You might remember an exciting post here in the last days of 2017 – the Triskele Big Five mentoring competition. Triskele is a publishing house owned by five authors (various posts about them here) – and in the months since that announcement they have been hunting for an unpublished manuscript to mentor. Once they’d gathered their entries and whittled them down to a shortlist, it was my job to choose the final winner.
I wrote in my original post that I anticipated a few challenges and lessons from the task – and I wasn’t wrong. Especially when I found the finalists were a widely varied collection of styles, genres and approaches. How to judge them?
Well, reader, I found a way – and it was all rather interesting. Pictured here is the winner, Philippa Scannell. Hop over to the Triskele blog for all the details … including my attempts to determine the winning formula.
You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.
Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.
A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.
I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.
Research – complicated but not really
I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.
Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.
Fiction for research – getting more complicated
Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.
Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.
Interlude, where I don my editor hat
Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.
This is not complicated.
Reading while editing – really quite complicated now
With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.
I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.
I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.
Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.
Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.
It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.
Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?
PS You can find Nail Your Novel here
Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?
A few weeks ago I posted about exercise and my ineptitude at school sports. In the far warrens of the internet, somebody at my old school pricked up her ears and wrote me an email.
We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’
What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?
Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.
So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.
First, follow your interest.
In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.
The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.
After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Three and Not Quite Lost).
My second tip is this: make your own rules.
In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.
All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.
So, to pursue an artistic life:
- Follow your interest.
- Discover your own rules.
- Definitely stare out of the window.
- Don’t worry about the sport.
But perhaps pay a bit more attention in maths.
Tell me your thoughts. What would your school-age self like to have known about making a creative life? What advice would you give?
How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?
We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.
Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.
The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.
We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.
Tip 3: Suit the occasion
Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.
For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.
I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman
It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.
More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.
All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Find books you want to savour
I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.
Tip 5: Try many styles
A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.
Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.
Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.
Here it is in a nutshell:
1 Strive to be understood
2 Develop an ear
3 Suit the occasion
4 Find books you want to savour
5 Try many styles
Or: to avoid this
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me
Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.
Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?
At school I loathed exercise. I had all the left feet possible. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t see balls anyway without specs. All creatures know when they are disliked, and I sensed how the games teachers loathed me. By the same token, they surely knew I did not hold their subject in high esteem. This is my school magazine. None of these people are me.
Looking back, that might have been one of the first signs that I should be a writer. Writers are creatures of brain and imagination. The sports offered by my school were the opposite – charmless, inane and pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum, or at least my nature does. Especially a vacuum of interest. Nothing on earth could make me interested in netball, hockey, rounders, and the summer torments that involved throwing, jumping and running. Again, none of these people are me.
These days, though, I run or take a class most days a week. What’s changed? Certainly I’ve learned to love movement a little more in its own right. But chiefly I value it as headspace.
Well it’s not news that exercise helps you think. If you want a bit of science, here’s a piece about it in the New Yorker by Ferris Jabr @ferrisjabr. If you like hiking, hop along to the blog of my friend Jane Davis @janedavisauthor , who recently published a collection of interviews with number of writers who walk including Yours Truly.
For me, exercise is a chance to unplug an idea from the clutter of desk life. It’s not just escape. The movement adds its own seasoning. I notice that endorphins make thoughts travel lighter, along straighter lines. I’m more confident to consider radical changes. Fatigue is also my friend. Impatient for a tiring session to end, I discover – and solve – problems I didn’t know were there. Some of the grit drops into my thoughts, adding an interesting edge. Amy X Wang @amyxwang talks about this in Glimmer Train, where the pain of intense exercise brings vigour to the page. Sometimes I find the results, back at the desk, are sublime. Sometimes they are ridiculous, but hey.
The Prime Writers @theprimewriters , on their blog, posted about exercise for contemplation, inspired by literary running addict Haruki Murakami. Some, though, were looking for exercise to provide a drastic escape from their thoughts. Jon Teckman @jontwothreefour said he started taking military Boot Camp training, because it was so agonising that thought was impossible.
I’ve yet to find that state of oblivion myself. No matter how gruelling the exercise, nothing turns off the tyrant book. Not quivering through my 160th rep in Body Pump. Not pummelling a pair of sparring pads while being yelled at by a boxing instructor. If I’ve got a book in my bonnet, nothing can dislodge it. I can keep the brain in one dimension while the body battles in another. (With just one exception. Riding a horse, you’d better pay full attention or you’re sure of a big surprise.)
If you’re ever in a class with me and I appear to look meditative, don’t be fooled. I had a yoga phase about twelve years ago, which coincided with one of my ghostwritten thrillers. I remember standing and bending through the Sun Salutation, while I figured out what it felt like to drown in an ornamental pond.
Yes, I’ve certainly considered that I might be just as irksome to fitness instructors of 2018 as I was in the Class of 1970-whatnot, because they know I’m only half-there.
And here’s the thing. At school, what I hated was the mindlessness of exercise, the lack of mental entertainment. I need an occupation for the head while the hands and feet are doing their thing. I’m afraid this means I’ll never be the kind of person who seeks a state of mindfulness; it’s not the way I’m wired. But I definitely seek mind fullness. And now, exercise provides a very agreeable space to take an idea for a spin.
Actually, not Spin. I don’t think I’ll ever like Spin.
Tell me your thoughts! Love exercise? Hate it? How does it fit with your creative life?
PS if you want to know more about the books I’m wrangling while I run or test the patience of a fitness instructor, sign up for my newsletter.
As royals get hitched in London again, I thought this might be useful…
If the little wedding in London is sending your head awhirl with thoughts of court and nobility, you might like to know how to get your royals right
First of all, there’s a general hierarchy. Emperor beats king; king beats viceroy; viceroy beats archduke; archduke beats grand duke, who beats duke, then prince, marquess, count, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, hereditary knight, knight and dame. Of course, we don’t have all of those in England. And plenty of other countries have their very own courtlies such as csars. More about royal hierarchy here, plus how long those titles have been in use for all you historical fans.
Then there’s how you address them. If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’, as though you were addressing John Wayne. Marquesses and their wives are Lord and Lady with their place name…
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