I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.
I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”
If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’s an excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.
I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.
I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.
8 thoughts on “Blue toes and good writing”
This is good advice. Very good advice. 🙂
This book is humbling. I’d prefer to think he’s wrong on some parts of it. 😉
That’s all any of us can do, Linda…tell the best story we can. Too many long beautiful passages that does nothing to move the story along can end up being pretty dull. I have to say that language is important to me but if I can say it in one sentence I’m not going to do it in five or six. I think we can still be clever without being too long winded.
I guess, as in movies, there are “special effects” books that are meant to wow you with technique. In any case, we must hone our skills no matter how we write. I certainly didn’t mean that all writing should be reduced to short, plain, sentences. I’ve just been reading some passages from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and love his “beautiful” writing. But yes, many times we use too many words, weak words, instead of a few strong ones.
I haven’t read On Becoming A Novelist in awhile, and I’m enjoying the refresher you’re providing.
The phrase “endure suspense” says so much in so few words — thanks for including it!
I’m almost afraid to keep reading it, Cathryn. If I see myself many more times in the negative examples, I’ll have to hang up my keyboard. 😦
What you need is a nice bouquet of flowers to help cheer you during these editing times. Head on over to my blog to grab it.
Thanks, Tricia. I’ll think about what seven “secrets” I want to reveal.