Kafka’s Tips on Writing – Jack Engelhard

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on February 24, 2008 0 Comments

I’ve always disagreed with Hemingway on his notion that newspaper reporting “blunts the instrument” for writing good and true fiction.

My favorite novels open with a bang, like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

There are exceptions, of course, but usually I fall asleep when a novelist (or short story writer) starts me off with tons of weather and landscape.

That’s why, I guess, I’m no fan of Philip Roth. “Get to the point!” I keep yelling. (That’s not Literature. That’s kvetching.)

In fact, get to the point right at the start.

I was once chastised by a reviewer for precisely that sin – “Engelhard wastes no time in setting the plot,” ran the complaint.

Guilty – just as I’m guilty of running my career as a novelist alongside my career as a journalist. I’ve spent many years on the police beat and as a combat reporter.

In journalism we learn that everything ought to be summed up in the lead sentence or paragraph –or the “lede” in newspaper parlance.

The rest is commentary.

One rule above all for writers — never get caught “writing.” That’s like an actor getting caught “acting.”

Franz Kafka, perhaps the greatest novelist of recent times (or any time) had journalism in his background and he had the heart and soul of a reporter, and that’s why I’m so taken by him. His openings are a marvel of brevity, and he sure wastes no time drawing us in.

That’s newspapering – like this:

“As Gregory Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Wow! That’s from “The Metamorphosis.” That’s also how you’d write it for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -on deadline.

Or this:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

Great novel, great opening – but that lede also can’t be beat for terrific newspaper reporting.

Kafka is not alone (though perhaps the best) in using the fundamentals of journalism for novel-writing.

Here’s Charles Bukowski’s opening for “Post Office”: “It began as a mistake.”

That’s not as explicit as Kafka, but we know that strangeness awaits us as we move along. He’s got us hooked.

As I’ve said before, James M. Cain is turning out to be my favorite “old school” novelist. No weather or landscapes for Cain.

Cain never wasted a single word and so far as precision, he made Hemingway sound like a blabbermouth by comparison.

(I still say Hemingway is the father of us all. No knock – though if Cain had written “The Sun Also Rises,” well, that novel would have run 147 pages instead of 274.)

So here’s Cain’s opening for “The Postman Always Rings Twice” -

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

True, this doesn’t tell us as much as Kafka – but consider how much we already know from those nine words.

We know that we’re dealing with a hobo, a bum, a man on the run – trouble ahead.

I won’t comment on another writer whose opening I think works darned well, like this: “The man was playing blackjack for a hundred thousand dollars a hand.”

I’ll let you guess the writer.

Anyhow, I still say that once you’ve got the opening, you’ve got the novel. From there, it’s easy, compared, to say, the ending.

Endings are impossible and almost never work.

About the author: Novelist Jack Engelhard’s international bestseller “Indecent Proposal” is now available on Kindle (as well  as paperback). The novel was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His historical hardback novel on the 1960s, JFK and Greenwich Village, “The Days of the Bitter End,” is due for Kindle shortly. Website: www.indecentviews.com


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