More on Writing

Via The Manc in the comments to my post on writing a book, I am directed to this article on how to improve your writing.  This bit jumped out at me, among several very good points:

As Harvard professor Steven Pinker explained when I spoke to him, if we’re going to learn the rules of good writing, it’s probably going to be passively from the books we devour:

“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”

And then, as William Zinsser explains, you can take it to the next level. Study the books you love and imitate them.

Whatever writing ability I have almost certainly comes from the fact that I’ve read a lot.  As the above extract says, knowing how to write mainly comes from reading a lot of very good writing.  My three favourite authors would be Raymond Chandler, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dashiell Hammett.  Why I would choose them is because of their style of writing: the way they weave the English language into prose and dialogue is one of the finest art forms I can think of.  I’m not much into the visual arts: paintings, sculptures, and suchlike,  but a well-written passage from the pen of one of the aforementioned three authors is as emotive and beautiful as anything.  Consider this, from Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely:

He wore a brown suit of which the coat was too small for his shoulders and his trousers were probably a little tight under the armpits. His hat was at least two sizes too small and had been perspired in freely by somebody it fitted better than it fitted him. He wore it about where a house wears a wind vane. His collar had the snug fit of a horsecollar and was of about the same shade of dirty brown. A tie dangled outside his buttoned jacket, a black tie which had been tied with a pair of pliers in a knot the size of a pea.

I first read that in my late teens and his dry, cynical humour resonated with me then and has never stopped.  Without a doubt, reading passages like this has not only influenced how I write, but also inspired me to write and given me the ability to do so.  If I could write to a tenth of the quality of Chandler, Wodehouse, or Hammett I’d be happy.

When I was in my sixth form and applying for university places, I had to write a Personal Statement on my UCAS form, which was basically a short essay detailing my achievements and how great I was.  One of my teachers, the physics teacher who I mention here, told us there is one sure-fire way to know if what you’ve written is any good: stand in the school quadrant and read it out at the top of your voice.  You’ll soon know which bits make you cringe.  That man gave me many, many good pieces of advice at a time when I needed it, and this was one of his best.  When I’m writing, I re-read the passage I’ve just written and think “If I read this out in front of all my colleagues now, would I cringe with embarrassment?  Or if it should somehow be leaked, would I care or would I be quite proud?”

Even yesterday I found myself deleting sentences which I felt sounded too earnest, or two elaborate: that advice, which pops up everywhere, not to “overwrite” is crucial to bear in mind.  The three greats I mentioned didn’t overwrite, they kept it extraordinarily simple given how poetic the final output was.

A month or two back somebody suggested I give the Welsh author Ken Follett a try, and so I downloaded his 1999 historical novel The Pillars of the Earth.  It took me only a few chapters to become tired of the weak prose: I’m even spotting repeated words in sentences, something even mere bloggers try (with varying degrees of success) to avoid.  It reads as though it was written by somebody in high-school for an audience of particularly dim adults.  But it became a best-seller.  The reason why is because the prose is extremely “accessible” and you can get through it without too much thought, and the story itself is mining that rich seam of medieval knights and religious orders engaged in nefarious plots and treachery which has made Game of Thrones so popular.  The characters are so cliched they might as well be cartoons, and the dialogue cringe-inducing.  I have no wish to read this stuff, let alone write it.  I fully congratulate Ken Follett and others like him – Dan Brown, for example – for being able to churn this stuff out and make themselves millions in the process, but it does raise one question.  Do these guys write like that on purpose, knowing it will sell well, and as such are true geniuses?  Or do they write this crap because that’s all they know and by pure, blind luck find that it sells?  I’d love to find out.

Anyway, I reckon I can do better than that, in terms of quality of writing if not sales.  Only one way to find out.  I’d better get cracking.


23 thoughts on “More on Writing

  1. I love a good fantasy, but I’ve yet to find anybody in the fantasy genre who writes like Raymond Chandler. Mayne Glen Cook, whose The Black Company is nice and pulpy; but in his case, if I remember rightly, there were a lot of grammatical mistakes and confusing constructions that belied the fact that the editor, evidently, hadn’t been doing their job. (And why would you, for a first-time fantasy author writing during a fantasy boom? Aside from ethics, I mean.) But I’m quite forgiving of actual mistakes in a book; pobody’s nerfect, and I don’t mind if things slip through the cracks (although I’d be livid if it was my book) so much as I mind bad writing that everyone involved with thought was acceptable. If that makes any sense.

    I understand fantasy authors have got to do a bit of world-building, and I understand it helps sell the atmosphere if they write in a vaguely “olde-fashioned” style; but good lord! Surely there’s a gap in the market for a properly well-written fantasy book. Sci-fi authors have managed it extremely well: check out Neuromancer and subsequent books by William Gibson. Diamond-hard prose, I think the blurb said, and it was right. He writes just as well as Chandler: extremely efficient, poetic when he needs to be; it’s even got a noir vibe. Opening sentence: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Perfect. But he also manages to do all the world-building within that style. So it’s not impossible.

  2. @ Hugely Ceebs,

    I’ve read very little fantasy, but the reason I was so impressed by Altered Carbon was because Richard Morgan’s writing style was very good and managed to create a very believable noir atmosphere. He wasn’t Chandler or even Hammett, but he was very good nonetheless.

    I’ll have a look at William Gibson.

  3. With one bound he was free.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged …..

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …..

    “What ho, Bingo.” “What ho, Bertie.” “What ho, what ho, what ho.”

    Actually, the funniest short story I’ve ever read was Plum’s “Uncle Fred flits by”.

    Here’s another thought: Kingsley Amis was damn good, but just occasionally you have to re-read a sentence to see what exactly had been said. Why not study what he got right, and what wrong?

