Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Writing

Not too long ago, Katrina over at World Crafter wrote a post in praise of the author Diana Wynne Jones, and asked what authors her followers read over and over again, just to see how they DO it. It was a good post, and I originally was going to respond with a comment, but the question got me thinking about my own favourite authors, and what it is about their writing that resonates with me, until I felt I really ought to do a post of my own on the matter.

To begin with, I very seldom read a book just for the story. I read it for the writing as well; for the author's use of language, use of words, ability to draw me in, to make me think, "I like that sentence there! It says exactly what it means." I like authors with a definitive style, who have their own unique way of putting words together. I am beginning to notice that an author's writing will often pull me out of a story, sometimes with a start of delight over a particularly fine bit of phrasing, sometimes for exactly the opposite reason. If I like the writing, I will slow down and savour the experience of reading it, if not, I tend to skim through the book, rather than reading it. The authors I that I go back to over and over, have diverse styles, but they all have something distinctive about their writing that I admire, and would like to imitate, at least in some small degree.

J. R. R. Tolkien: Thanks to The Lord of the Rings, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, The Silmarillion, Tolkien has got himself pegged as a writer of epic fantasy. There is no question that he does excel at that particular style, and that there a few authors who can touch his deliberate and controlled prose - elegant prose which is weighty, but never ponderous. However, he was a very versatile writer as well, who could be delightfully droll and humourous - consider Farmer Giles of Ham - or quietly thoughtful, as in Smith of Wootton Major. Regardless of the style, however, what always sets him apart from the rest, is his ability to use exactly the right word no matter what. It came so naturally to him, that you don't even realise how brilliant he was, until you try to find something similar. There is nothing similar enough to Tolkien to satisfy the desire for that particular quality of writing.

Patricia McKillip: She is not the sort of author that I would recommend indiscriminately. With the notable exception of "Winter Rose", her books tend to be light on plot, and a trifle disjointed. However, I cannot think of another living author who can write in such densely poetic prose as she does. She weaves brilliant, jewel-coloured tapestries of words, her pages bursting with flowering images, glowing scenes, golden glints of myth peeking out amongst the leaves of narrative. She uses unexpected words to good effect and knows the value of using plain, solid words without adornment. If the worlds she creates seldom become more than the bright scenes that appear in the borders of a medieval manuscript, her characters little more than figures picked out in crimson and gold against their brilliant backgrounds, she can be forgiven for the sheer beauty of the picture as a whole.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: His easy, almost careless style of writing is deceptive. He had great control over his narrative. He wrote with economy; there is no extraneous narrative, but neither is it stinted. He has an unfortunate inability to write genuinely engaging main characters, it is true, but he more than makes up for it with secondary characters like Long John Silver or Alan Breck Stewart. The thing I most admire about his writing, though, is that he had a real flair for dialogue. His conversations sound genuine, and accomplish the rare feat of not only giving you insight into the characters, but also advancing the plot.

Charles Dickens: My family are mostly not in agreement with me on this one. The general opinion seems to be that he was paid for his writing by the word, and you can tell. Much as I like Dickens, I must admit that there is some truth to that sentiment, and furthermore, acknowledge that one must be in the mood for Dickens in order to get through his books. Still, he had such an astonishing knack for memorable phrasing. How can one not admire an author who can inform us that Marley is as dead as a doornail, and the produce the following paragraph: "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." It is brilliant, humourous without diminishing the gloomy pronouncement that started the book. Dickens has a rather unjust reputation for sentimentality. Unjust, I say, because a number of his books - Oliver Twist, for example, or A Tale of Two Cities - are deadly serious in their subject matter. I rather think that what is taken for sentiment in most of his books, is actually a high esteem for the home, for charity, for virtue, which moved Dickens deeply.

P. G. Wodehouse: His plots are completely predictable; he recycles characters and scenes; he tosses in abbreviations and odd catch-phrases. At first glance, there seems to be no substance to his books at all... and yet, somehow, inexplicably, it always works. You know exactly what is going to happen in it. You know that the plot will spiral out of control, that increasingly tangled complications will keep arising, that all sorts of highly questionably enterprises will be undertaken for the noblest of reasons, and that at the end, it will - miraculously - all come right, and the rather dimwitted hero will get the girl of his dreams. Yet, there is a sort of fascination to it. I find that I read his books for the sheer pleasure of trying to figure out how he manages it, and wondering why it never grows stale.

There are, of course, a lot of other authors that I enjoy, these are just the ones who come most readily to mind... oh, and of course, Diana Wynne Jones too, for all the reasons Katrina laid out. A hearty thanks to her for bringing the subject up!


Teresa said...

Diana Wynne Jones is better than Charles Dickens, Mahri! lol :)

Mahri said...

Oh, no. Not *better*. Just different. In fact, if you read the beginning of David Copperfield, and compare it to "The Lives of Christopher Chant" and "Charmed Life" you will see that she is actually a bit indebted to Dickens. :-)

Teresa said...

Accccck! I have to read David Copperfield next year in school, how DARE you compare David to Christopher!!! You should never never never do that...David Copperfield is a pipsqueak! Sheesh! lol :)