The hidden secrets of writing with Lisa-Anne Julien

 In All About Writing, Books, Creative Writing Courses, How to write a book, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers, writers

I would like to introduce you to a fascinating novel called If you Save Me, by Lisa Anne Julien (Kwela Books)*, in another of our blogs showcasing the work of our past Creative Writing Course participants – and offering a couple of writing tips on the strength of it.

At this point in the novel, which swings effortlessly between London, Trinidad and Johannesburg, Carl, a surgeon in a London hospital, is agonising over whether he should perform a tricky operation on a high-risk patient.

Professional suicide. Forget it.’ Dr Khan shook a Sweet’N Low into his chai tea with a go-to-hell carelessness, before creating a centrifugal force that sent drops of liquid over the side of the mug.

Christ, this guy would make a terrible surgeon.

‘Tell him to take his wife for a ride up to Devon,’ Dr Khan went on, reaching for a lemon poppy seed muffin and a banana so yellow it looked like part of one of those plastic displays that used to sit in his grandmother’s house. ‘Let them find a cosy B&B, sit and think about the good times. Laugh, cry over the children they never had, blah, blah. Then let nature take its proverbial course. But don’t do it. Don’t get involved in that shit, man.’

Easy for a mediocre doctor to say. 

That was unkind. 

And why was he in the hospital cafe with this guy? Well, it wasn’t like he’d planned it. Dr Khan had caught him on his way down in the lift, staring through its glass sides at buildings made into shapes that had not yet been named and architecture from every century.

Agonising about whether he was fucking with Joel Sheedy’s life by even considering this surgery.

‘Getting out?’ Dr Khan had asked when the lift doors opened and the lunchtime restaurant bustle came into view.

He couldn’t even remember what floor he was supposed to be going to. Or why. And since he had this new tendency to run with any coincidence which might show him where he was supposed to be and what he should do, he didn’t simply walk past Dr Khan. Might as well get some advice.

‘Or maybe the Lake District? It’s nice in October … This table’s good … Suggest the Lake District.’

Have you met Joel and Niamh, he wanted to ask Dr Khan. Can you see that guy taking any leisurely holiday with the wife?

Notice how this passage captures you from the first sentence, because the author starts directly in the scene. She explains nothing. The dialogue is realistic, and is woven through action – the way Dr Khan stirs his tea, for example – which shows us so much about him. Carl’s voice is clear, which shows how well the author has developed him as a character, and she has used his view of the hospital, and Dr Khan, to show us not only more about them, but more about Carl himself. The entire scene is shot through with detail, which immerses us in the time and place, and illuminates character for us.

Tips? Well, follow what Lisa-Anne has done well.

  • Always throw us directly into a moment without explaining where your characters are.
  • Eavesdrop whenever you can to catch the cadences of real speech, and allow your characters to be doing things while they’re speaking.
  • Use specific and accurate detail sparingly, but well, both to immerse us in the moment and to show us more about your characters.

If you’d like to write better, whether you’re a complete beginner or have some experience, but would like to up your game, our Creative Writing Course deals with all these techniques in great detail, and encourages you to try them out, with personal feedback.

*Lisa Anne Julien won the UJ Debut Prize for fiction for this novel. Available through Amazon, Takealot and at all good bookshops.

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