One Central Spot of Red

Recently, while I was interviewing Andrew Lansdown, he commented he was living proof anyone can learn to write. He claimed that no one could have started out worse than he did. His story drafts were terrible. I laughed and told him I was sure I could still give him a good run for his money.

But, as I’ve reflected on his words, I’ve wondered: can anyone learn to write? Andrew is a poet and as a result I think there’s probably an aspect or two he’s automatically assumed about writing that isn’t necessarily true for everyone.

Most aspiring writers (and sometimes even published ones) seem to believe one of two things:

(1)   that great technique—and this includes spelling, grammar, sentence flow, engaging prose, a narrative hook, all the principles of perspective and ‘show, don’t tell’—makes a wonderful book.

(2)   that technique is a non–essential—the ideas, the message, the information imparted, the events of the plot (which are subtly different, by the way, to the plot itself) are all–important.

As I receive manuscripts to appraise, I am often struck by the fact that one very critical element is missing in an otherwise excellent text. This ingredient is sometimes missing from my manuscripts, too!  George Macdonald said it best: ‘As stories they want the one central spot of red—the wonderful thing which, whether in a…story or a word or a human being—is the life and depth—whether of truth or humour or pathos…that shows the unshowable.’ 

What stories do you remember? And what makes them memorable?  As I asked myself this, I thought of the images, scenes and words from various books that have stayed with me over a lifetime:

Sometimes I’ve cried, or felt joy, delight and hope. I’ve caught my breath at some wonderfully unexpected turns. Sometimes I’ve even encountered a thrill of something unnameable.

 CS Lewis recalled once reading Tegna’s Drapa and words that seemed to come out of the high and middle air and made him, as he himself said, ‘crazed with northern–ness.’ Words that affect us so deeply they linger in our thoughts for years are rare.

But, as writers, that’s what we should be aiming for—that central spot of red that takes our books beyond a few hours of diversion or relaxation. We should be aiming to creates a memory that isn’t lost in a few hours because of the reader’s day–to–day routine but is still there decades later.

What books have changed your life as an adult? And what was it about them that made such a difference?  Can you name that central spot of red in them—the phrase or scene, story or interlude that has stayed with you long enough have shaped your thinking about what a book should be?  I’d love to hear them here.

As the number of traditional publishers in the world dwindle and the number of manuscripts they are accepting decrease, it may no longer be enough to have a well–crafted as well as engaging book. Technique is vital, but it is not enough.

Find that central spot of red to include. And if you have to, steal an idea. I have! I’ve taken TS Eliot ‘s advice: ‘Mature poets steal.’ (He prefaced this with ‘Immature poets imitate.’) With the spot of red, your manuscript has the potential to rise above excellent and become a work that stands the test of time.


  1. Charles Fivaz

    This is a challenging post, Annie. Two questions you pose are for me quite separate. What books have changed my life as an adult? Can I name the central spot of red in them? Mmmm. The ones that changed me did so in a holistic or cumulative way. The whole work spoke to me and I can honestly not remember (or rediscover on revisiting them) a “spot of red” that was central to it. Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” was a book that profoundly affected me as a young adult. It gave me life-changing insight into a dark relationship I was stuck in, into personality and into the tragic danger of naivety. No, it was the whole work, probing and unfolding, rather than a red spot that did it for me.

    Then, when I think of the “spot of red” that made books stand out for me, the thing that takes the book beyond the mundane as a literary narrative, I think of the power of a good metaphor. Metaphors can express so much more than the cleverest of descriptions, and a “red” metaphor is the one that knocks me off my restful reading perch and gets me standing up in ovation. A recent example is Sebastian Barry’s “The Secret Scripture” in which Roseanne tells the story about her husband Tom’s method of salmon fishing: “If he saw a salmon jumping, he went home. If you see a salmon, you will never catch one that day. But the art of not seeing a salmon is very dark too, you must stare and stare at the known sections where salmon are sometimes got, and imagine them down there, feel them there, sense them with some seventh sense.” This then is the metaphor for how Dr Grene was looking at her in silence as he tries to probe her case. And it is central to the whole book. It’s a stunner!

    Another example is the book I’m currently reading: “Mere Christianity” by C S Lewis. But this is different again. Not one central red metaphor, but loads of them, brilliant ones, full of wit and insight, pour out on almost every page. Each one is central to the point he is trying to convey, and each one actually succeeds in expressing the inexpressible about the meaning of Christianity. No wonder it’s a classic!

    • Hi Charles,

      I think there are a couple of large spots of red in your own Heartland. And yes, it is the metaphors that linger in the mind – I think that’s because, as Macdonald says, they show the unshowable. They don’t report, they impart. They don’t tell, they hint at something words can hardly convey. Herein, I believe, is the reason that fiction is often superior to non-fiction.

      Would the stunning metaphor of The Secret Scripture have been as impressive in a work of non-fiction? My guess is that it would probably have been impossible to convey in that format.

  2. What book has changed my life? There are several, but the most important is another Dostoevsky novel. I remember each with fondness (especially The Idio) and would gratefully revisit their worlds, but Crime and Punishment influenced me, certainly.

