Lessons from authors that can help you develop your unique writing style

There’s something magical about reading. A writer puts words on a page, we read them and we see an image of a real event unfolding before us like a film in which we get to choose our own cast.

‘Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing… you saw the word castle and it was there, seen from some distance with woods in high summer.’

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Good writers help us to get lost in this story.

Excellent writers don’t just take us on a journey, they also make us marvel at their skill and surprise us with their ingenuity.

It’s the difference between eating a perfectly good shop bought cake– it does the job and it’s even quite nice and something homemade that is full of pockets of flavour and sets off a riot in your mouth.

Different authors have different ways of making us see. Some write elegantly in long sentences, others with tumbling phrases. Some authors want to be experimental, they want to challenge us. Some have clear goals: it’s about social commentary, it’s about depth and importance.

And if you’re a writer, you’re left with this tricky question: what type of writer do I want to be? Do I want to be good at characterisation? Would I prefer to focus on the story? Do I want to be able to perfect sigh-inducingly good prose?

Recently, with the question of ‘who do I want to write like?’ in my head, I tried to set out a list of the qualities I want to have in my writing based on some authors that have really inspired me.

So, here’s five lessons I would like to learn from five writers. Learning them is going to be difficult, if not impossible, but this is the type of writer I’d like to be.

Lesson #1: Playing with punctuation can be rewarding. Your sentences don’t even always have to make sense: what’s important is the image that they create in your head. (Virginia Woolf) 

I don’t think there is anyone who can write in the same way as Virginia Woolf. Her sentence formation is so good. Let’s look at one of her sentences.

It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. (A Room Of One’s Own.) 

For starters, her sentences are long. Incredibly long, actually. Virginia Woolf is also very liberal with her semicolons, so much so that she has her own style. At first, when we write, punctuation is a means to an end. As we go on, however, we can moderate the reading experience by how we punctuate, by the length of our sentences. Some writers use lots of dashes– there’s lots of afterthoughts in the narration. Some barely use any punctuation. This is still stylistic. We get to choose: what is distinctive of us as writers?

Woolf also uses images. Think about this sentence. We can imagine a heart beating, a heart being cut into. But Woolf isn’t talking about hearts, not at all. She’s talking about the atmosphere, sunlight. From how she writes about it, we can both connect with her thoughts (this feeling of contemplating beauty and pain) and what’s actually happening. 

Oh, to be able to write like Virginia Woolf!

Lesson #2: the structure of a novel, or even a series, is a chance to experiment. You don’t have to follow traditional ideas. (Toni Morrison)

I recently read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and afterwards, I don’t think I wanted to read anything for at least a week. I don’t cry in books as a general rule, but wow, was this terribly sad. I was left with the most overbearing feeling of despair (why do such bad things happen?) but also marvelled at Morrison’s skill.

Something clever that she does in this book is that the chapter titles stem from a short story at the beginning of the book which presents the life of a happy, well-off family. Each chapter starkly contrasts with this false reality, accentuating the sadness of what happens to the poor main character, Pecola. Honestly, I wanted to give her a big hug for most of the book.

I’ve learnt from this that as writers, we have a completely blank canvas. We don’t need traditional chapter titles– we can have books inside books or multiple framing devices. Experimentation is exciting. I’m currently reading The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz who puts himself as a character in the book– again, this is completely genius and original.

Sometimes, a story isn’t ‘let’s get from A to B as quickly as possible.’ It can also be, let’s get from A to B but let’s take momentary diversions and skip all over the alphabet.

If you know what I mean.

Lesson #3: your setting is more than just the place your characters inhabit, sometimes it’s what makes the book really sing. (Thomas Hardy.)

I absolutely love Far From The Madding Crowd. It’s just… wonderful. And every time I think of it, my mind is filled up with green fields and cliffs and the beauty of Weatherbury in the story. Thomas Hardy doesn’t just tell us a story based around agriculture, he makes it so everything about the book is hinged on the setting. Good characters have good relationships with nature. Storms bring people together. Two fires bring the love interest and the protagonist together, each helping the other. Whilst two characters place flowers at someone’s grave, those from the one that truly cared for survive, the others are dissolved by mud.

The setting isn’t an added extra to this story: it’s pivotal.

Lesson #4: so called ‘gappiness’ is good (William Shakespeare.)