  4. Most of us who try to write should, I believe, try to polish the opening sentence so it shines. Once that feels right the mood and tone is set for the reader and more importantly, for the author who can nor continue in the same vein. Or vain, if they are ever so proud of it.

    By the way, it doesn’t have to be a novel that has words and sentences that keeps you hooked. I have just finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns Of August’ about the build up to and the events of the first month of the First World War as the plans and schemes unfolded. She writes fluently and expertly about the various tangles of power and ambition riddled through with doubt and miscalculation that haunted Europe and Russia. It got to the point where I not only felt I understood the players and their aims but also grasped that it would make an astonishingly entertaining ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series. This after all was about an utter lust for power with irreversible consequences, and not a dragon in sight.

  5. For fantasy, with style: Ray Bradbury.

    Start with Something Wicked this way comes and go from there.

    Or Arkady and Boris Strugatsky for sci-fi that’s verging on fantasy

  6. “Well in that case,” I said, “Tinkerty tonk.”
    And I meant it to sting.

    “The unpleasant, acrid smell of burnt poetry”

    And, most assuredly, the first lines of the single most wonderful short story ever to grace the canon: Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend

    The day was so warm, so fair, so magically a thing of sunshine
    and blue skies and bird-song that anyone acquainted with
    Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, and aware of his liking for fine
    weather, would have pictured him going about the place on this
    summer morning with a beaming smile and an uplifted heart.
    Instead of which, humped over the breakfast-table, he was
    directing at a blameless kippered herring a look of such intense
    bitterness that the fish seemed to sizzle beneath it.

    56 words in that first sentence and yet it’s a triumph.

  7. @Hugely Ceebs,

    Have you tried Roger Zelazny? If you’re specifically interested in Fantasy, I recommend his “Amber” series.

  8. Unfortunately for my career as a writer I was struck by the magnificence of the first line of Anthony Burgess’ magnum opus Earthly Powers:

    “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

    and was always trying to emulate its concise wit.

    Needless to say, as a writer I was a not bad IT engineer.

    Incidently, this snappy opening is followed by a sentence that must be a page and a half long.

  9. On the subject of learning to write by reading I entirely agree. However, one must first surmount the tricky challenge of learning how to read. The majority of literate people do not have this skill. They read the words but they do not digest them. They are immune to the power of great prose. They are also lazy, hence the success of the likes of Ken Follett, who incidentally writes the best that he can. His boon is that he writes crap but he is extremely good at it. An excellent writer who turns his hand to crap will merely write crap.

    The reason is that Follett, like his readers, is also lazy. His books may go to several hundred pages but this is no great feat. Taut, effective, and beautiful prose rests on the dreadful task of eliminating words. Just as a piece of music depends on the notes that the musician did not play, so too does writing. Great writers infer a meaning. This leaves the reader free to fill in the blanks themselves. But this then goes back to the original point. In order to enjoy this process, one has to know how to read.

  10. @ Watcher,

    Most of us who try to write should, I believe, try to polish the opening sentence so it shines.

    This is a very good point. I’ve tried to write a prologue which will encourage people to first finish it, then read on.

    By the way, it doesn’t have to be a novel that has words and sentences that keeps you hooked.

    Indeed. Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game reads like an Indiana Jones adventure story in places.

  11. @ Adam

    Excellent comment, that answers the question I posed rather well.

    His books may go to several hundred pages but this is no great feat. Taut, effective, and beautiful prose rests on the dreadful task of eliminating words.

    This is absolutely right, anyone can write a thousand pages of shite. A hundred pages of quality? Now that’s different, especially if you can convey in those hundred pages that which would take a lesser writer a thousand.

  12. Tim, about those polished opening sentences: yes, they should capture the reader’s attention and make them want to read on, but they ought to put the reader in immediately the right time and place.

    I often cite the start of Watership Down not as great example of prose but as a way of setting a time and a place in just four words. “The primroses were over” informed me that the story I was about to read was set in wooded country, and spring was turning into summer. One may not care about rabbits talking and exploring, but to me it ranks with Orwell’s 1984 start about the clocks striking 13.

  13. Parker’s Spenser novels are good at the beginning of the series. End up in a rut towards the end.

    PJ O’Rourke on writing. He credits his style to working for National Lampoon. A lot of what they did was parody. And to be able to parody you’ve got to work out what it is that makes up that writer’s style.

    That’s very good advice indeed.

  14. O’Rourke’s writings are fabulous, and flicking through Age and Guile shows that he can write effectively across styles.

    Paul Theroux has also recently reduced me to tears of envy. Riding the Iron Rooster is a good read, written beautifully. Theroux is also incredibly honest, and unafraid of a reader not liking him. This seems unusual, especially in a travelogue.

  15. @ Tim Worstall,

    Yes, P.J. O’Rourke was excellent (I say was because his latest stuff is crap), and definitely had his own style. He probably knows how to turn a phrase better than any other contemporary writer, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by him as well.

    It’s a very interesting point that he had to study and understand other people’s styles in order to do parody. That must take considerable skill.

  16. @ Bastard Square,

    I have mixed feelings about Paul Theroux. The Great Railway Bazaar was excellent, but the followup he did much later Ghost Train to the Eastern Star I thought he came across as a bit of a dick (see here, for example). Plus, there was an encounter with (from memory) a young Russian woman which to me sounded invented. He is undoubtedly a good writer though, so will check out the Iron Rooster one.

    I take your point about travel writers trying to make the readers like him/her. My favourite travel writer by far is Colin Thubron, his travels in Russia are particularly good.

  17. @ Hewett,

    Yeah, I remember those parody articles. His writing is appallingly bad but I’d swap positions with him in a heartbeat. I’ve always admired him for churning out garbage that somehow outsold the Bible.

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