I know of a fish and chip shop, that epitome of English eating out, where they use only the finest fish, always the best batter, and perfect potatoes; all freshly cooked in clean, hot, oil so they reach a perfect pitch of internal sweetness and succulence and external crispness and crunch. I know of another where the fish tastes distinctly fishy, and the chips sag. There the owner’s apron is as grey as the window, everything is cooked at once, then sits in the warming cabinet for hours, I do not go there.
These two establishments are not far apart. As might be expected the first forms Friday queues of eager fans, the second does not; but neither does it fail, it has its regular clientele. There are those who never develop taste, their mothers fed them tasteless food, they went to school and loved school dinners, they cannot see the point of paying some slight premium for quality, or standing in a queue. This was not inevitable, they could have broken free from their cultural restrictions and inhibitions, watched, listened, tried new things and learned, they chose not to.
People say “If you want to improve your writing, read”, as one might say “If you want nutrition eat fish and chips”. I would say “read critically, are these the best words in the best order? Or even the right words in the right order? Do they carry inner meanings for devious minds beyond the direct and obvious? Is their plot and purpose sharp? Do their background characters hold up? Do you find errors and flaws in spelling, punctuation, plot, or grammar? Is the whole thing second-hand, flaccid and a little grubby? Is this writing or merely typing? Learn to make judgements.”
The critical faculty needs stimulus, if it is always been fed a diet of the bland it will not know what flavour is, and when it gets a taste of it will not know what makes the difference or how it was achieved. When I read the critiques on the forum the comments of the beginner show this, tey say things like “I liked this piece”; “This made me laugh”; “I am sorry this is not for me”. I do not have a problem with this, most authors welcome any information about the effect their writing has; but start by saying what you can honestly, then learn to say more.
Come to the Writing Forum and read that epicure, the experienced critical reader, who tastes and notices the liberal use of seasoning, and can identify the spices, ‘I liked this; the use of paired alliterative words in the first sentence, ‘Epitome of English eating’, ‘fresh fish’, etc. led me in. The way this then collapses into short phrases in the second, fading into the grey of the second establishment, then re-emerges, contrasting the two in style as well as description ...’. There are those who merely seek nutrition and those who savour, learn from those who savour.
But be careful, literary critics can be as precious as foodies sometimes, best not get carried away, stick with fish and chips, nutritious, basic stuff can still taste good.
Then there are comments such as, ‘This made me laugh, the dictatorial, bullying wife is the eternal joke.’ The writer has used a well worn theme and the critic has recognised it, what is to be learned from this? Not that we need to be original in every way, but rather that all the best themes are well worn. The triumph of the underdog, the jealous relative, and the star crossed lovers, are found everywhere, Agatha Christie, Walt Disney and Shakespeare all used them, but they did not do the same things with them. They put them in their personal worlds; worlds of amateur detectives, anthropomorphic animals, or warring families; and made them their own
Often the writer, impressed by another author’s skill, is inspired and attempts to follow by writing their own tale in the same style or genre; that is like imitating the condiments or sauce. Usually their story is not strong enough to support the structure, what they should be looking at are the basic ingredients of the story, this is what you steal, then make your own.
I have blatantly done it twice with story lines I loved, and found it a useful exercise as well as a creative experience. I transformed a Royal house in Herodotus, where a strong willed Queen rids herself of an unworthy King and establishes a new dynasty, into a modern Mafia family. In the second I swapped a young officer falling victim to an older woman in Simla, in a Kipling story, for a student falling for a barmaid in an English university town. In doing so I made the tales my own, not imitations, but I also read carefully, checking I included all the elements each of these master story tellers used, that taught me a lot about the structure of a good story.
R. D. Laing once said “There are no abnormal people, only normal people in abnormal situations”; and it is often said that there are only so many basic story lines. The basic plot will never be completely original, but it gives you the abnormal situation to put your normal people in. Place it somewhere you understand and people it with people you can recognise, these are things you can write about with a sure hand. Nine times out of ten no-one recognises a plot re-used this way. When someone says ‘West-side Story is Romeo and Juliette retold,’ people think a moment, realise it is true, and say, ‘How clever to think of doing that’, they don’t realise writers do it all the time.
Of course there will always be someone who will say ‘This is not for me’, some simply don’t like fish, no matter how well cooked, you can’t please all the people all the time.