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?