Ten Tips to Improve Your Writing
Here are the notes for a class I gave the other week. Apart from some general points, the main focus was on the importance of the sentence as the building block of good writing. There are examples of some clunky writing from famous authors and students were asked to rewrite some sentences to eliminate repetitions or rephrase them so that their meaning was clearer (not always possible with Henry James!). Anyway, thought they might be of some interest…
1/ To plot or not to plot?
Stephen King v JK Rowling/Grisham Joyce Carol Oates – ‘The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.’ Kafka – ‘This is the only way to write, only with such cohesion, with such total opening of body and soul…’ Nabokov – ‘My characters are galley slaves.’ 2/ Early decisions – Third person or first? Past tense or present? [Room, Wolf Hall, Saturday] Dangers of narrative drone (third person) – ‘He’s cleaning up the kitchen, wiping his mess from the central island into a large bin, and scrubbing the chopping boards under running water. Then it’s time to tip the boiling juice off the skates and mussels into the casserole. When that’s done he has now, he reckons, about two and a half litres of bright orange stock which he’ll cook for another five minutes. Just before dinner he’ll reheat it, and simmer the clams, monkfish, mussels and prawns in it for ten minutes. They’ll eat the stew with brown bread, salad and red wine…He takes two bags of mâche from the bottom of the fridge and empties them into a salad tosser. He runs the cold tap over the leaves….He spins the salad and tips it into a bowl…’ (McEwan, Saturday) The power of voice (first person): ‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I woke up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.’ (Emma Donoghue Room) ‘I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.’ (Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang) Present ‘She pulls something out from under her pillow…It’s a tube of ruled paper…“Open it up,” she tells me…’ (Room) Past ‘She pulled something out from under her pillow…It was a tube of ruled paper…”Open it up,” she told me… 3/ Research – handle with care. Danger of overuse (McEwan Atonement) v Freshness of a new setting (Andy Weir The Martian – see movies like Everest and Deep Water Horizon). 4/ Description – not too little, definitely not too much. 5/ Process – write, read, revise – then repeat. [Nabokov] 6/ Take care of your sentences and your novel/story will take care of itself – the building blocks. 7/ Avoid repetitions – of words, sentence structures, and scenes. ‘They applied the caulk mixture to the seams, liberally smearing the mixture.’ (Michael Punke The Revenant) and ‘Suddenly the tinder burst into flames. He grabbed cattail cotton and set it to the lick of flame, protecting it with a cupped hand. When the cotton caught fire he transferred the flame to the tinder in the small pit. He felt the wind whip across his back, and panicked for an instant that it would extinguish the flame…’
‘Her eyes shifted to the woman. She seemed unable to bear looking at him and to find the woman preferable. He became aware of the bristling presence at his side. The woman was rumbling like a volcano about to become active…She kept her eyes on the woman and an amused smile came over her face as if the woman… (Flannery O’Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge) Editors can be very strict and refuse to accept repetitions within the same paragraph – sometimes the same page. 8/ Avoid Buckaroo sentences. Don’t interrupt yourself/get in your own way. ‘The great question, or one of these, is, afterwards, I know, with regard to certain matters, the question of how long they have lasted.’ (James, Turn of the Screw) ‘There was no choice now, no postponing the call, even as Zeno stood in the driveway staring with eyes that felt seared, ravaged with such futile staring in the direction of Cumberland Avenue as into an abyss out of which at any moment – (feasibly! Not illogically and not impossibly! – for as a young aggressive attorney Zeno Mayfield had often conjured the attractive possibilities of alternate universes in which alternate narratives revealed his (guilty) clients to be “innocent” of the charges that had been brought against them) – his daughter Cressida might appear…’ Control sentence length – limit number of adjectives/adverbs in one sentence. Overstuffing. 9/ Clarity – what are you trying to say? ‘Walking to church a certain Sunday morning, I had little Miles at my side and his sister, in advance of us and at Mrs Grose’s, well in sight.’ (James, Turn of the Screw) ‘The air was muggy and dense, in unpredictable places, with gnats.’ (JCO Carthage) ‘There was a rock band composed of local kids people liked, but the music was deafening.’ (JCO Carthage) ‘Ginger Spice: I’m having a baby aged 44.’ (UK tabloid) ‘Trump groped woman like an octopus.’ (UK tabloid) ‘Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.’ (James, Turn of the Screw) 10/ Read aloud – rhythm/music.][writers’ groups] Q – ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’ Q – What is the hybrid of third person and first person narrative called when the narrator takes on the voice of the character? [Pioneered by Jane Austen.] ‘He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found since he came into this world?’(wikipaedia) ‘She knew herself to be of the first utility to the child; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant making himself agreeable to others!’ (Jane Austen, Persuasion) and variants: ‘She stayed at home all afternoon waiting for the Greenleaf twins to come for the bull. They did not come. I might as well be working for them, she thought furiously. They are simply going to use me to the limit. At the supper table, she went over it again for the boys’ benefit….’ (Flannery O’Connor, Greenleaf)
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