A round-Oxford bus ticket.
For the price of two cups of coffee, you can lay the ghost that wanders through the labyrinth of your heart.
You can finally get started on that novel.
Begin your pilgrimage in London at that railway station named after the eponymous literary bear, Paddington. Take the train to Oxford.
Once you arrive in Oxford, turn left outside the railway station and catch a number 4 bus to Magdalen Street.
Say to the driver, ‘Driver, please furnish me with that blessed parchment, your 24-hour dream ticket.’
Then look forward to writing the opening lines to your novel that very evening. (A suitable place would be in the Eagle and Child pub, where once Tolkien and C. S. Lewis talked to the elves.)
1. The Hook
You only have one shot at this, a few seconds to grab the reader by the lapel and not let go. So start with a bang: a humdinger guaranteed to ensnare the reader in the spider web of curiosity. (More about the spider web when we get to Trinity College.) You will need to visit Hertford College for this vital lesson.
To this end, get off the number 4 bus at Tesco’s and walk down Broad Street. Up ahead you will see a wonderful architectural feature that looks like Venice’s Bridge of Sighs. This is Hertford College, which is believed to be the setting for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
It was here that the charming and dissolute member of the aristocracy, Sebastian Flyte, introduced himself to the novel’s hero, Charles Ryder in a memorable fashion. He put his head through Charles Ryder’s ground-floor window and was sick into his room.
A textbook illustration of the Hook, I think. (For a more detailed discussion you might like this article on the subject.)
2. Practical Enchantment
Having sorted out the humdinger, the next stop on our tour is Christ Church College, where we will consider the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction, the art of enchantment.
This is where in the second half of the 19th century, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — better known as Lewis Carroll — taught mathematics, and more importantly, wrote the children’s classic, Alice in Wonderland.
The character of Alice is widely believed to have been based on the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell.
Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole into an enchanted world called Wonderland illustrates metaphorically what our task is as a writer of fiction.
We must inveigle the reader using a bread crumb trail of words into this wonderland, which is an altered psychological state known as the fictive dream.
It’s a form of hypnotism.
All manner of wonderful things is found in this dream, for which we writers provide the script.
But how, you say, do we do this?
How do we inveigle the reader into a trance using only a bread crumb trail of words?
The short answer is, no one has the faintest idea.
It just happens. Provided you use the right words. (Not just any old words will do.
To discover the correct words, walk back up St Aldates, turn left into Pembroke Road, and continue until you reach St. Ebbe’s church.
Now stop, close your eyes, and see if you can summon up the spirit of Duns Scotus.
This might not be easy; almost nothing is known about this Franciscan philosopher and theologian, except that he was one of the early pioneers of the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without sin.
He spent 13 years (1288–1301) in Oxford, living at an address now lost but believed to be somewhere in the vicinity of St. Ebbe’s Church. He spent a lot of time writing about something called ‘haecceity,’ which is to say, ‘Thisness.’
What on earth is that? I freely acknowledge my debt here to New Yorker staff writer James Wood and his book How Fiction Works. In this treatise, he talks about the vital importance in creating fiction of ‘particularising’ and ‘specifying’ detail.
Woods defines ‘thisness’ as ‘any detail that draws abstraction to itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability.’ As examples, he cites the cowpat that Ajax slips in at the Funerary Gems in the Iliad. Or the observation recorded by Orwell in his essay ‘A Hanging,’ about the condemned man being led to the gallows, who stepped aside to avoid a puddle.
I thoroughly commend the book to all aspiring writers.
Specifying detail rescues your scene from the realm of abstraction and makes it concrete and distinct. Thereby making the dream in which the reader participates palpable, vivid, and visible.
Imagine, for example, there is a murder in your novel. You describe the room in which the murder takes place. You say there is a painting above the mantelpiece. Specify! There was an old master oil painting above the mantelpiece. Now the reader can imagine it, but why not get more specific? It was the Mona Lisa. Ah! Now we have it. But what if you add more and say it was a copy of the Mona Lisa, onto which someone had drawn a mustache. Doesn’t that tell you so much more? Doesn’t it even give a slight clue as to the identity of the murderer?
I mean, what sort of scoundrel would do that?
Is there a madwoman in the attic?
If there is, I think we have our suspect.
Now that we understand how we use words to hypnotize the reader into a dream, we need to find out what we must do to prolong the trance and keep the reader a willing captive of our words.
4. The Cat Sat on the Mat
For that, we need to head back towards Tesco’s and turn right again towards Trinity College. Although if you are not in too much of a rush, why not retrace your steps towards Hertford College and stop off at the world-famous Bodleian Library. After you’ve feasted your eyes on the architectural glory, ask to see the First Quarto of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Turn to the bit about the horse.
Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.
Here you have a masterclass in the sort of words you must choose to construct your dream. Namely, short, simple, concrete, anglo-Saxon words. No polysyllabic, abstruse, scholarly abstractions here. Just the particular and the definite. Why? Because when you use simple words, the sort we learn in the cradle, such as the cat sat on the mat, we get an instant picture in our minds. (I have written in greater detail about this here.)
