I finally finished Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. When I started reading it last autumn, some of my friends raved over it and others said they couldn’t get through it, and I nearly fell into the latter category.
In The Elements of Style, rule 12, William Strunk Jr. writes, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it ... Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Strunk goes on to say that “design” can refer to something as loosely structured as a personal letter or rigidly organized as a sonnet. The point is to know what we are trying to communicate and choose the appropriate organizing principle so we can write it effectively.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to fiction.
Know what a verb is? Let’s review anyway. A verb is a word that expresses action (example: expresses) or a state of being (example: is).
Of course, it's not always that simple. For example, which is the verb in the following sentence? Talking makes me tired. It would be easy to mistake the noun form of talk (talking) for a verb.
A friend who minored in linguistics and is an English professor taught me this clever trick for identifying verbs in a sentence. All you have to do is change the day on which the sentence happens, which forces the verb tense to change.
Yesterday, talking made me tired. Today, talking makes me tired. Tomorrow, talking will make me tired.
By changing whether the sentence happens in the past, present, or future, you make it impossible for the verb to hide. The word that changes form is the verb.
When I was in grade school, I learned Latin from a textbook that began by teaching verbs. Because Latin verbs contain information about the person who is doing or being, they can stand on their own as tiny sentences, thus making them ideal for beginner Latin exercises. For example, the first-person singular form of the Latin verb for love (amo) literally means I love; the English verb love means only love.
Ever since finding out that verbs can stand alone as powerful, one-word sentences, I have seen them as special. While we may learn nouns more easily than verbs when we are infants, I believe verbs are a more fundamental part of speech.
Verbs reflect a primary reality about humanity and the universe: everything is in motion. All things are acting or reacting, moving, pushing, jostling, flattening, growing, changing, shrinking, disappearing, being born. Stories are about this primary reality. Stories are about things that happen.
Good writing and good storytelling mean using verbs to express motion, not to fill in a static picture.
One way to choose expressive verbs is to prefer action verbs over state of being verbs. Compare these two sentences:
By searching around for some action verbs to write with, I came up with a more interesting sentence. As an editor, I’ve noticed that when writers are relying on state of being verbs, they usually haven’t clearly visualized their story.
That doesn’t mean we can’t ever use state of being verbs. I’ve used plenty of them throughout this blog entry. They balance the intensity of action verbs. Some ideas can only be communicated with state of being verbs.
But aim to use action verbs. Your style will automatically improve.
Last fall I attended a children’s book festival and came away with Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter (who autographed my book) and Jean Shirley (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990). Children’s biographies about children’s authors are doubly intriguing, and it had been years since I had read a children’s biography.
I remember reading a children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott as a child. I was sorely disappointed by the black-and-white photographs, in which Louisa’s and her family’s faces were massive and severe, and by the facts of Louisa’s life, which was nothing so romantic (I thought at the time) as Jo March’s.
As I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was prepared for the unglamorous truth about her life and the pictures of her as a sturdy lady corseted up in bizarre Victorian ensembles. What I didn’t expect was the sheer joy of reading a biography written for middle-grade children.
I wasn’t planning to spend money on my first visit to A Book Barn in Clovis, California, but I always check the biography section in used-book stores for works on Charlotte Brontë. In the store’s wondrous upper deck, I discovered a yellowed paperback about Charlotte's brother. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë was written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. A biography of a melodramatic literary personage by a writer of melodramatic literature? Yes, please.
This tiny Cardinal Edition was published in the early 1960s and originally cost 60¢. It begins like this:
He died on Sunday morning, the 24th of September, 1848. He was thirty-one years old. He died in the room which he had shared with his father for so long, and in which, as a little boy, he had awakened to find the moon shining through the curtainless windows and his father upon his knees, praying. The room, for too many months now, had been part refuge and part prison-cell. It had been refuge from the accusing or indifferent eyes of his sisters . . .
This is how it goes from beginning to end, a paean to Branwell, the hapless genius. Du Maurier wasn’t the best of scholars. Most of this biography is an imaginative interpretation of the research that was current nearly sixty years ago, with the added use of amateur psychology. Du Maurier seemed to see herself as Branwell’s defender, not just his biographer. Sometimes I found her ideas laughable. But in the last chapter, her passionate discussion of his tragic death brought tears to my eyes. When you read a Brontë biography, that’s what you’re there for.
