Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Book Dissection - slicing it up so you don't have to.

by Elen Caldecott

As well as writing middle grade fiction, I also teach it. I have a badge that has the word ‘lecturer’ on it, which, considering my love of fart jokes, always makes me feel I’m in Freaky Friday. Ahem.
my teaching copy - well loved!

While I’m on campus, using the electric stapler and mucking about with the paper guillotine, one of the skills I try to teach my students is how to identify the mechanics of a piece of writing they admire: to read like a writer. So, I thought for my first blog post, I’d demonstrate this. In this I'm inspired by both Emma Darwin and Anne Rooney.  I do think it’s a helpful way for writers to improve, whether they are first year undergrads, or Carnegie winners.
So, speaking of Carnegie winners, here’s the opening passage from Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce:

i am not exactly in the lake district

Mum, Dad – if you’re listening – you know I said I was going to the South Lakeland Outdoor Activity Centre with the school?
To be completely honest, I’m not exactly in the Lake District.
To be completely honest, I’m more sort of in space.
I’m on this rocket, the Infinite Possibility. I’m about two hundred thousand miles above the surface of the Earth. I’m all right…ish. 

Reading this, the first thing I notice is the lower case chapter heading. This stylistic choice sets the tone for the passage to follow. The ‘error’ is childish, vulnerable even. We are dealing with a character whose youth leads then to make mistakes.

Then comes the first line, addressed to absent parents (that poignant ‘if you’re listening’). What could tug on the reader’s heartstrings more than a child alone? We are pre-disposed to be sympathetic.
This line also speaks to one of the major themes of the novel, i.e. what makes a good dad? (the implied answer here is ‘one who is listening’. The merest hint of a suggestion of the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer add further resonance).
The sentence has an internal narrator, using first person, in the present tense. This means that whatever error of judgement this character has made, the effects are being felt by them right-now-this-minute. There isn’t the reassuring sense, implied by a past tense, that all was ultimately well for the character. It's all very tense! (sorry).
And what parent/carer hasn’t heard that cadence from a child, ‘you know I said…?’ Not only does this confessional sentence create an impression of guilty youth, but also it sets up a feeling of suspense for the reader – what is the lie that was told? What are its implications and consequences? Conflict is at the heart of plot, and a good lie is weighty with conflict.
So, this opening line introduces a vulnerable character, sets out a main theme, and creates tension and conflict. All in 22 words.

The next two sentences use a rhetorical device, anaphora, where the same words are repeated at the start of successive sentences: ‘To be completely honest…’. This emphasises the point being made. But, more than that, each elides into humour, as the ‘completely’ is then contradicted by ‘not exactly’ and ‘sort of’. It’s a use of irony that Alanis Morrisette would have been proud of.
The irony has a further effect of allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief for a while. Is this serious? Is it a joke? Is the child really in space? As long as the facts themselves are presented ironically, we don’t have to decide straight away – we are given time to get used to the idea.

The next sentences are all ‘tell’, a direct report of events, after the fact – something writers are warned off, very often. Here it serves to ground the reader in the setting of the novel. The ambiguity of the ironic statement is gone. But before we can say, 'In space? Hang on a minute...' that, ‘I’m all right…ish’ takes us back to the vulnerable character who makes mistakes. A bait and switch, distracting us.

To those who have a work in progress on the go, who are thinking, ‘What?! I don’t do any of this stuff!’ I’d say that I’d be surprised if Frank Cottrell Boyce does either. At least in the first draft. Much of the mechanics of writing simply spring, unbidden, from who-knows-where, presenting themselves like gifts to the unsuspecting writer. But I also think that if you know they exist, they might spring unbidden a bit more regularly. That’s the plan anyway. Happy reading!

Elen Caldecott is the author of children's fiction, including the Marsh Road Mysteries.
Her website is, her twitter name is @elencaldecott


  1. Great post. I love dissecting prose/poetry/literature, but also like that you qualified the post with a 'to those who have a work in progress'. I often find that writers are surprised by some of the analysis of their text - they say they just wrote what was in their head - so often the subconscious rules. See also the article in the Guardian today about Mark Haddon and writing from the subconscious. Didn't know you were a scholar too. How wonderful.

  2. Excellent post, Elen. This is just the kind of inspiration I needed this morning. It is the perfect opening, isn't it? Thank you!

  3. Thanks, Tracy, it's a book I love beyond healthiness!

    Clare, you're right, of course. Eng Lit scholars can find so many meanings in text that would shock the writer! But I think that to a certain extent the mechanics of writing are deliberate. This passage would be very different if it were written in third person, or past tense, for example. For me, there's a blend of conscious and unconscious choice at play. A writer will often say 'it just felt right'. I just had a message on Twitter asking if I thought this meant writers are geniuses. I don't think I do. For me, the act of reading attentively, of noticing the manipulation of language will feed into ones own writing. I likened it to picking up a regional accent after spending time in a new city. Reading improves writing, in my opinion.

  4. I am printing this out! Brilliant stuff, thank you.

  5. Fabulous. This happens in poetry, too - sometimes the mechanics and devices seem to spring unbidden, and the words, too - but often the subject has been thought about in the preceding days, the subconscious has been refining it, and the devices are on the shelves of the mind to be taken out and used automatically where appropriate.