Why read novels that are at least 50 years old

Why read novels that are at least 50 years old
5. General

Why read novels that are at least 50 years old

Welcome to the fifty-second edition of ‘3-2-1 by Story Rules‘.

A newsletter recommending good examples of storytelling across:

  • 3 tweets
  • 2 articles, and
  • 1 long-form content piece

Let’s dive in.

𝕏 3 Tweets of the week

Sorry non-cricket fan readers – this one’s quite technical: an idea to reform the Decision Review System (DRS) in cricket!

Ramesh’s idea does sound like a logical way of dealing with the seemingly endless controversies around ‘Umpire’s call’ (Context: England captain Ben Stokes complained about the ‘umpire’s call’ aspect of DRS for LBWs in the 3rd India-England cricket test at Rajkot)

ICYMI – Open AI’s new product Sora can convert any simple text prompt into stunning realistic videos. Check out their sample videos and this Marques Brownlee explainer. What a crazy world we live in…

Show, don’t tell!

📄 2 Articles of the week

a. ‘Seamless Confidence: Of Sharks and Minnows’ by Nitesh Jain

Nitesh is a fellow member of a wonderful community I am a part of called the ‘Clear Writing Community’ (CWC) – folks who have taken Amit Varma’s Clear Writing Course.

For me, Nitesh is India’s Matt Levine – his ability to explain financial concepts and events with clarity, verve, and humour is superb. I wish Nitesh also wrote as often as Matt!

In this piece, Nitesh talks about a fascinating husband-wife entrepreneur couple (Mohit and Priya) from Surat, who are creating a mark in the world of tailoring instruction and were featured in an episode of Shark Tank India.

Here’s how I would recommend you enjoy Nitesh’ piece. First, watch the Shark Tank video. You will be acquainted with Mohit and Priya’s story as told on the show.

video preview

And then, read Nitesh’ piece – it is a great case study on a key storytelling technique: how to control the release of information.

The only useful definition of narrative is that it’s a controlled release of information. The way in which you release that information is all up to you. Christopher Nolan

Nitesh’s piece is a masterclass on how to play with the order in which you release information.

For instance, he starts with a fact that comes much later in the video.

Mohit (25) and Priya (23) Gadhiya had a baby boy a couple of months ago. While this was great news on the personal front, it caused a major disruption at work. The young couple runs Raja Rani Coaching, a Surat-based tailoring academy. Mohit handles the business side of things and Priya is the chief (and currently, only) instructor.

Small business, routine occurrence, why are we discussing this?

Two reasons, one minor, and one major.

The minor reason is that the couple made a pitch on Season 3 of Shark Tank India, the reality show where small businesses pitch seasoned entrepreneurs (“sharks”) for venture funding and mentoring. Incidentally, that’s how I heard about them.

The major reason is that Mohit and Priya could just as easily open a coaching institute to teach “sharks” how to build a business

And then he drops some jaw-dropping facts about this incredible couple:

Raja Rani is in the business of upskilling existing tailors and training new ones- they have had 70000+ students till date, both offline in their Surat institute and online on their app. Oh, did I mention they have an app? Where they offer online vocational training? Where the cheapest course is ₹99? Classic shampoo sachet strategy.

So now they’re planning to introduce a Boutique Management course, to be run by Mohit. It sounds like an express MBA focused on starting and operating your own fashion boutique – the top of the tailoring food chain, where you design and develop custom apparel under your own name, a mini-maison.

Courses in fashion photography and other related skills are also planned, probably with outside instructors.

We’re not done yet. Tailoring is a craft, and not all students may be able to reach the same skill level. So Priya ma’am has developed stencils for blouses- usually the toughest garment to get right. And these are for sale in a variety of sizes. Yup, they do merchandise too.

All this, without selling customer data, mis-selling courses or burning money to acquire customers.

Mohit and Priya’s story is inspiring. As is the storytelling.

b. ‘Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here’ by Sarthak Dev

This piece is written by another CWC member, Sarthak Dev. It’s about the inspiring story of cricketer Sarfaraz Khan, who successfully debuted for India in the Rajkot test recently.

Sarthak starts with some of Sarfaraz’s exploits from his school cricket days (I loved the last line in this para):

After that 439 knock, he was swarmed by journalists. Just twelve, what were his ambitions? Ranji Trophy, he is believed to have said. Lurking nearby, a silent sentinel to this blossoming flower – Naushad Khan, father and coach. Naushad, too, had stood at maidan gates, clad in similar whites. But life’s script unfolded differently for him. In Sarfaraz – and later, Musheer – he saw an adjacent projection of his dreams. Along with all his gifts, Sarfaraz also carries the tailwind of Naushad’s youth.

Despite consistent and impressive performances, however, Sarfaraz struggled to enter the star-studded Indian middle order:

Sarfaraz is, after all, a middle-order batter at a time when India already had Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Shreyas, KL Rahul, Jadeja, and Rishabh Pant. That is a lot of exceptional batters, with accomplished records, to drive past. Everyone wanted him to get the call, nobody quite knew who would have to leave the building.

But Sarfaraz persevered and eventually, the talented batsman got his opportunity. For his jersey, he chose the number 97. I loved the poetic way in which Sarthak described it:

Sarfaraz wears the number 97 on his jersey. Split into two, it reads Nau and Saat in Hindi. A silent nod to the man who laid the foundation. Naushad Khan’s name is forever woven into the fabric of Sarfaraz’s cricket journey.