The Brontës will continue to be of interest to writers for centuries to come—four siblings from an educated but non-artistic family in a backwater town, subject to the same traumas in early childhood, whose genius emerged fantastically before they were teenagers. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne combined brilliant imaginations with the literary skills of little prodigies. But all experienced different amounts of success in adulthood before succumbing to early deaths. Branwell, in fact, achieved no success at all, and gradually his abilities declined amidst illness and substance abuse.
I don’t much like Branwell, even after reading du Maurier’s attempt to rehabilitate him, but his sisters adored him, and after Anne died Charlotte wrote, “Still my nights were worse after the first shock of Branwell’s death.” Perhaps the most enduring element of the Brontë story is the siblings’ relationships with each other, relationships in which their remarkable abilities began and ended. In this biography, a storyteller tells that story.
One of the many reasons people read is to experience unfamiliar places, people, and events. Books (both fiction and non) are written about space travel, aristocracies, Regency balls, cults, dreamland, Mexico, and sports figures. Authors must sufficiently describe these things so that readers who know nothing about space, inherited titles, or dancing in Empire gowns are able to imagine them.
We don’t want to confuse or alienate readers by not explaining things with which they are likely to be unfamiliar. Nor do we want to interrupt our stories or talk down to our readers by overexplaining.
Finding that balance—a story that sweeps readers along into new, exciting, and imaginable territory—requires a sense of your audience. If you are writing a mystery novel that will likely be read by mystery aficionados, it is not necessary to explain what dusting for fingerprints is. If you are writing a mystery novel that features a person being murdered in a grain silo, it is probably necessary to describe the silo rather than assume that all of your readers have seen the inside of one (unless your novel is for a niche audience of mystery-reading farmers).
In The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope describes a failed dinner party:
Nothing was said on that evening which has any bearing on our story. Nothing, indeed, was said which had any bearing on anything. The earl's professed object had been to bring the squire and young Eames together; but people are never brought together on such melancholy occasions. . . . When the Guestwick fly came for Mrs. Eames, and the parson's pony phaeton came for him and Mrs. Boyce, a great relief was felt, but the misery of those who were left had gone too far to allow of any reaction on that evening. The squire yawned, and the earl yawned, and then there was an end of it for that night.
The earl had planned this dinner party for the sole reason of effecting a meeting between two of his friends. However, the plan became doomed when certain necessary people declined to attend and other unnecessary people were invited in their place. The dinner party went forward; conversation fell flat; so did the interactions of the two friends. Everyone regretted the evening.
The same situation happens to writers and storytellers when a scene or other portion of a story becomes useless. Whether the scene arose as a natural part of the story, or had to be constructed to achieve a particular development (as when the Trollope's earl planned an artificial meeting for his friends), we later discover that the scene is falling flat. Perhaps it makes the earl and the squire yawn. It's boring, it doesn't fit with the rest of the story, or it's not achieving its purpose.
It's always painful to take a hard look at something we've written to decide whether we should axe it—especially if we have a particular loyalty to the scene (or character, setting, or turn of phrase) or we've worked hard on it. And we may find that we don't need to axe it after all. However, we must go through the process of considering its destruction, since a good story has no room for anything extraneous. If a part of a story isn't doing its job, it must go. Cutting a section is painful in the moment, but strengthens the story in the long run.
When evaluating a problematic area of a story for possible deletion, carefully consider the following questions.
Is it necessary to the plot? Does it move the plot forward, build necessary tension, resolve a plot conflict, or provide important information?
Is it necessary for character development? Does it illustrate who a character is in important detail, show why or how a character changes, or explain a character's motivations?
Is it necessary to the story's setting? Does it help readers to visualize the story's physical setting in an important way? Does it explain the story's milieu so that readers can understand the context of the plot and characters?
If the answer to any of the above three questions is yes, is or can the same object be achieved in another scene? That is, if you delete this scene will the story still stand? Should you work the objective into another part of the story, or replace this scene with a new one?