    The spot of red appeared many times in this book:

    Raskolnikov’s flirtation with nihilism
    the sordid death of the pawnbroker
    Raskolnikov’s illness and remorse
    His shame in the presence of his beloved Mother and sister
    Sonya’s Christian heart, a heart of love. Forced into prostitution to support her family, she is one of the most memorable characters ever to come to life in a novel.
    Her rescue of Raskolnikov—his attraction to her and her faith.
    The compassionate, relentless sleuth.
    His banishment to Siberia (Sonya follows him there)
    His new birth

    Anne, I’d like to mention Many-Coloured Realm, and Giyelmaere…Red spot for me.

    • Thanks, Maria.
      Giyelmaere was inspired by a picture I had in my head of a boy without arms floating in a sea of stars and faced with a terrible choice. I’m so pleased he is a spot of red for you.

      • Majorly — loved it, Anne, first because he was a wonderful character in a book of great imaginative power. Secondly, because of something we haven’t talked about.

        As a young person traveling to school on the bus each day, we passed what someone pointed out as the ‘Home for the Incurables.’ I was frightened and astonished by what was described as the plight of such seriously damaged persons. Giyelmaere is one of these…redeemed, whole in the best sense.

      • Anne, has this happened to you before or since? That is, seeing a somewhat complete, important picture that leads to a story for you? Is it ok to ask?

        • Incredibly, the most significant image of this nature was not my own, but my sister’s. She rang me up, just as I was proofing Merlin’s Wood for the publisher and asked me to interpret a dream and to suggest what a hidden image in it might be. By ‘hidden’, I mean she could tell me nothing about it.

          I told her I would pray about the image but not to expect an answer inside 5 minutes, 5 weeks or even 5 years. Just as I got off the phone, I was struck by an inspiration for a title for the sequel to Merlin’s Wood: BALTHASAR’S STAR. It was such a wonderful title, I got to work on the book almost immediately. It went through three complete re-structures before I was happy enough to submit it to my publisher. Unfortunately it was just at the time the business closed down.

          Some years later, I realised that the title was the answer to the hidden image in my sister’s dream. God had answered within 5 seconds! So even though the book did not get published, there was something great about writing it.

          Then last year I was involved in a counselling session with a woman who had been devastatingly affected by SRA. It was not something I am trained in, neither were any of the other counsellors with me. The woman was incredibly distressed and, when asked why she was there, given that she knew none of us had the experience to help her, she said that God had told her someone there knew something that would make all the difference for her. That something turned out to be the unpublished (and now probably unpublishable) story, Balthasar’s Star. Everything about that story keyed into her problems. It was like walking into a fairytale and discovering it was fact.

          This completely revolutionised the way I think about both stories and knowledge. There are some kinds of knowledge that are not available through scientific analysis but only through story.

          • Anne, thank you for answering in depth. The interconnectedness of events – of everything – in our lives, and the Lord’s answers to us, as He says, before we even ask, are astonishing. What is also amazing about ~ Balthasar’s Star ~ is that your sister’s plea for help and your prayer brought it to life, in such a way that you dove right in, as if it was something you’d been pondering for a while. He lives in eternity.

            That the unpublished book would help this other woman later on is wonderful. Yes, “There are some kinds of knowledge that are not available through scientific analysis but only through story.” This experience attests to the truth of this. Some things, some kinds of healing may only happen when the mind is given ‘symbolism’ as the treatment. It seems that fairytales can help us in a way that is very personal, gentle.

  3. Interesting post Annie that made me think. I’ve picked up on your ‘one central spot of red’ in my blog today about image and writers after recently reading Last Chance Cafe by Liz Bryski.

  4. Zillah Williams

    Anne, saw your article in the Christian Publisher Newsletter. Just loved this
    ‘As stories they want the one central spot of red—the wonderful thing which, whether in a…story or a word or a human being—is the life and depth—whether of truth or humour or pathos…that shows the unshowable.’

    All the techniques in the world, as you say, aren’t a substitute. May I quote you to my critique group?

  5. Zillah Williams

    Thank you, Anne.

  6. Hi Annie,
    This post really got me nodding my head. The idea of a splash of red resonates with me. Although I haven’t read it for years, I couldn’t help thinking of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and the part where Pip found out that Magwitch, the old convict, was the mysterious benefactor who’d paid for his studies and lifestyle.

  7. Just so, Anne! I think you’ve hit on the reason that sometimes even published books feel lifeless. They don’t have that splash of red…that mysterious something that echoes in the deepest parts of the human soul. Tolkien and Lewis mastered this element, in my opinion, and that’s one of the reasons their books have endured.

    • Hi Sarah

      Yes, Tolkien and Lewis did seem to get into the heart of it – one reason their writing has endured when, let’s face it, better writing has not. I have recently been reading some of Jeffrey Overstreet’s fantasies: they are gorgeous, lyrical, gem-like. And, on the surface, they even seem to include that ‘central spot of red’. However, at the end of the story, I don’t feel any real connection with the characters. I’m interested, but I don’t care. A true central spot of red should touch the heart.

Leave a Reply

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.