WWI Fiction – Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class by Pat BarkerIn the past seven years I have collected and read many books dealing with WWI, so many that friends think I am going slightly crazy. This, of course, could be true. Had you asked me ten years ago about reading books of this nature I would have laughed. Who me? Someone who hated history and would never have put her mind to topics as dreadful as battle strategy or trench warfare or the causes of world war one.

Each book offers a new window on the war experience, a fresh perspective, a piece of information that is astonishing or horrifying or both. I underline and make notes looking for an idea to extract or explore further, taking a phrase here and there and adjusting them to my own characters and their purpose. I return to my books when in need of inspiration, leafing through the pages until something strikes me.

After all, Rule 25 of Steven Taylor Goldsberry’s The Writer’s Book of Wisdom says “Borrow (and steal) from your favourite writers.”

Pat Barker’s novel Life Class is a case in point. Paul Tarrant, the protagonist, does not go overseas until half way through the book and I recall considering whether to chuck the novel for something else but then I read the first sentence of Part II:

Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene.

Aha, at last we are getting somewhere, I thought, using my pen to underline these words.

Two miles away, no more noticeable than the beating of his heart, the guns thudded: the usual early-morning intensification of fire.

Great metaphor. Who would think of comparing heart beats to guns firing?

We were crawling along most of the time, edging past columns of men in wet, gleaming capes and helmets, like mechanical mushrooms … close to the front people move only after dark, with dawn and dusk the most dangerous times. That’s when the heaviest bombardments are.

Mechanical mushrooms – lovely image. And danger at dawn and dusk, an interesting tidbit.

Men who die at a CCS [casualty clearing station] are generally buried as close to it as possible. They’re surrounded by these little dark crosses that always look like bird footprints to me…

Crosses like bird footprints – incredibly poignant.

there came a long whistling roar so close it seemed to be caused by the movement of his chest. When he was next aware of himself he was staggering around in smoke with the screams of wounded men all around him.

They lived in a world of confusion and disorientation.

And so my reading goes, accumulating information and images, looking for sights and sounds and smells, deepening my understanding of how soldiers and others involved existed while attempting to survive.

Writing Unravelled – or Surviving as an Expat

At the age of seventy-five, my grandmother died on the way to her second wedding.

Although shocking at the time, I now think of her death as beautifully poignant. For years, I imagined writing a story with this as the ending but the hurly-burly of family life and demanding careers combined with the certainty that I could never be a writer meant that this notion collected nothing but dust like university mementos tucked away in the attic. However, in 2004, fate intervened with a move to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong StreetLiving as an expat is both exhilarating and depressing. My husband traveled constantly throughout Asia. I knew no one and had no job; our children – one working, one in university – remained in Canada. For several months I flapped about like a bird with broken wings until one day Grandma’s story beckoned. What if I could write it? I thought. At the very least, the effort would keep me busy.

I bought a book titled The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules by Steven Taylor Goldsberry (difficult to find books about writing in a city where Cantonese dominates). I reread the notes my mother had drafted about her family. On a trip home, I found old family photos and information about my grandfather’s WWI war service. And with no idea what I was doing, I plunged right in.

View of Central and Victoria HarbourWriting gave me a sense of purpose. Every morning, armed with a cup of coffee, I fired up my computer. Some days were filled with research, on other days I crafted sentences, struggling to make the words convey what my senses imagined and to flow with enticing rhythm. Looking back, these early efforts remind me of a child’s crude stick drawings produced with great concentration and displayed at home with pride. When I needed a break, I walked the streets of Hong Kong through wet markets and crowded corners, past the flower sellers and lunch-time noodle shops, through antique stores and galleries dominating an area called Soho, up the hill to the top of Victoria Peak where stunning views of the harbour surrounded by skyscrapers reminded me of my good fortune to be in Asia at a time of incredible change.

That was eight years ago and now I write full time. Unravelled is the product of those early efforts and along the way I wrote Lies Told in Silence (a WWI story set in France that is currently with my agent) and Blind Regret ( a dual time period novel with a hint of mystery). I’ve also become obsessed not only with writing but also with exploring the consequences of war.

By the way, Unravelled ends before my grandmother dies. Perhaps there’ll be a sequel?

Take it slow, take it fast

Several days ago, a very kind literary agent offered feedback on two fifty page snippets of my writing. While he had some positive comments, when asked more directly, he said that my writing “does not have the pace and energy to capture the enthusiasm of this reader”. Good to know.

Being a methodical woman, I set out to examine the notion of pacing – I should disclose that I had already adjusted the pace of one of these novels in order to improve its opening chapters. I started the novel differently, cut out several chapters and tightened the language – or so I thought. Do I need to do more?

Let’s begin with a definition of pacing.

  • Pacing is the measurement of how quickly you go from point A to point B. (Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages)
  • Pacing is word count. Minimum word count. (Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom)
  • Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences … and the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. (Dr. Vicki Hinze)
  • Pace is the tempo at which a scene moves. The pace varies within a novel, depending on the emotion an author wants the reader to experience at any given time. (Marilyn R Henderson, The Fine Art of Pace – Making Every Scene in Your Novel Count)
  • Pacing, as it applies to fiction, could be described as the manipulation of time. (Gerry Visco, Techniques to Establish Pacing)
  • Pacing is the tempo of the story, the speed at which information is provided and the dynamics of the rising tension. (Gail Gaymer Martin, Pacing – Too Fast or Too Slow)

Other writers talk about the subtlety and complexity of pacing, describing the difficulty an author has stepping back from his or her work to objectively look at overall pace in the context of conflict, tension, the reader’s emotional experience, reader fatigue and reader confusion. At times, a slower pace is necessary; at other times, a slow pace creates boredom.

Here’s a list I compiled of ways to increase and decrease pace:

Increase Pace Slow Pace
Strive for brevity; Use lean writing with fewer adjectives and adverbs Description, particularly ones that are steeped in sensory input and rich in texture and sound (DVH)
Zoom in – eg: beads of sweat on a face Zoom out, describe a wide panorama
Keep the action rolling; include lots of action Reduce the psychological intensity
Trim physical detail/description Slow the pace in order to place emphasis on something
Avoid analysis, rumination Slow the pace after a dramatic, active scene
Increase narrative tension by raising the stakes. Resolve some of the conflict
Create white space on the page Slow the pace to expand emotional impact – a love scene or an intense situation
Reduce telling and description; replace with dramatization Note specific details that seem larger than life
Dialogue speeds pace, gives illusion of action, particular abrupt, pointed dialogue Long blocks of narration slows the pace
Increase the conflict Long flowing sentences; soft sounding verbs
Edit out insignificant actions Layering details, one upon another
Short, snappy sentences and paragraphs; towards the novel’s end, short chapters with more drama More relaxed dialogue
Cut scene short at a dramatic moment Flashbacks and backstory; remember that readers are interested in what’s going to happen not what has happened (SK)
Crisp, sharp verbs
Use sentence fragments
Switch back and forth between POV
Check each scene for a crisis situation

What will I do now?

Armed with these ideas, I’m going to crawl through one of my manuscripts noting slow, medium and fast paced areas then block these out against my chapter/scene outline. Perhaps I will have a eureka moment.

If anyone has other advice, please let me know.

By the way: SK means the suggestion comes from Steven King’s book On Writing; DVH indicates an idea from Dr. Vicki Hinze’s article on Pacing.