Now, leave the Bodleian library and head north towards Blackwells, the bookshop. Trinity College is to the left. This is where we will acquaint ourselves with the ghost of Sir Richard Francis Burton.
Soldier, explorer, linguist, ethnologist, spy, speaker of 29 languages, show-off. Sir Richard Francis Burton was a truly remarkable man.
He was the first European to visit the forbidden city of Harar in 1855; led the expedition to East Africa that discovered Lake Tanganyika; rafted down the Rio São Francisco in Brazil in 1867; and in 1885 — and this is the important bit — he published his translation of The Thousand and One Nights, sometimes called The Arabian Nights.
As writers and keen students of the craft of storytelling, we will be forever in his debt. Storytelling is the collective name we give to the numerous tricks and techniques used to keep the reader captive in the fictive dream. And there is no finer proponent of the craft than Scheherazade, whose genius binds together the many and various folk takes collected in the work.
You probably know how it goes. The Sultan — for reasons that remain unclear — decided that henceforth he would sleep only with virgins and behead them in the morning.
Not surprisingly, before the year was out, the town was running short of virgins. So Scheherazade volunteered to entertain the Sultan each night and spun a tale each time of such fascination, always breaking off at the good bits, that she managed to forestall her doom for 1,001 Nights. How did she do it?
Through curiosity. By making him wonder, What happened next?
Delayed gratification, in fact.
Which is the essence of storytelling.
6. True Grit
Now comes the hard part. The content of your character. Have you got the necessary iron in your soul to write your will across the sky in stars? It’s not easy writing a novel. Orwell likened the process to recovering from a long, painful illness. (His grave is in Sutton Courtenay churchyard, bus no X32.)
It’s a long, daunting slog during which you will be afflicted by doubt at every turn. You need to have a strong spirit, and for inspiration, in this department, we take not the bus to Elsfield where Graham Greene used to play Russian roulette; (alas there is no bus to Elsfield).
No, we return to the High Street and visit All Souls College, the former home of T. E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia. ‘I wrote my will across the sky in stars,’ he says in the epigraph to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and this he surely did. The book is massive. Amazing, astonishing, huge both in terms of the breadth of emotion, the depth of suffering, and the sheer number of pages. It takes two arms to lift. He finished it in 1919. Imagine how he felt! He had climbed his personal Everest. Finished writing a book that would remain long after the human race had perished. Then he lost the manuscript. On Reading station, apparently.
This was in the days before you saved a copy to the Cloud.
I expect he cried. But after that, he wrote the whole thing again from memory. That is what is known as true grit.
7. Plot Coupons
Now you need to return to Tesco’s and pick up the 306 or any bus up the Woodstock Road and stop off at the ‘Eagle and Child’ pub. This, as we have mentioned, was the haunt of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. We need to pick up some plot coupons.
What are they? Well, imagine you are about to start writing your novel. You have decided on your hero. Now there is a pressing need for your hero to do something. Usually, the hero goes off on a quest in search of the Grail/Elixir/Secret Formula or whatever. Something.
Now imagine the Big Something is guarded by the Big Bad Guy far away in the remote land of Hardtoget-to. Got that? Now to make a proper story, we need the hero to be considerably weaker than the Big Bad Guy. So how do you enable the Little Small Guy to overcome the Supremely Dark Lord of all Bad Things? It’s impossible, really. This is where the plot coupons come in.
You write into the metaphysical fabric of the world some sort of instruction, a prophecy of sorts. Such as:
If he collects the shattered fragments of the Goblet of Rupert.
If he steals a hair from the Goblin who guards the Gates of Scaryplace.
If he steals three petals from the Rose of Difficulty.
If he brings back the shoe of the one-legged shoemaker of Cryxhmmgarddegosh.
Then the Dark Lord of all Bad Things shall surely perish.
You see? That’s much easier. It’s like collecting items on a shopping list. The Small Guy just has to collect the items on the list, and the Dark Lord Falls. The point being, you collect the coupons and send off for an ending. (Hat tip to Nick Lowe, who coined this marvel. https://news.ansible.uk/plotdev.html )
This is what Tolkein did, really, isn’t it? The Council of Elrond decides to send two Hobbits off to Mordor to defeat Sauron. A plan that uniquely in the annals of history is both stupidly suicidal and suicidally stupid. Sam and Frodo have got no chance. So Tolkien adds the caveat. All you have to do to defeat Sauron is throw a ring into a volcano. How hard is that? If you think about it, if you are standing on the crater of a volcano, it’s almost impossible to miss.
Even a Hobbit can do that.
If this strikes you as a bit of a cheat on the part of writers, you are right. They are a pretty disreputable, low-born bunch of curs, most of whom would sell their mothers for a nice review. Are you sure you want to become one?
8. Gateway to Narnia
Finish your tour at the legendary St. Custard’s College. The only Oxford college built entirely from gingerbread and administered by unicorns. Be sure to pick up your free, ten-part ‘snackable’ e-course on novel-writing below.