Okay, so ‘gappiness’ isn’t necessarily a proper word but it’s a concept that I’ve been reading about in Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare. Here, she argues that Shakespeare is so good because we can interpret his writing however we want to. Is the ‘shrew’ in The Taming of The Shrew actually a shrew? It’s anyone’s guess. Does she fall in love with her husband? It probably depends on the lens that you’re reading through. Is Shakespeare a feminist? Is he racist? Is he anti-Semitic?

There’s a thousand questions. Now, when it comes to readers interpreting your work you definitely do not want them to think that you are racist, for example. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. What I am saying though, is that little ambiguities are good. Don’t tell your reader if they should like a character– Shakespeare certainly doesn’t sometimes. Are two characters actually in love or is their relationship deeply flawed? Let the reader work it out. For example, in my current WIP, it’s in your hands about some characters– are they morally gray, really damaged, are they villains? Sometimes this ambiguity is actually good. But only in the right places.

Lesson #5: writing about simple issues doesn’t mean your writing is less worthwhile. By writing about what you know, you can make your work even more immersive. (Louisa May Alcott.)

Little Women. It’s brilliant (I just watched the 2019 film again and I’m still in love with it.) And it’s a classic. It doesn’t have thousands of characters, it’s not terribly complicated. It talks about simple issues and that’s absolutely okay. Even better, though, it does it so convincingly.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s books (a post will probably come out of this.) I’ve been remembering reading and thinking that, wow, I literally felt like I was alive within these stories when I first read them. I could imagine what the food tasted like, I saw the characters, the stories didn’t leave me. I’m beginning to think that, perhaps, that’s down to being a child at the time but also because these books are so descriptive of small things– food, drink, setting. Little Women is a classic example of this, as with many similar books, like Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess.

Bonus: everything can come good in the end and a redemptive arc can be so satisfying. (Victor Hugo, William Thackeray & Francine Rivers.)

Don’t you just love books with redemptive arcs? I do, at least. These are the books where redemption seems impossible and then through some masterful stroke, we have a happy enough ending where everything is made beautiful in its time. I recently noticed this by reading some Francine Rivers books (if you’ve ever read any, you’d understand me.) I’ve definitely learnt that these are the types of books I love: they’re uplifting but understanding of the human condition. They can still talk of human fallenness (Hugo and Thackeray are great at this) but there’s often a way out.

Jean Valjean was a criminal, but by the end he’s a role model. Becky Sharp is absolutely horrible, but by the end, she’s done some good. Characters should be allowed to change.

So, if I were to sum everything up, this is the type of writer I’d like to be able to be: someone who can write with dense descriptiveness, uniqueness and lyricism in ways that are experimental, redemptive and poignant.

Of course, that’s not an easy task but I’d like to try it.

Here’s to great writers who teach us great lessons!

What kind of writer would you like to be? Was this helpful? Have you read books or plays by these authors before?

They’re Not All Serious You Know: The Funniest Scenes From Shakespeare Plays

Okay, when I mention Shakespeare, you’re either like my English teacher and you fill with complete excitement and quote his plays as fluently as if you were reeling off what you had for dinner or you’re someone who groans and hopes the topic will pass. Maybe you’re thinking, okay, Elizabeth. Last week you talked about diversifying your bookshelf and Shakespeare is really overrated. We don’t need persuasion to read more of his plays.

I totally understand.

I’ve been mandatorily studying Shakespeare since I was around eleven and read my first of his plays a bit before that when younger me decided she wanted to read Hamlet for fun. Sometimes, reading his works is like wading through cold water with heavy clothing on and is quite simply, exhausting. I mean, once you’ve read Act Three, Scene Three of Othello a couple of times, you’d probably be ready to tear your hair out. (If you haven’t, it’s quite painful because we know from this point on that tragedy is coming for Othello and we often marvel at his naivety! Really guys, it’s quite painful.)

But, whilst I could talk to you about some of the most profound or the deepest Shakespeare plays, today I’m going to be sharing some of his funniest (intentional or not, I’m not sure) scenes.

  1. MACBETH- ‘YOU EGG’

Okay, so Macbeth isn’t exactly a comedy or even close. It’s about an over ambitious man whose wife persuades him to kill a king and then basically everybody. There is barely anyone alive at the end of play and apart from a moving forest and a couple of witches, I personally think the most interesting part of it is that Duncan’s (the King’s) horses apparently eat each other.

Crazy, I know.

Anyhow… there’s a really tragic scene where someone’s family gets killed. Now, I know we shouldn’t find it funny but in 2020 it’s kind of…. ridiculous?

