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Ali Smith's Writing Style

ali smith Nov 26, 2017

Five Ways to Write like Ali Smith

1. Write fast

The Brexit vote was 23 June 2016. Ali Smith's novel Autumn, dubbed the first Brexit novel, was published October 16th. Ali Smith wrote this book within three months or ninety days.

"It’s a brilliant and unsettling conceit, leaving you marvelling that writing this good could have come so fast." (Financial Times.)

"I've been thinking about writing a seasonal series of books for about 20 years now, and in 2014, after finishing How to Be Both, I realised it was time to start. This might simply be because I knew now it was possible, after Hamish Hamilton made such a beautiful finished book-form for How to be Both in a matter of weeks (!), to turn a book around quite speedily compared to the usual time it takes, and this excited me about how closely to contemporaneousness a finished book might be able to be in the world, and yet how it could also be, all through, very much about stratified, cyclic time." Ali Smith.

2. Write close third person

Ali Smith’s use of free indirect discourse, the close-third-person style puts the reader at once within and without her characters.

The first chapter is a masterclass in this. How deftly Ali works between 'him' and 'I'. Not since Virginia Woolf have we had such interior narration, so fluid, it seems un-membraned:

The sea is strange and calm.

Then it strikes him how unusually good his eyes are today.

I mean, I can see not just those woods, I can see not just that tree, i can see not just that leaf on that tree. I can see that stem connecting that leaf to that tree.

3. Don't be afraid of intelligent characters

Ali Smith dignifies all of her characters with intelligence, even the passing characters such as the man in the post office at the beginning. They have inner lives and convincing and appealing brushes with genius. How welcome it is to have a mother in a work of fiction who is not recessive, amenable or sly but seems to have a life besides that of her child's! The 'realpolitik' of the relationship between mother and Elisabeth is refreshing:

Elisabeth, who is tired of her mother already (and she's only an hour and a half into the visit) ...

4. Write contemporaneously

Hoorah for a world which is true to our times and not that fictional never-never land pre-social media. Ali writes close and keenly to events as they unfolded last year. She writes at a clip which feels true to the way news happened last year as well as remarking upon it in short arresting sentences (sometimes left hanging with poignancy.)

5. Deploy magical heroism

A memorable fiction gives second billing to a magi. He or she changes things. The hero of 'Autumn' is Nathaniel Gluck. Elisabeth is his pupil. (There is a pun there used by Ali intentionally.) He shows Elisabeth how to see, with his own eyes, in some beautiful evocative writing in which he describes to her works of art with splashes of tight prose, and detail. He is all about detail. It becomes clear that Ali has performed the neat bifurcation of self which I explain in The Ninety Day Novel course as a working technique for novelists building characters. You divide yourself in two. You set yourself at war to find peace. You take a less exemplary part of yourself and give it life. You pit the lower self against the wits of your warrior spirit. Gluck - Elisabeths's long-awaited eternal friend - is the vehicle Ali chooses for Ali to tell stories to Ali. A wise older man makes sense of the world to a malleable girl. He is an impish tale-teller. The book begins with him un-bodied and ends with him ever-so-slightly bodies. Never does he seem troubled by the carrying of human form - 'lithe' he is referred to in health. There is very little of him at all in the end. There never was. He dwells inside Elisabeth's heart and inside Ali's head.

There are passages in which the two converse barely distinguished between two persons; they are as one, the conversation is reflexive.

The book is well presented; with short sentences, large type size, short chapters, and an amiable, cosy cover. Towards the back end of the book, the story meanders off into slightly tangential narratives, a tad scholarly.

The brilliance of the opening chapter is never quite matched, although the 'white chapter', chapter four, is of a rare beauty. To me, these lovely lines seem to guide the colour blind writer, working on a second draft, how to pare back the work:

'He is peeling a white orange with a white penknife. The scroll of peel falls into the whiteness like into deep snow and disappears.'

Yes, you can too can write like Ali.

