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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This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Pressin Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This is the final instalment. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress
Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?
Laura Our submission readers do consider marketing potential, whether the author has relationships with well-known authors who might blurb, and—most importantly—whether the author has built genuine community and relationships with indie bookstores.
We don’t measure social media account followers or anything of that sort, though.
Roz Speaking of which … You’ve built a great relationship with authors and bookshops and a supportive community within the writing world.
Laura I moved to Portland in 2001, founded a writing group at a local bookstore, and then proceeded to watch the literary scene and write fiction for 10 years. I didn’t know how to engage—or that I should engage. I didn’t realize I could speak up, or be part of the community, besides as a witness. When I founded the press, I built on those years of being present on the scene, and that credibility helped me earn respect, blurbs, and consignment deals with local bookstores.
Roz I follow you on Facebook and often see lovely pictures of you at your authors’ readings.
Laura Showing up and listening and supporting others is important, of course, and that’s really how I built my community. I founded my press nearly six years ago now, but I also had that decade of being present, of walking into indie bookstores and listening. Going to other authors’ and presses’ events is still very important to me. I encourage writers not only to show up at events, but to say hi to the people sitting next to them, to introduce themselves to the presenting author(s) when they ask for an autograph, and always bring business cards.
Roz What about the Main St Writers Movement? (Reader, if that’s familiar to you, you might have seen it here.)
Laura I founded Main Street in February 2017 to urge writers to support each other at the local level—and their indie bookstores—as a way to strengthen the literary ecosystem. The movement crystallized out of the core values I have as a publisher. One component of Main Street is amplifying underrepresented voices. If your voice is well represented, or if you have social capital, use your voice to direct attention to stories that need to be heard. Don’t hog the mic; pass it. Don’t take up all the space with your words; leave space for others. We’re in this together; we need to have parades for each other and celebrate each other’s achievements. This is an anti-competition movement, a togetherness movement, and quite frankly, a quest to get writers who want to establish professional careers to actually support publishers, literary magazines, and booksellers, which strengthens the industry and then in theory creates more space for more voices. It’s really, at its most basic level, what I’m doing to fight the erosion of reading culture.
We have a Main Street pledge and newsletter, which is on hiatus right now, because I’m focused on a publishers’ speaking tour. I talk about community at every gig, no matter what the topic. Then I challenge my audience to do something: attend a reading at an indie bookstore, or volunteer at a school, for instance. I’ve been to Pasadena, Tucson, and several Portland events already this spring promoting these values and trying to inspire others to do this work too. Because a movement isn’t about a founder; it takes all of us.
Michael Ferro, author of Title 13 (Harvard Square Editions) has been quoted publicly about reaching out to me for advice, only to have me connect him with publishing community members in his own city, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a great example of what Main Street can be, because he took the example I set and is now passing on what he knows to others. If we all reach out and share what we can, we’re going to uplift each other.
Roz Michael Ferro? Small world. I saw that post, tweeted it, we then got chatting on Twitter and he’s writing a post for The Undercover Soundtrack. I love what we can do simply by saying hello.
Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?
Laura Figure out your business model, your distribution method, your initial number of titles, and the cost of running the business for the first two years. Don’t forget to factor in printing costs, mailing costs, design software, freelancers, Internet access, and everything else you’ll need to make your business run. You’ll find helpful and accessible information in Joe Biel’s forthcoming People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, forthcoming in late 2018 through Microcosm Publishing. If you want to do some reading right now, Thomas Woll’s classic Publishing for Profit is a great resource.
Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter…
This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress
Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.
Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.
Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.
Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”
“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.
Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?
Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.
Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.
Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.
Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.
Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.
You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?
Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.
Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?
Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.
Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.
Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press