Firstly, the gravest insult paid to the murderer is ‘you egg’, my favourite ever until recently, and secondly when the young boy dies (tragic I know) and he says ‘he has killed me mother.’

Obvious much??? Sorry Shakespeare, I’m not weeping in this scene. Maybe they were in the 1600s. Moving on….

2. KING LEAR- ‘YOU BASE FOOTBALL PLAYER’

I’m actually in the process of reading King Lear at the moment and I was enjoying myself reading through a stream of speech until suddenly the words popped out at me: ‘you base football player.’ Now that is an insult that I have not heard before…

Well, personally being from the UK, football is something you play with your feet and the best players have huge salaries. Nowadays it’s definitely not an insult, well unless you live in my household where I’m brandishing it at my brothers, calling them base football players until they wish I’d never read King Lear.

It’s replacing ‘egg’ for my favourite.

3. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING- BEATRICE + BENEDICK

Beatrice and Benedict must have been the comedy duo of the Elizabethan period. Two apparent enemies (the first ever haters to lovers trope) they have brilliantly witty banter that probably Shakespeare would have called persiflage or something like that.

BENEDICK: Or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

BEATRICE: Scratching could not make it worse…

BENEDICK: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher

Much Ado About Nothing Act One, Scene One

Parrot-teacher. Now that is an insult I like. I recently started watching a version of Much Ado About Nothing presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and they definitely brought out the humour of the play to the point where Benedick was stood inside a Christmas tree.

*

Well, as you can see, Shakespeare is littered with comedy as well as serious moments. I’m not saying that we should deny the deep moments or the profound speeches but I don’t think Shakespeare would want us to only see the severity of his plays!

I’ll be back on Friday. I hope that you have a good week and if you haven’t already that you follow this blog!

Exeunt me. I must go back to football practice with my parrot-teacher coach and my egg of a brother.

Elizabeth 🙂

October’s Over and November’s Near…

So, it feels like it was only yesterday when I wrote that September was ending. Back then, I was thinking about what it felt like to be back to school and was enjoying small things that made life better, such as a variety of music to listen to in my free time. And now, it’s the end of October already. You’re probably nodding now, thinking, I know that and don’t need some random blogger to tell me that. But today, I’ll be sharing a few of the things that made October great and some of the things I hope to do next month.

Without further ado… my favourite things from October!

  1. Trying To Be ‘Well Read.’

I don’t know if this one is necessarily something that sounds like a great thing, especially as it has involved a lot of frenzied shelf-surfing in libraries online, at school and in my town. Nonetheless, this month I have read some classic books that should, I suspect, grace the shelves of most people that go on to study English at university and beyond.

I’ve read: Oedipus Rex, which has a pretty macabre story yet was easier to read than I anticipated; a large portion of Hamlet which I backed up with Ophelia, a YA novel that softened the blow of pouring over Shakespeare by giving me a fast plot and a change to the play’s ending so it wasn’t so tragic; The Testaments, of which you can find my review here; the Kite Runner which left me wanting to cry; Brave New World which left me wondering why I don’t like it as much as everybody I talked to did and finally the start of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

So nobody can say I did nothing productive this month 😉 Oh and I also managed to finish the second draft of my book… That’s not a big deal of course…

2. Finding More Worship Music

I didn’t think this was possible, but this month I’ve found far more entries to my worship playlist than I thought I would. I’ve loved listening to some of the spontaneous moments from Upper Room, such as the one below and it was also brilliant to find Maverick City whose music is original and unlike some of the other worship music you’ll find.

3. Being Off School For A Week!!

Well this speaks for itself. It’s been nice to spend some of October at home and I’ve enjoyed walking my dog, helping out with a church event and reading some non-school related books. A highlight was meeting a 5 year old at a church event that probably would put most teenagers to shame with their general knowledge! Not only did he know all of the planets and their sizes in order but also how to make the human body out of play dough, labelling complex body parts. And it was all from YouTube!

But, what am I looking forward to in November?

Well obviously there’s that tiny matter of writing 50,000 words which should be fun, but other than that, I’m hoping to spend more time prioritising important things and maybe I’ll take up running a little bit more 😉 I also am looking forward to turning 17… and learning to drive soon. That will be fun!!

So… until next time! Thanks for reading and if you enjoyed this, I’d love it if you followed my blog so that you receive a regular update every time I post something new. You can also check out my twitter page where I occasionally post on my account @anatticfullofp1.

Elizabeth 🙂