Based on your answers to these four questions, you will either be able to cut the scene with a clear conscience, or revise it with a clearer sense of how to improve it. Don't let this be an instance where "nothing was said . . . which had any bearing on our story."
Interestingly, in the last chapter of The Small House at Allington, Trollope includes a completely extraneous subplot about the squire and his gardener. It goes on for several pages and has no reason for existence whatsoever. Even the greatest of writers can't let go sometimes!
I’m reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss on a friend’s recommendation and am blissfully enjoying it. However, one of the first style quirks that has jumped out at me is Rothfuss’s reliance on the constructions it was and there was (and it is, there were, etc.), as in “It was night again.” Out of the prologue and first twenty-one chapters, seven begin with It was. Rothfuss is a talented writer; he’s capable of chapter beginnings like this: “Chronicler walked. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good.” The It was beginnings stick out like seven sore thumbs.
I’m sure that some people will be very concerned by the title of this post, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I don’t think that Americans (or people of any nation, for that matter) should fail to vote or be involved in civic life.
Enough said. Here’s why I think we should take much of the energy we’re currently pouring into talking about, thinking about, arguing about, worrying about, freaking out about, and getting angry about the election and use it to read good literature instead.
Writing active characters is difficult. This is partly because passivity is a rather common human condition. However, when we put our minds to it, it’s not all that difficult to come up with things for our characters to do. The real problem lies in confusing action with reaction. We see a lot of activity going on and think this means our character is active. However, activity done in reaction to something else still indicates passivity. Here’s what I mean.
Six years ago I moved out of my family’s house, where I’d been living while battling mysterious symptoms that turned out to be chronic Lyme disease. Years of a downward physical and emotional spiral, during which I could barely work or otherwise function, suddenly began to reverse themselves when I received my diagnosis and began treatment. Meanwhile, I looked around at my life and despaired at what it had become. I couldn’t envision ever being happy again.
Then, due to a hellish juxtaposition of depression and circumstances beyond my control, I found it necessary to return to an independent life more quickly than my health permitted. I didn’t see any other option. So I packed up my car, moved to a different town, and returned to office life. For several years I tunneled my way forward, motivated more by the fear of what was behind me than a clear sense of what I imagined could happen in the future. My steps forward were like trampoline leaps, bouncing from one thing to the next. I was lucky. Despite my crazy path, instinct led me to good friends, a good place to live, good Lyme treatments. Eventually I started feeling better. Eventually I could breathe. When I came out of the darkness, I realized I had the community and skills I needed to dream of and pursue the life I wanted.
About six weeks from now, I’ll pack up my car, move to the other side of the country, and build a new life. Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to live on the West Coast, have my own home, and build a career in the world of words. And now I have that opportunity—an opportunity partly created by me, and partly seized by me when it came along. While this decision is still shaped in some ways by my circumstances (for example, I chose California over the Pacific Northwest because I expect the climate to be kinder to my Lyme symptoms), it’s mostly shaped by a life I freely envision for myself.
What’s the difference between these two scenarios? In the first one, despite my high level of activity, I was reacting to life. I felt rigidly limited, driven in panic to certain options. In the second one, I’m acting out of my own free will. Although I am subject to some of the same limitations, they do not control me in the same way.
An outsider might not know the difference. He or she might look at my seismic life changes six years ago and think that I was a hero, actively fighting for a better life. But (and I don’t say this to downplay all that I achieved at that time—it was pretty amazing) the truth is, I was mostly just reacting. A good universe saw to it that the right lessons were placed in my path, so that one day I’d have the capacity for making a free choice. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend that a story end anywhere on that continuum. If I were editing my life told as a fictional story, I’d tell the author that the climax doesn’t happen until much later, when the character finally decides to do something that she knows she wants to do.
Am I saying that a good story can’t be written about reaction, or that active characters always have to, well, act? No. Some stories are all about reactive characters who finally take those unexpected actions that spring from their own beings. We learn lessons from these characters; we pity them; sometimes we cheer them on. Sometimes, by refusing to act, a character proves to be active. And rarely is a character 100% active or reactive. The key is that the author must recognize the underlying dynamic, in order to understand where the real story lies.