Best laid plans vs. vacation

I’ve been too busy with two little charmers to write a new post, so today I’m serving up a re-post from one year ago. It’s a topic of continued relevance to me and, I hope, of some interest to you.

Blue-toed tree frog.

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.

John Gardner

Gardner writes:
“… 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.”

Anne Tyler

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.

19 thoughts on “Best laid plans vs. vacation

  1. Very good point! I think I too gravitate toward writers who use clear language and subtle imagery to support and emphasize content, what you could describe as style being subservient to content. At times though, I do enjoy authors who experiment with different types of styles, who draw attention to language itself, who play with language, such as many of the experimental Latin American and European authors. It depends on my mood.
    Christa

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    1. Yes, Christa, I always appreciate an especially well-turned phrase, which distracts for admiration a second or two, but some writers use so many unique metaphors, so much complicated sentence construction, or odd punctuation choices it leaves me more often in distraction than in the story. This is my taste, of course.

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    1. I don’t finish books I don’t like, and never have unless it was a school assignment. But I often start a book at the wrong time and set it aside for weeks, months, even years before I pick it back up and finish it.

      By the way, I couldn’t read White Oleander either.

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  2. John Gardner’s books are amazing and I’ve learned a lot from them. I aim for literary, too, but I like to blend it with other things. Basically I just write and do what works for me – what I’ve spent years building up. I think it’s working… 🙂

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  3. I suppose anyone reading for entertainment would prefer great storytelling over dazzling vocabulary and wordy metaphors. Yet a real artist in the craft could serve an engaging story and show admirable use of language skills at the same time; that is, with one not detracting from the other. I like to read compelling writing style that adds to the fabric of the story. I think from reading your post that John Gardner regards Anne Tyler as a writer excelling in both aspects, weaving them together to build the story.

    Your two little charmers must be entertaining you. I’m glad you are taking time to relax and enjoy them. This was a very interesting post, and I wasn’t blogging a year ago, so to me it’s new. Blessings to you…

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    1. Absolutely, good storytelling requires good writing skills else the incompetence hides the story, so as you say, it takes both. I don’t know what Gardner thinks of Anne Tyler, but I think she has the perfect blend of story and literary language.

      They are entertaining me, no doubt, but I’ve forgotten how much energy it requires to keep up with a two and five year-old. 🙂

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  4. Thank you for a great reminder. Linda. (Where did you learn of that dear little pedicured frog?!) One of my teachers used to say, “Tell the story, don’t write pretty.” 🙂

    Sometimes I love discovering one sentence that is the gem of the whole story, but, it’s true, I want the story!

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    1. I have a wealth of trivia in my head, Soul Dipper, so after I wrote the post, I just searched for photo of a blue-toed frog. 🙂

      I, too, certainly don’t mind a touch of poetry in the story, but if it’s essentially all poetry I don’t call that a novel.

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  5. This post is new to me, and I’m glad I read it. I enjoy reading stories that I can easily jump into. I get annoyed when writing gets too complicated. When I buy a book, I open it up to a random page and read – if it’s overloaded with imagery, I don’t buy it.

    It’s funny how the writing journey leads to discovery about our own writing style. When editing, I discovered that I also tended to write (or at least try to write) like authors I admired. It didn’t work though, because it wasn’t me.

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    1. I suspect we all imitate our favorite writers when we start out, Janna. Those authors are probably what inspired us to write in the first place, right? But sooner or later, hopefully sooner, we listen to our own voice and develop a unique style. 🙂

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