’ Turks threaten to erupt.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid… by early June the south-west monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with.’
The opening page of Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel sounds oddly like a CIA World Factbook entry: INDIA – hot and brooding in May, followed by monsoon season from early June. Again, weather is used almost exclusively to create atmosphere, and Arundhati Roy pays very little attention to the dangers of ‘carrying on too long.’ Descriptions of ‘small things’ such as changes in the weather, colours, fruits (red bananas, jackfruits) are lingered over lovingly, which is precisely the point.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
BOATSWAIN: ‘Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king?’
Elmore Leonard drew up his rules with prose in mind, but Shakespeare’s Tempest provides a wonderful example of weather as an essential plot device. The play begins with a description of ‘a tempestuous noise… thunder and lightning’, as a storm raised by Prospero causes his brother’s ship to run aground. Antonio and his shipmates are separated and stranded on the island, and the mechanism which drives the plot of The Tempest is set in motion.