Elmore Leonard Talks About His Writing Process

“On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” — Robert Louis Stevenson

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  In a similar way, psychology itself, when pushed to any nicety, discovers an abhorrent baldness, but rather from the fault of our analysis than from any poverty native to the mind.  And perhaps in æsthetics the reason is the same: those disclosures which seem fatal to the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious and unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive, and hints of ancient harmonies in nature.  This ignorance at least is largely irremediable.  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man.  The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that

‘Still the less they understand,
The more they admire the sleight-of-hand,’

many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure.  I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

1.  Choice of Words.—The art of literature stands apart from among its sisters, because the material in which the literary artist works is the dialect of life; hence, on the one hand, a strange freshness and immediacy of address to the public mind, which is ready prepared to understand it; but hence, on the other, a singular limitation.  The sister arts enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the modeller’s clay; literature alone is condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words.  You have seen these blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a pediment, a third a window or a vase.  It is with blocks of just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to design the palace of his art.  Nor is this all; for since these blocks, or words, are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import.

Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed.  It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.  But though this form of merit is without doubt the most sensible and seizing, it is far from being equally present in all writers.  The effect of words in Shakespeare, their singular justice, significance, and poetic charm, is different, indeed, from the effect of words in Addison or Fielding.  Or, to take an example nearer home, the words in Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like the faces of men furiously moved; whilst the words in Macaulay, apt enough to convey his meaning, harmonious enough in sound, yet glide from the memory like undistinguished elements in a general effect.  But the first class of writers have no monopoly of literary merit.  There is a sense in which Addison is superior to Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero is better than Tacitus, in which Voltaire excels Montaigne: it certainly lies not in the choice of words; it lies not in the interest or value of the matter; it lies not in force of intellect, of poetry, or of humour.  The three first are but infants to the three second; and yet each, in a particular point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole.  What is that point? Continue reading

W.G. Sebald’s Former Students Share His Writing Advice

In the fall of 2001—only a few months before his too-early death—W.G. Sebald taught a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. Two of the students from the workshop, David Lambert and Robert McGill have revisited their notes from that workshop and have compiled Sebald’s writing advice into a fascinating document, posted at Richard Skinner’s blog.

My favorite section:

On Reading and Intertextuality

  • Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
  • Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
  • There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
  • You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
  • None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
  • I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
  • Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
  • It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
  • A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
  • If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.

(Via Conversational Reading; via Richard Skinner’s blog)

 

Margaret Atwood on Hiding Exposition from the Reader

 

H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Young Writers

“Literary Composition” by H.P. Lovecraft

(First published in the January, 1920 issue of The United Amateur)

In a former article our readers have been shewn the fundamental sources of literary inspiration, and the leading prerequisites to expression. It remains to furnish hints concerning expression itself; its forms, customs, and technicalities, in order that the young writer may lose nothing of force or charm in presenting his ideas to the public.

Grammar

A review of the elements of English grammar would be foreign to the purpose of this department. The subject is one taught in all common schools, and may be presumed to be understood by every aspirant to authorship. It is necessary, however, to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech. As a general rule, it is well to give close critical scrutiny to all colloquial phrases and expressions of doubtful parsing, as well as to all words and usages which have a strained or unfamiliar sound. The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbour a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.

Types of Mistakes

Most of the mistakes of young authors, aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects, may perhaps be enumerated as follows.

(1) Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
(2) Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
(3) Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved.
(4) Ambiguous use of pronouns.
(5) Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
(6) Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
(7) Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
(8) Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
(9) Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise,” or “He said the earth was round.”
(10) The split infinitive, as “to calmly glide.”
(11) The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met you.”
(12) False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
(13) Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
(14) Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
(15) The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
(16) Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me,” “Leave me take this,” “He was obsessed with the idea,” or “He is a meticulous writer.”
(17) Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena,” or “two stratas of clouds.”
(18) Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
(19) Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
(20) Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available. Many of the popular manuals of good English are extremely useful, especially to persons whose reading is not as yet extensive; but such works sometimes err in being too pedantically precise and formal. For correct writing, the cultivation of patience and mental accuracy is essential. Throughout the young author’s period of apprenticeship, he must keep reliable dictionaries and textbooks at his elbow; eschewing as far as possible that hasty extemporaneous manner of writing which is the privilege of more advanced students. He must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books. Continue reading

Tests and Composition Exercises for Young Writers — Ezra Pound

“Flaubert Taught De Maupassant to Write,” Claims Ezra Pound