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David Malouf gives some writing tips

David Malouf gives some tips on writing, and lists some of his favorite books…

It’s important for writers to get the tone right, from the first paragraph.

This is one of many tips David Malouf gave about writing when he spoke at the Brisbane Festival, and I’ve listed a few more here.

When people said they couldn’t put a book down, he said, they didn’t mean they wanted to know what happened next.

He said writers cast a spell over the reader with the tone of the writing; they created an intimacy with the reader that the reader did not want to break.

Tone has been defined as a particular way of sounding, expressive of some meaning, feeling, spirit, temper or state of mind – like a light tone, or a cautionary tone.

Tone might be familiar or formal, intimate or impersonal.

Another definition is that tone is the attitude of the narrator to what is being narrated.

David Malouf said his books like Johnno were literary novels: about shifts in the feelings of the characters more than events in the story, and his points about writing are consistent with the literary writing style.

But they would be useful to other writers, too.

The term “literary fiction” originated around 1970, to distinguish literary books from genre and popular fiction.

Literary fiction is said to be more about style, character, and the psychological depths of characters, than more commercial fiction which is said to focus on narrative and plot.

On writing, David Malouf said the writer was captive of the book.

Something got hold of your interests as a writer, he said; it puzzled or alarmed you, and you had to try to find out what that thing was by writing the book.

He was speaking of his own writing here, he said, and contrasted it with writers who he said were “knitting”.

He said he was interested in the kind of writing where the writer didn’t really know what they were doing until they got to the end.

The question he asked himself when writing was Why am I dealing with this?

“Maybe I’ll get to the end of it and I won’t have a publishable book, but that’s ok,” he said.

On writing about places, he said that people assumed that all you had to do was put a few details down about a place and people would relate to it.

He said that mentioning a few place names he remembered about Brisbane might be relevant to his contemporaries who remembered these places, but it would mean less to someone younger.

“I realized I couldn’t just put Brisbane down but also my own feeling for it,” he said of writing Johnno.

He said if you went to London in the 1840s it would not be the same as Dickens’ London, and the same for Balzac’s France.

In order for a place to come alive, he said, a writer had to create a place that anyone could relate to; it had to be a densely imagined place.

Also he discovered when writing Johnno that he had had to make up a lot of the story.

The places and parts of the story that people thought were the most real were often made up, he said.

On punctuation, he said the music of the writing was very important.

“I always want to punctuate for the music and not the sense,” he said; he punctuated for the breathing of the sentence, not for the syntax.

On writing libretti, he said a writer had to hold back.

He said writers were used to determining every single thing in novels, but they had to leave some work for the composer to do – the composer had to be able to complement the words.

He regarded the words of an opera as of secondary importance to the music.

You could not determine how the words would end up being used by the composer anyway, with phrases drawn out or repeated for example.

He said the Brisbane he wrote about in Johnno, the Brisbane of the 1940s and 50s, was a monolithic culture, where everyone listened to the same radio station and heard the same songs each night.

This was ideal for a writer, he said, because you could get a hold on the whole Brisbane of that time.

But Brisbane was much more diverse now, and not so easy to get a handle on.

Also he made the point that first person narrators were unreliable.

The narrator discovered that what they were telling you was wrong; they realized they hadn’t understood what had happened.
Also Mr Malouf said it didn’t matter where a writer wrote a story about a place.

“Writers write out of very strong sensory impressions and memories,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter where you are.

“Writers are always in the same place, which is in their head.”

He had a quick method to see if he would bother reading a novel, but he said he didn’t recommend it.

He would read the first and last paragraph of a book.

If he was interested in how a character went from how he was in paragraph one, to how he was by the end of the book, he would read the novel.

Among his favorite books he mentioned Moby Dick, because it was so much more than just a sea story or a novel.

He said Victory was his favorite Joseph Conrad novel.

He said whichever Dostoyevsky novel you read first tended to be your favorite, and in his case it was The Idiot.

He liked Great Expectations by Dickens because it was a world you threw yourself into completely, and Dickens’ prose could make anything grotesque.

Also he said he liked anything by Tolstoy, The Great Gatsby, and The Red Badge of Courage.