Part 1: The Craft of Writing
What’s the most important rule of writing a novel? Get your butt in the chair and write. Got that? Good. But what’s next? What will take you from hack to Hemingway? Here’s an idea: read.
Read the kinds of things you want to write, of course. Then read things that aren’t like what you want to write. Read classics. Read poetry. (I’ve heard that Ray Bradbury read poetry every day. Reading his work, I believe it.)
But if you really want to write, then make sure you read books about how to write, and how to be a writer. And then read them again. While there’s no shortage of writing advice out there on the internet, do yourself—and your readers—a favor and dig a little deeper. Make these three kinds of writing books a part of your regular reading diet:
- A book about the craft of writing.
- A book about the art of writing.
- A book about the life of writing.
Without a doubt, there are no shortage of books that fit the bill. In this series of three articles, I’ll introduce my go-to picks for each of these three necessary books. Today, a look at one on the craft of writing. In following posts I’ll take a look at the the art of writing and life of writing.
The Craft of Writing
Writing is essentially putting words down, one after the other, until you have a story. But we all know it’s not that simple. It means editing, revising, and making sure your subjects and verbs happily agree. It means recasting sentences, weeding out clichés, and hunting down the passive voice and beating it to death. This is the realm of craft. It’s learning to fashion sentences that make sense; then paragraphs, scenes, and chapters; and ultimately entire stories. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is your good friend and guide in this pursuit. If that’s news to you, start there.
But it’s not enough just to be clear and concise and coherent. That’s the beginning of the craft, not the end. Simply sensible prose does not beautiful writing make. Your clean copy might merit an A on an essay, but bore readers who find your thriller less than thrilling.
Enter my favorite new book on how to write beautifully: The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth.
Does talk of eloquence bring to mind flowery phrases or shoehorning metaphors into every paragraph? Think again. It’s about learning tried and true techniques to make your prose pop. In particular, he describes the “figures of rhetoric.” Now: don’t despair, the figures of rhetoric are simply “techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording. Not by saying something different, but by saying something in a different way. They are the formulas for producing great lines” (p. 3).
As he goes on to say, “The one line from that song or film that you remember and don’t know why you remember is almost certainly down to one of the figures, one of the flowers of rhetoric growing wild” (p. 5, emphasis original).
Throughout the book, Forsyth draws his examples from the greats like Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens, as well as some more recent figures, like Sting, The Beatles, and even Elvis Presley.
Some of the figures are rather simple. For instance, the British super-spy could have just given his name to the woman who asked, but instead he said, “Bond. James Bond,” and we’ve never forgotten it. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be?” when he could have simply said, “To be or not?” but who would remember that? No one. But take advantage of figure known as diacope (see chapter 12) and you can create lines that people quote forever.
Or consider this: what are the three most important things about real estate? “Location, location, location.” You already knew that. Why? Because of the simple, yet immensely powerful figure of rhetoric that is simply repeating the same word in the same sense (also known as epizeuxis, see chapter 17).
Some figures are more involved and demand effort and care to craft, but are worth every bead of sweat to work out. The name of the writer who crafted this may have been lost to time, but his words haven’t:
“If the soup had been as warm as the wine, and the wine as old as the fish, and the fish as young as the maid, and the maid as willing as the hostess, it would have been a very good meal.”
Ha! This is an example of anadiplosis, taking the last word of a phrase and using it at the beginning of the next (see chapter 9). Apart from his habit of his syntax inverting, Yoda liked a bit of anadiplosis as well: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Which is far more memorable than “Fear leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering.” Yawn.
Or how about the beauty of a well-crafted long sentence? Forsyth writes:
“If I told you: ‘She’s beautiful and clever and rich. She’s got a lovely house. She’s always friendly. She has all the best things a person can have. She’s 21. Nothing bad ever happens to her,’ you’d think that I was afflicted with the most tedious variety of love, and you probably wouldn’t believe me. But Jane Austen wrote exactly the same thing as the first line of Emma:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
You can almost see Miss Austen winking at you over a cup of tea” (p. 55-56).
Now, true confession: I can’t keep track of all the Latin names. But who cares? If you read these chapters, if you take what he teaches to heart, if you experiment with alliteration and play with paradox, if you don’t settle for sentence after sentence of noun-then-verb, subject-then-predicate, you can learn to write prose that people might, just might, even pay to read. Imagine that!
Read this book. But if not this one, read something on the craft of writing. Dare I say, keep reading them, because you won’t get all of these tools into your belt in one go-round.
In The Art of War for Writers, a book I’ll be highlighting in a future post, James Scott Bell puts it like this: “A hero learns the craft; a fool doesn’t think there’s much to learn. A hero keeps growing all his writing life; a fool thinks he’s fully grown already.”
Words to live by.
Matt Randles is spending a year living in Paris, working on his first novel (actually his third, but you’ll never read read the first two), and is currently in the midst of seemingly endless revisions—that is, pretty much rewriting the whole thing from top to bottom. He plays bass in a cover band, speaks enough French to order coffee, and blogs about writing and living overseas at https://ayearwithmona.wordpress.com.
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