Saturday, January 13, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Maybe the Oscar race this year will be between two actresses over sixty because Judi Dench's performance is Notes was nearly as good as Helen Mirren's in Elizabeth. I so admire peformers who don't try to rise above their character and say --this unattractive person is not really me. It's expecially brave in these instances when their appearance and their character traits were so unappealing. Only the English seem willing to put on some wellies, an old pilled sweater (vest?) and slog around in the muck, never needing to tip off the audience that they are really film stars. In both films, their hair was especially unlovely. I would have had to grab a comb.

Reading the new Alice McDermott book and I amazed at how she feels confident enough of her aiblity to have nothing happen in the first 60 pages. I read mostly crime fiction nowadays, but I can't picture a chapter that describes a trip to the beach where the biggest event was a tiff between two children. Yet in her hands, it works beautifully.
Do you feel you have the luxury of starting a piece this slowly, of describing and evoking an atmosphere with very little plot? McDermott's That Night is one of my favorite novels. Just brilliant.


Maria said...

All of my favorite books are character driven. For instance that one you gave me, Dreaming in Cuban, doesn't really have a plot at all, or an antagonist--it's all man versus himself or man versus nature. It was nominated for the national book award. I prefer books like this, or Atonement, where the plot is a backdrop for the characters not vice-versa. I don't read crime stories, or thrillers, or mysteries, or romance, for that matter. I really just don't care about plot.

I read the crap-o-meter at, where you send in a hook and then the first 750 words, and she pretty much wanted a body or a smoking gun in the first 750 words of the book. If there wasn't one, and she liked the writing enough, she was willing to read the first five pages to see if "anything major happened," but if it didn't, she'd reject that manuscript. She says most other agents operate that way as well, but I don't know how true it is.

To answer your question about starting slow, no, I wouldn't do that, unless I was writing to make myself happy. If it was something I ever planned to show others, I'd put a body on the first page, more or les.

Steve Allan said...

The trouble with reading a lot of crime novels is that you get used to the hook within a certain amount of pages, sometimes within the the first few chapter. This, in some ways, is antithetical to the way a novel is supposed to unfold. Some of the best novels ever written build up really slowly.

Oops, crying child. I'll finish this thought in a bit.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree and yet I find my patience waning every year. Has 24 and The Wire sapped my attention span.

Steve Allan said...

It's funny that you mention THE WIRE. I just watched the 3rd season on DVD (X-Mas present). In one of the extra docs, David Simon said that since each season is conceived to unfold like a novel they have trouble keeping those new to the series who watch the first episode of a season because those people didn't think much happened.

It's frustrating to write a crime novel that develops gradually because there is that expectation that the hook needs to be there or the thing won't sell. You need to have a good literary rep before you can even try the gradual approach. Literary novelists aren't under the same pressure.