There have been many books claiming to know the secret to writing ‘blockbusters’ and ‘bestsellers’. I have problems with books like this for two reasons. First, it’s silly to think there is a checklist formula for success in any competitive field. Second, I’m always skeptical of people who know the secret to success in real estate, finances, or some other lucrative occupation but rather than practicing that secret themselves and getting rich that way, decide it’s a more effective use of their time to write a ‘how-to’ book on the subject. Hmmm…what’s wrong with this picture?
However, there are many books on writing where the author simply wants to pass on what they’ve learned after years of dedication to the craft. Some of these books are priceless and offer real gems for aspiring writers. Ever since Homer wrote the Iliad, people have wondered what makes a story compelling, fascinating, and memorable. Well, some people have spent a lifetime trying to figure that out. One of the things we know is that a great story causes the brain to create vivid pictures. So one of the keys to writing better is to understand how little scratches on a piece of paper, or, for that matter, electrical ink on a Kindle, can push those synaptic buttons in the mind.
In the course of trying to improve my writing, I have found three books of spectacular quality:
1. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. An all time classic. A hundred pages of clearly written pearls of writing wisdom.
2. The Book of Writing by Paula LaRocque. Two hundred forty pages. Amusing at times, and always insightful.
3. Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers. Two hundred sixty two pages of clear principles and great examples.
All three books make a point about the importance of verbs and how even descriptions of inanimate objects can come alive if tied to action. Wilbers’s book gives two versions of the same description from The Great Gatsby – one that doesn’t utilize the power of verbs to create images, and the other showing how a great writer like Fitzgerald chose to handle it. Version one:
“The lawn was expansive with sun-dials, and brick walls, and flower gardens. There were vines on the side of the house…”
“The lawn started at the beach and ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens – finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
Notice the difference. Both versions use the same nouns, but Fitzgerald’s version adds verbs and action to the description and in so doing adds life, movement, and zest – and activates the brain.
At the same time as I read this point in Wilbers book, I was also reading and immensely enjoying John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I was curious if LeCarre practiced this technique. I decided to look for it as I read. It wasn’t more than a few pages later, on page thirty-nine, that I came across this little gem:
“They had turned off the road and were passing over gravel. Black walls of foliage rose to either side, lights appeared, then a high porch, and the steepled outline of a rambling house lifted above the treetops. The rain had stopped, but as Smiley stepped into the fresh air he heard all around him the restless ticking of wet leaves.”
Now, here is the way a less skillful writer might have done it:
“The road was made of gravel. On either side were vines and branches. Up ahead there was a light and a large house with trees around it. The air was fresh and there were wet leaves on the ground.”
Notice the difference? It’s no wonder LeCarre is esteemed not just as a great thriller writer but as a great writer, period. In my next posting, it will be back to politics with a look at political attack ads.