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Start writing fiction: characters and stories
Start writing fiction: characters and stories

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7.2 Ongoing book reviews

Figure 5

Noticing details about the construction of language, plot and story in what you read will help form your own writing taste and style.

As you’ve done in Formulating and sharing technical opinion, note in your journal the books you read, and what you think of them. Note why you like or dislike them; what you think works or doesn’t work. This ongoing engagement with your reading will feed into your writing practice.

At the time, these notes might seem very slight – perhaps just a jotting down of the impression a novel left you with. But with hindsight, such notes will help you to ‘place’ yourself, to form your own taste and style, to act as reminders of what you have been thinking, and of what you might have hoped for about your own writing.

These notes might also very easily suggest an idea for a piece of writing of your own. Even the simplest observations might be valuable. For example:

  • How long is the short story or novel?
  • Are there chapters? Sections? Parts?
  • If it’s a short story, how is it structured?
  • When and where is it set, how do these things appear to matter, and how are they conveyed?
  • From whose point of view is the story being told? Is it the story of one, or more than one of the characters?
  • Is there dialogue? If so, what does it contribute to the story? What does it tell you of the characters?
  • Is the language modern, plain, elaborate, colloquial?
  • Are there short or long sentences?
  • Are the sentences ‘properly formed’, or broken down? For example, ‘Get this. Bravery. That wasn’t even in it. Heroism? Maybe that was nearer the mark.’
  • Would you say that the story was a ‘page-turner’?
  • Is it full of ‘researched facts’?
  • Is there much ‘internal’ psychological or emotional detail, or is most of the novel or story taken up with ‘external’ events or description?
  • How do you learn of the main characters?
  • Are the minor characters sufficiently clear or too flat?
  • In your opinion, is it clearly aimed at a certain type of reader?

Activity 7.2 Reviewing an extract

Read the extract from the opening pages of Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz below. (It is also available as a PDF [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   for your convenience.) Consider its overall impact, and whether you think it works.

Is it a page turner? Also, think about the following:

  • setting
  • point of view
  • type of language
  • sentence structure.

Identifying the techniques and methods of other writers will influence and help your own style.

Toni Morrison – Jazz

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.’

The snow she ran through was so windswept she left no footprints in it, so for a time nobody knew exactly where on Lenox Avenue she lived. But, like me, they knew who she was, who she had to be, because they knew that her husband, Joe Trace, was the one who shot the girl. There was never anyone to prosecute him because nobody actually saw him do it, and the dead girl’s aunt didn’t want to throw money to helpless lawyers or laughing cops when she knew the expense wouldn’t improve anything. Besides, she found out that the man who killed her niece cried all day and for him and for Violet that is as bad as jail.

Regardless of the grief Violet caused, her name was brought up at the January meeting of the Salem Women’s Club as someone needing assistance, but it was voted down because only prayer – not money – could help her now, because she had a more or less able husband (who needed to stop feeling sorry for himself), and because a man and his family on 134th Street had lost everything in a fire. The Club mobilized itself to come to the burnt-out family’s aid and left Violet to figure out on her own what the matter was and how to fix it.

She is awfully skinny, Violet; fifty, but still good looking when she broke up the funeral. You’d think that being thrown out the church would be the end of it – the shame and all – but it wasn’t. Violet is mean enough and good looking enough to think that even without hips or youth she could punish Joe by getting herself a boyfriend and letting him visit in her own house. She thought it would dry his tears up and give her some satisfaction as well. It could have worked, I suppose, but the children of suicides are hard to please and quick to believe no one loves them because they are not really here.

Anyway, Joe didn’t pay Violet or her friend any notice. Whether she sent the boyfriend away or whether he quit her, I can’t say. He may have come to feel that Violet’s gifts were poor measured against his sympathy for the brokenhearted man in the next room. But I do know that mess didn’t last two weeks. Violet’s next plan – to fall back in love with her husband – whipped her before it got on a good footing. Washing his handkerchiefs and putting food on the table before him was the most she could manage. A poisoned silence floated through the rooms like a big fishnet

that Violet alone slashed through with loud recriminations. Joe’s daytime listlessness and both their worrying nights must have wore her down. So she decided to love – well, find out about – the eighteen-year-old whose creamy little face she tried to cut open even though nothing would have come out but straw.

Violet didn’t know anything about the girl at first except her name, her age, and that she was very well thought of in the legally licensed beauty parlor. So she commenced to gather the rest of the information. Maybe she thought she could solve the mystery of love that way. Good luck and let me know.

She questioned everybody, starting with Malvonne, an upstairs neighbor – the one who told her about Joe’s dirt in the first place and whose apartment he and the girl used as a love nest. From Malvonne she learned the girl’s address and whose child she was. From the legally licensed beauticians she found out what kind of lip rouge the girl wore; the marcelling iron they used on her (though I suspect that girl didn’t need to straighten her hair); the band the girl liked best (Slim Bates’ Ebony Keys which is pretty good except for his vocalist who must be his woman since why else would he let her insult his band). And when she was shown how, Violet did the dance steps the dead girl used to do. All that. When she had the steps down pat – her knees just so – everybody, including the ex-boyfriend, got disgusted with her and I can see why. It was like watching an old street pigeon pecking the crust of a sardine sandwich the cats left behind. But Violet was nothing but persistent and no wisecrack or ugly look stopped her. She haunted PS-89 to talk to teachers who knew the girl. JHS-139 too because the girl went there before fooling around in vocational classes, since there were no high schools in that district a colored girl could attend. And for a long time she pestered the girl’s aunt, a dignified lady who did fine work off and on in the garment district, until the aunt broke down and began to look forward to Violet’s visits for a chat about youth and misbehavior. The aunt showed all the dead girl’s things to Violet and it became clear to her (as it was to me) that this niece had been hardheaded as well as sly.

One particular thing the aunt showed her, and eventually let Violet keep for a few weeks, was a picture of the girl’s face. Not smiling, but alive at least and very bold. Violet had the nerve to put it on the fireplace mantel in her own parlor and both she and Joe looked at it in bewilderment.

It promised to be a mighty bleak household, what with the birds gone and the two of them wiping their cheeks all day, but when spring came to the City Violet saw, coming into the building with an Okeh record under her arm and carrying some stewmeat wrapped in butcher paper, another girl with four marcelled waves on each side of her head. Violet invited her in to examine the record and that’s how that scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue began. What turned out different was who shot whom.

(Morrison, 1992, p. 6)