Hey everybody, welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. In The Barber’s Chair will be back next week (crazy-busy this week!) and if you want to submit (250 words max, just title and extract, no explanatory blather please) then email via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. Thanks so much to everyone who has sent me their work – you are very generous and great and I wish you all the best with your revisions.
Here’s a little idea to ponder if you’re thinking of cracking on with NaNoWriMo tomorrow.
Make Me Believe In One Small Thing
Ezinma brought his goatskin bag from the far end of the hut… It was a deep bag and took almost the whole length of his arm… There was a drinking horn in it, and also a drinking gourd, and they knocked against each other as he searched. When he brought out the snuff-bottle he tapped it a few times against his knee-cap before taking out some snuff on the palm of his left hand. Then he remembered that he had not taken out his snuff-spoon. He searched his bag again and brought out a small, flat, ivory spoon, with which he carried the brown snuff to his nostrils.
– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
On the face of it, the novel is a preposterous cultural artefact. We pay people for copies of their lies, knowing they lie to us. That is an essential part of the game. The challenge then, for the author, is to declare: ‘Here are my lies,’ yet make us believe them.
The Fantasy genre has a tradition of, before the text proper begins, presenting the reader with a map. ‘Look,’ the author seems to cry, ‘how vast the land is that stretches before you! Here lie the cities, and here the mountains, and here flow the rivers that cleave the two. Certainly a fellow may invent a person, or a family, or – if he is very sly – perhaps a whole village, but who ever heard of someone conjuring up an entire world?’
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this reasoning persuasive. I tend to flick past maps and glossaries and portentous maxims from Garb K’narrth Runegrinder, hunting for the moment when the story begins. For me, then – and only then – can I begin to decide whether this new world is real or not.
In the moment above, where Okonkwo reaches into his bag for his snuff and spoon, I accept absolutely that he is real, that he exists. It is the few telling details: his arm disappearing inside the bag, the knocking together of the horn and gourd. There is no great ostentation in the prose – though Achbebe does stirring lyricism elsewhere in the novel – just a simple, well-observed or well-imagined moment.
This is one of the great tricks the novelist may deploy. Convince me of the reality of a single object in your world, show me a single, true action, and I will be as good as forced to admit the existence of everything that surrounds it. After all, how could it be real unless the world in which it exists is real also? Whoever heard of a fake world that produces true things? It would be like visiting an ice cream parlour in your dream and waking up clutching a raspberry ripple. The only logical conclusion would be that the ice cream parlour was – in some peculiar way – real.
To do this well requires patient observation, or research, or both. We will accept all sorts of implausible behaviour from a protagonist if you have convinced us in the existence of the glove compartment in his Triumph Dolomite full of hastily-sketched self-portraits. Show me a woman watering and pruning a roomful of spider plants, and I will believe in the sentient spaceship surrounding her.
If you like reading my angry thoughts on writing, my award-winning memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts is mostly wall-to-wall that. Be the decisive, impulsive person you always dreamed you’d be, click the link, and buy it now.