On Writing

It was and I said not but.

Huh?  Say again?  That statement doesn’t make sense.

Well, a long-ago English teacher wrote it on our classroom chalkboard one Monday morning, and challenged us to figure out how to make it intelligible.  It remained there all week, ignored by some, I’m sure; but it captivated my attention, and I couldn’t rest until her challenge was met.

This was the teacher who first told me I had the makings of a writer, who encouraged me to write every chance I got, who supported my naïve ambition to write the great Canadian novel.

Beyond the importance of having a good story to tell, she said, and the necessity to populate it with believable characters, there are some essential rules you must follow if you want readers to persevere with you.

once upon a time

Number one:  correct spelling and grammar are crucial.  No reader will long stumble through badly-written prose, full of misspelled words, misplaced commas, and mistakes in punctuation.  Sentences contain subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and phrases; it is the good writer who knows the distinctions among them.

Number two:  an easy, flowing style may sometimes override basic grammar rules, but a discerning reader will know the difference between literary licence and literary incompetence.  Woe betide the author who does not.

Number three:  show, don’t tell.  Describe what’s happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader.  My teacher provided this example, the opening stanza to a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…

Contrast that with this oft-parodied opening phrase from Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night…

The first example allows the reader to imagine the conditions, to see them, to hear them, perhaps even to feel them; the second removes that opportunity absolutely.  The first draws readers in, engages them; the second renders them passive receivers of the information.

Number four:  if you worry about what someone might think of you when they read your scribblings, my teacher said, you’ll never write a thing.  Many years later, I was pleased to read what Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, had to say about that:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…

just write

The final example is one I devised for myself:  it’s impossible to actually finish a book.  The best I can do is to simply stop writing at some point, and bid goodbye to the people who inhabit the story.  For me, the process is initially about the writing; thereafter—endlessly if I were to allow that—it involves the rewriting.

And on that point, the wonderful American writer, Elmore Leonard, advised:

If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.

For me, the truest pleasure comes from the act of writing, of creating something that never existed before.  Ernest Hemingway, another superb American writer, put it this way:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it.  And it makes me happy when I do it well.

My English teacher has long since passed away, but I still remember her admonitions, her inspiration, and her love of good writing.  As for that seemingly-nonsensical sentence she wrote on the chalkboard those many years ago, a sprinkling of punctuation made everything clear:

“It was ‘and’,” I said.  “Not ‘but’!”

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