🎧 1 long-form listen of the week

a. ‘How to Create Writing That Sells’ – David Perell in conversation with novelist Amor Towles (YouTube; also available on all podcast apps)

This is a fascinating conversation with a lot of useful insights on the craft of writing.

I’ll be honest – I had never heard of Amor Towles or his books before, since I don’t read fiction. But having heard him, I am now tempted to read his work!

Amor is someone who really knows his craft.

Here he talks about the importance of vivid descriptions to make the reader visualise the story (while not getting bogged down in the details):

Amor: …one of the most important things is to make the reader feel like they’re living the experience in the book to some degree that they feel present and as a result become interested in the characters and… can see things unfolding – their ideas, their thought processes, and feelings… Now all that really depends upon making the reader feel present in the moment and so one of the most valuable tools to achieving that in effective writing is through description that is sharp enough and concise enough that the reader can see where they are now… where they are not bogged down in it and then begin to sort of themselves move throughout the room and listen to how things unfold.

So in the case of ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, I know that book is going to take place – it’s almost 30 years – inside the Hotel. The reader rarely leaves the hotel. So I know it’s extremely important when I was writing that that to lay out the geography of the hotel early to give people a vivid sense of the key rooms early. Because once I’ve done that, then as events unfold the reader can feel like they’re walking through the hotel themselves.

Now to do that though, there has to be that balance – the description can’t be so spare that it could be anywhere, but nor can it be so specific that I feel like I’m being bogged down in cold cumbersome descriptions of the space. So as you’re working through the writing of that description, adding details, taking details away, (you have to) narrow in on the few elements that will really help bring that space vividly to life for the reader.

You might think that movies are made from books. But books are also made from movies – movies that play out in the writer’s mind. In this section Amor shares how he visualises the story scene by scene in his mind… and only then begins to put it down on paper:

Amor: I’ll be asking myself, okay there’s going to be this section of scene where the Count’s going to meet a young girl and that’s going to be his first friend, she’s kind of in the hotel too. It’s going to be in the restaurant and so what’s going to prompt the meeting, what are they actually going to talk about in this first meeting… and so in my spare time I’m just dwelling on that and I used to do while I was walking to work let’s say, I’d be like, oh yeah okay what’s going to happen in that scene and I start to visualize it in greater and greater detail.

I can see the restaurant, I can see the girl, I can see them dining, I can see their interaction so that there’s a humorous element (there), I then can start to hear the conversation, start to imagine that in greater detail. I see the food coming, I see the waiter, all these various elements and then in the notebook, I’ll start to write that scene and write it out by hand.

Now I don’t necessarily work chronologically from chapter one to the end of the chapter. It’s kind of whatever grabs my (attention), whatever I want to think about that day.

​But I now know that there’s all these various elements… to be investigated and I will do that for a couple of years so at the end of a couple of years I’ll have a couple of notebooks filled with handwritten descriptions of what happens in the book and only when I know everything that’s going to happen in the book and I can visualize it all, do I then start writing chapter one.

Even a creative fiction novelist uses his ‘left brain’ to outline the book before diving in:

Amor: I’m an outliner – I plan, design and outline before I start writing. That can sound like it’s very left brain, meaning very analytical, very precise, very organized.

​The reason that I do that though is in order to free up the right side of my brain when I’m in the writing process, the right side being the more subconscious, more dream oriented, more poetic side of the brain.

​If I have not figured out all these details – what does the room look like, who’s there, what’s their background, when I’m writing that’s the part of my brain (the left brain) that has to be in full action figuring out, problem-solving all these little elements of the story and it puts pressure on or dampens the poetic side of the consciousness.

​So the more I know the more I can then reduce the interaction of the analytical side of my brain and free up the poetic side to take over and then that’s where you start to get the poetic surprises, the unanticipated ways of putting something.

David asks Amor about his favourite authors and his interactions with fellow readers in a book reading club. Amor makes a great point about why one should read classics – or books that have endured for at least 50 years:

Amor: …we predominantly read dead authors you know, so I would say that 90% of the authors that we read are deceased.

The reality is that if you think of time or history or whatever you want to call it, history is not very good at capturing all that is great in art. It is not good at that. So there are many great symphonies that have been lost permanently. There are many great painters that died unknown and their paintings are gone. There’s novels that have been written that no one will ever read. So history is not good at capturing all this great art.

But history is very good at discarding all that is mediocre. And the amount of time that takes is like something like 50 years. So over the course of 50 years what will happen is a lot of stuff that was prominent will be refiltered and refiltered and refiltered and you’ll end up with a smaller group of things which have survived that test of time.

And so if you think about it … if you go back and look at the best seller list for 1974, there’s a lot that would have been highly regarded at that time which people do not read anymore for a variety of reasons. And there’s some that have survived and that’s a very telling distinction.

So in a world where we have – I’m turning 60 this year – you have a limited amount of time, all four of us have active lives, we want to make sure that if we’re going to sit down we’re going to read carefully, we’re going to meet and we’re going to discuss it in detail, we want to make sure that the work is rewarding. And the best way to ensure that is by drawing from the past.

That’s all from this week’s edition.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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