A Guide to Prose

Here are some notes I took from About Writing by Samuel R. Delany, which I could not recommend strongly enough for any budding authors or just people interested in the creative process of a novelist.

  1. Pick a microstructure e.g. sentence of observation, sentence of analysis, sentence of observation, sentence of analysis and stick to it until you forget about it. These are like stabilisers on a bike. These can also get you going when you’ve slowed down.
  2. Pick a megastructure and stick to it until it sinks in. E.g. a chapter about the protagonist, followed by one about two minor characters, followed by one about the villain, rinse wash repeat.
  3. Scrutinise your diegetic theatre. Are those curtains really ‘muslin’? Is it accurate to say they ‘caressed the sill,’ or did they simply sway free, untouched by anything but the gentle breeze passing by the window? “Fundamental accuracy is the sole morality of writing.” – Ezra Pound
  4. Don’t set out to describe a scene – simply mention objects in the room/corridor/street/field that are there, and might impinge upon the corners of your character’s perception. In this way, his/her subconscious is an emergent property of your observation.
  5. Avoid the “false flashback.” Tell your story linearly unless there is a compelling stylistic or structural reason for not doing so. Don’t muddy the waters or make things unclear for the sake of keeping a mystery or twist a secret.
  6. “Write as simply as you can for the smartest person you know.” – Blanche McCrary Boyd
  7. Distrust any writing that occurs to you in blocks. Write one word at a time, one clause at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time. This helps avoid flabby thinking and cliché.
  8. Don’t write in the present tense. This is a pseudo-literary affectation that causes you to write sentences nobody would ever actually say, e.g. “Kevin walks to the fridge.” It does not make things more immediate or personal. It’s just pretentious and ineffective.
  9. Reveal your hero’s socio-economic status as early as possible. The vast majority of great novels wouldn’t work without this information imparted early (War and Peace, Sentimental Education, Great Expectations, Ulysses, Middlemarch, Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables…) even if they aren’t consciously novels-of-class. IOW all novels are novels of class.
  10. Read as widely and as often as you can. When you do, imagine yourself in the position of the author, whether it’s Tolstoy or Mickey Spillane. Why did they make this or that choice? How would you have done things better?
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