TT: The Rag Week Rag

JANE: As some of our readers may remember, you made several resolutions when you retired.  One of these was to get a dog.

ALAN: His name is Jake. He’s a Huntaway (a New Zealand breed) and he’s a very gentle giant.

Ain’t They Sweet?

JANE: Another goal was to finally pursue your long-held goal of writing a novel.  You haven’t finished the novel, but you did join a writer’s group and have been honing your skills with regular writing exercises.

I really enjoyed your most recent one, which turned into a short story called “Rag Week.”

What was the assignment?

ALAN: We were set a homework task to write a story about supporting or donating to a cause or charity. I remembered a jazz band that some university friends of mine were in. They originally formed specifically to collect money for charity. I decided to write a story around that. So, in the immortal words of Hollywood, it was “based on a true story”. I’m sure that phrase will be very useful when I finally sell the film rights…

JANE: Very!  Your topic a great twist on what could be a very dull, even overly pious topic.

For the amusement of our readers, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs.  I’d really like to include the whole story but if I did there wouldn’t be any space left to talk to each other.

ALAN: If anyone wants to read the whole thing, they can find it at this link.

JANE: But don’t click on Alan’s link until you’ve read this part!  Otherwise, you’re going to get a spoiler and ruin the rest of this Tangent.  I couldn’t bear that.  Okay…  Here are the opening paragraphs of Alan’s short story “Rag Week.”

“Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

“We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

“The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I’ve got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I’m sure we can get a few other people as well.’”

First of all, I want to praise you for a great narrative hook.

ALAN: (blushing) Thank you.

JANE: However, as much as the English prof who always lingers in the back of my brain wants to discuss the many excellent things you did with this opening – the line “Paul almost plays the trumpet” is priceless and worthy of P.G. Wodehouse – what I’d really like to talk about is something you mention in your introduction to the story.

If I may quote again…  No, that’s silly.  Why don’t you explain it in your own words how you came to write this story in first person.

ALAN: OK, I will. All the events in the story did actually take place, more or less. But even though the piece is narrated in the first person, they didn’t happen to me. The double bass player for The Campus City Jazzmen was a friend of mine, and therefore I felt comfortable in his skin, which is why I chose him as the narrator. But I wasn’t directly involved in the band myself, so I had to use my imagination and make up a few things in order to make the story flow properly. Originally I wrote the piece in the third person, but I felt that it lacked immediacy. There was a distancing effect that I didn’t like. So I re-wrote it in the first person, and lo and behold, it came back to life!

JANE: Cool!  Why do you think the story came to life after you shifted to first person?

ALAN: Originally the third person narrator was a spectator who was watching the band playing its marathon gig in Slab Square. But that didn’t work because it forced me to start the story too late – the band was already playing when the spectator came across them so there wasn’t any way for me to talk about its formation other than through a flashback, or by having a conversation between the spectator and a band member, and both of those made the story sound as though it was being narrated by a Greek chorus that was telling the audience what had happened off stage. Also it was hard for me to find a convincing reason for having the narrator stay there for the whole of the gig. But of course he had to stay there so that I could finish the story properly. It all got too difficult.

So I tried again. I went back in time and started with the formation of the band. I told the story in a third person omniscient voice, but I couldn’t make that work either. The story was far too short for an omniscient narrator to make much of an impact on the reader. The events of the story started to feel too distant, as if I was looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. The omniscient, god-like narrator simply wasn’t involved in what was going on. The story fell flat.

JANE: Fascinating…  So we’re up to two attempts already.  This is becoming a story in itself.  Go on!

ALAN: I decided that the narrator really should be someone who was actually in the band so that there was a consistent (and much closer) point of view all the way through. I was still hung up on a third-person narrator (because, after all, I hadn’t been a member of the band).

The double bass player was the only band member I had known well, so I made him the third-person viewpoint character. That was a lot better, but it still wasn’t right. I found myself sometimes resorting to reported speech and the passive voice, and those two devices continued to give the story a feeling of distance.

Finally I bit the bullet and re-wrote it in the first person. This gave me an immediacy that I really liked. The passive voice disappeared and, because the narrator was properly inside the story looking out, there was a feeling of intimacy to it that simply hadn’t been there before.

At last I was happy with it.

JANE: Terrific!  Four major attempts and certainly lots of writing and re-writing with each draft.  I agree that you made the right choice.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and I need to run.   Next time, I have another question for you…  I just hope it doesn’t offend you.

One Response to “TT: The Rag Week Rag”

  1. Paul Says:

    Good opening. I want to read the rest now.

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