Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Unlearn to Learn

51mQLRMiC8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Writers observe, absorb. We connect with our characters and worlds because if we can’t, the reader certainly won’t.

All that observing and absorbing is usually good for the writer. Build up understanding. Learn how human nature works. Our minds are always a work in progress, like a historical building being refurbished. It’s been around a while, taken a few dents in a recent storm, but with time and patience, it will be a thing of beauty, grander than ever.

Until, you know, you have to deconstruct it.

I feel like that’s what would need to happen to write Dogsbody as Jones did. Here she takes this effulgent, a being of stars, or a star-being (even Neil Gaiman doesn’t know for sure), and sends him to earth as punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. Only he’s no longer a being of hands, feet, wings—he’s born a puppy.

And nearly dies in the first ten minutes of life:

…he seized the other puppies one by one and tossed them into dusty, chaffy darkness. They tumbled in anyhow, cheeping and feebly struggling. Sirius was carried, one of this writhing, squeaking bundle, pressed and clawed by his fellows, jolted by the movement of the sack, until he was nearly frantic. Then a new smell broke through the dust. Even in this distress it interested him. But, the next moment, their bundle swung horribly and dropped, more horribly still, into cold, cold, cold. To his terror, there was nothing to breathe but the cold stuff, and it choked him. (9)

In the previous post I shared the problem of what happens when writers write without caring to consider the true perspective of the characters and setting. Notice Jones didn’t even use the term “water,” even though you the reader knew right away that’s what she was talking about after the bundle dropped. The only reason she used the term “sack” was because Sirius heard one of the humans around him say it. THAT, I find, is an important point: characters learn just as we do. Let’em learn.

Or don’t.

Sometimes the perfect touch is to share a speculative truth about how something—or someone—works. When Sirius remembers who he really is, and that a powerful star-tool called a Zoi is on earth and must be found to clear his name, he escapes his yard to find it. Being a dog, he of course tries to get help from other dogs:

Farther up the street, there were two more cream and red dogs, Rover and Redears, and they, too, were uncannily like Sirius. Sirius was bewildered. No other dogs he had met looked like this. “Why do you look like me?” he asked Redears.

“Oh hallo, hallo, hallo!” Redears answered. “Beacuase we’re both dogs, I suppose. Hallo.”

“Don’t any of you ever say anything but Hallo?” Sirius asked, quite exasperated.

“Of course not. That’s what dogs say,” said Redears. “Hallo.”

Sirius…said good-by politely and went on. Now I know what Basil means when he calls people morons, he thought. What idiots! (83)

He also, well, had to take a break, because, ahem…

The queer strong feeling was driving him nearly frantic. It was so different from everything he had known before that he did not know how to cope with it. He knew he should be looking for the Zoi, but he could not leave Patchie’s gate. At length, he asked the other patiently waiting dogs what was the matter with them all. Most of them had no idea. They only knew they would sit there night and day if they could, until Patchie came out to them. And she never did. But one hideous old mixture of a dog, with a head like a grizzly bear’s, explained gruffly:

“She’s in heat. She could have pups. That’s why we’re here.”

“Is that it?” Patche said brightly from beyond the gate. “I couldn’t think why I’d got so many friends all of a sudden. Hallo, Hallo. I love you all!” She was in a very cheerful and flirtatious mood. “Why don’t some of you come in?”

None of the dogs could jump the high wire fence. They all sighed deeply. It made not a bit of difference to them, Sirius included, to know why they were waiting. They were too taken up with the feeling coming from Patchie even to quarrel over her. They just sat in a group on the pavement, each one of them panting with excitement, so that from a short distance the whole group seemed to vibrate like the engine of an old car. (116-7)

I had never touched Dogsbody before, and now I can see why Gaiman considers this one of her best. Not only does it smack of science fiction, it also has the out-of-human experience in a very human setting. More importantly, it is a story of the unconditional love between a child and her dog, a bond many of us know from our childhoods. Dogsbody should be read for many reasons: for the friendship and love, for the mystery, for the humor. A marvel in craft and character.

Click here for more on DOGSBODY.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

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One thought on “Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Unlearn to Learn

  1. Great example of the true perspective. A thriller came to mind where a muscle-clad character who normally speaks in short simple sentences, suddenly bursts into a half-page long philosophical speech in a foreign language, apparently without any accent 😉

    Like

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