Wednesday, May 17, 2006

JSB: The Three Rules for Writing A Novel – Part III

John D. MacDonald's third desire in a novel was "a bit of magic in [the] prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing."

This is the matter of style, and it is the "rule" for a novel that is least amenable to being taught. Some writers have a pleasing style that seems effortless. It may well be (I think Stephen King is like this), while others have to work harder at it.

The key word in MacDonald's quote is unobtrusive. If the prose stands out too much, shouting "Look at me! I'm wonderful writing!" then the suspension of disbelief takes a hit.

A lot of the examples I like come from the hardboiled tradition. Such as Robert B. Parker's Pale Kings and Princes:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley's office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and died.

Or John D. MacDonald's Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

Fiction of a more literary stripe is usually built on a foundation of unobtrusive poetry. In John Fante's Ask the Dust, the would be writer Arturo Bandini has severe writer's block, typing only two words in two days: palm tree. Because a palm tree is outside his window:

[A] battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air. The palm tree won after two fighting days, and I crawled out of the window and sat at the foot of the tree. Time passed, a moment or two, and I slept, little brown ants carousing on my legs.

The repeated phrase blue air is ironical and mocking, like everything Bandini comes across in his quest for success. And the word carousing completes the passage – this celebration of ants mocking a young writer's pain.

I'm sure you have your own favorites. The question is, how do you get this sort of thing in your own writing?

One tip is this: give yourself time to write a lot, quickly, without editing. Say you want to describe a hat in one sentence or two. Describe this hat in 200 or 300 words. Let the images a fly. Only then go back and find the good parts and edit them down.

In fact, the right brain/left brain dynamic is crucial here. Find ways to write without the inner editor, for long periods of time. Write hot, then revise cool.

And read some poetry. Ray Bradbury reads poetry every day. The lilt of the language will help you tap into different parts of your writer's brain.

So there you have it. Three "rules" for writing a novel. Perhaps it would be better to describe these as ideals. Strive for them. Work to be better than you are. Make your reach exceed your grasp. You may never write the greatest novel of all time (Mr. Dostoesvky has probably taken care of that little item). But your work will kick up to a higher plane than you've known before, and that's a nice feeling for a writer.

James Scott Bell is the author, most recently, of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books). Among his many awards are the esteemed Charis "It was a Dark and Stormy Night" Snoopy Award. "The Suspense Never Rests."


At 9:39 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Unobtrusive poetry. Now, that was well put. That's exactly what I'm aiming for. Though I believe story is king, excellent writing--prose that sing-- make me happier than is sane.

That was an excellent series, thanks so much for doing it.


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