Reading an article about the American critic Harold Bloom I noticed a comment, attributed to him, that we should read ‘notebook in hand’. Of course, a critic reads in order to be able to comment, but a writer too, might want to make notes on what he has read, or more specifically, on what he is reading. When I was struggling through my M.Litt at Dumfries (and yes, friends, I did struggle, like a fish on a line. I thrashed and fought, but they landed me in the end!) I was given some good advice, among which was to stop when, in reading, I got to bits that incited a reaction. Those were the bits, I was told, that you need to look at and take note of. They type of reaction isn’t important, just the fact of it. Of course, the prerequisite for that is that you have to be paying attention. We don’t always read with attention. I certainly don’t anyway, I read the way you idly rub your fingers over a smooth surface (steady now – I was thinking a nice table-top – not like that!)… the way you rub your fingers over a smooth surface, and they are snagged by a rough patch. Some stories can work like that, perhaps they all do to some extent. We jog along through bland words and reach a word, a phrase or even a sentence that leaps out as us and makes us pay attention – or take note. That’s the bit, I was told, I should be making a note about. What did it do? How did it do it? Can I do that too?

There is an old saying. Sadly I can’t attribute it. It is that novice writers emulate, and experienced ones just plain steal. Ideas, plot-lines, details, characters, settings are all up for grabs, but so is technique. We can remember enough of a story afterwards to talk about it, but can we remember enough of the intricacies of its innards to recall, and steal, how it worked on our intellects and emotions at any particular point? So, it’s not just the critic that needs to settle down with a good book and a notebook and pencil. The writer might benefit from doing it too!

First impressions, we are told, are the most accurate, when we meet people for the first time in what passes for real life. I wondered if we have something like first impressions in literature too. If you’ve seen the film of the musical version of Oliver Twist, you might recall the first appearance of Bill Sykes – played by Oliver Reed. He casts his shadow, metaphorically and literally, before him. Our entrances and exits are important, in life and in literature, and often well stage-managed. (Did I ever mention that a cursory examination – of roadside signs -suggests that the most popular Hotel name in Britain is the Hotel Entrance?).

At a Facets of Fiction workshop recently I was interested to hear one of the group members say how much she liked the character in one of the stories under discussion. The character was introduced at the end of the story, in a mere two lines. There was a brief statement about what she was doing, a three word phrase describing her appearance. How could you like someone, even an imaginary someone – especially an imaginary someone! – on such a brief introduction? Was it because our first impressions are often the strongest, the most vivid, and the sum of what we have to go on at that precise moment in time? Could be, in life and in art. O f course, that entrance had been prepared for throughout the rest of story, was, in effect – you’ll know my opinion about the endings of short stories if you’ve read much else on these pages – the point of the story. But a first impression is no less a first impression because you have been set up to receive it.

There’s a film called (I think) The Chase. Marlon Brando, I think, and Robert Redford. Redford, allegedly, was given the choice of the two major roles. He chose the apparently lesser one. The sherrif appears throughout the film, from beginning to end. The escaped convict arrives in the last sequences. Redford chose the latter, because, it is said, he realised that the whole film was little more than a preparation for his character’s arrival. As with the character in the work-shopped story, there would only be a first impression to be made, and little time, or further input to revise it. and first impressions are important, when we meet people in real life, and when we encounter characters in fiction. Just a thought!