The elegiac opening chapter and the beauty of 'the white chapter' - chapter four may elude you, but you can create your own. Try using the five points above to get you writing somewhere close to the writing of the wonderful Ali Smith.


How to write a great novel.

Great writers are actively political - think Dickens, Tolstoy, Steinbeck - but they are not partisan. In it's account of Brexit, the book is as we might expect in terms of political sympathies. But the great novels have tended to the less loved, even the unlovable. Imagine this world of ours without the great ripples that became seismic from the publication of books like The Grapes of Wrath, Lolita, Heart of Darkness, and more.

If you write for people like you about people like you and people you like, perhaps your writing will be more akin to social media than literature?

Caritas - the greatest of human possibilities - the life's blood of the great novel - means  to love those we cannot easily love. Our accommodation with ‘the other ‘ is a problem for humanity at the level of the individual and the group. Victor Hugo gave us 'Les Misérables', Dickens the underclasses of Victorian England. Robert Louis Stevenson gave to Jekyll Hyde, Nabokov gave to Humbert Humbert. Coetzee gave us David Lurie in all of his disgrace.

How we deal with what is not good, that we deal with what is not good, is more important than the words, images and sound we use to do it. The fact of it, the feat of it, is what a novelist should openly, wantonly, naively, foolishly strive for. After all, doesn’t one write to rock boats rather than cradles? 

If you think your writing might lose you some 'important friends', you're probably digging in the right place.

Novels that rocked the boat.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” This was how Abraham Lincoln reportedly greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her in 1862, a decade after she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second-best selling book of the 19th century after the Bible.

The story of Uncle Tom, an African-American slave, brought the horrors of slavery to the attention of the public on a personal level for the first time, causing an uproar.
The novel greatly furthered the abolitionist cause in the north, ratcheted up tensions with southern slaveholders and, as Lincoln suggested, possibly even helped tip the country into civil war.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel portrays the harsh working conditions, extreme poverty and exploitation faced by the mainly immigrant labourers in Chicago’s meat-packing industry.
Although the book was written to highlight the plight of the working poor and the deep-rooted corruption of people in power, it also sparked a public outcry over food hygiene. Sinclair famously complained:“I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Still, it is arguably considered one of the most politically influential American novels of the last century. After reading The Jungle, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned an investigation into Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Within a year, the Meat Inspection Act was passed, along with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which later paved the way for the Food and Drug Administration.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

One of the best-known anti-war novels, All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the horrors of the First World War trenches from the perspective of a young German soldier. Translated into more than 20 languages and adapted into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930, the book spoke for a generation that had been, in Remarque’s words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells”.

It deals with the futility of conflict and attracted both praise and harsh criticism at the time, mostly from Remarque’s fellow countrymen, who felt it denigrated the German war effort. It was among the books banned and publicly burned by the Nazis.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Perhaps the best-known novel of Nigerian novelist, poet and essayist Chinua Achebe describes a tribal society falling apart as a result of the arrival of Christian missionaries. Written in 1958, the novel has sold more than 10 million copies around the world and has been published in some 50 languages. It is still widely read and studied as an example of the impact of colonialism on African culture and identity.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Robert Tressell’s 1914 socialist polemic about a group of honest men exploited by money-grabbing capitalists was based on the injustices faced by the working classes in Edwardian England. The workers are “philanthropists” because they slave away for a pittance, essentially giving away the value of their labour to their employers.The novel was an integral part of the drive for social reform at the start of the last century.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The 1939 classic chronicles a penniless Oklahoma family’s journey westward along Route 66.
An immediate bestseller, the novel highlighted the shocking Depression-era poverty and destitution of hundreds of thousands of migrants making the journey to California to find work.The book was banned and burned in a number of places, including Kern County, California, where the Joad family’s journey ended.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The words of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 tale of racial inequality in 1930s Alabama still resonate with readers around the world today. The book has left an indelible mark on generations and is a lesson in looking at the world through another person’s eyes.

Discover how to write like the great novelists with the novel writing courses at The Novelry.


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