Three sentences deeper (learning to write like a pro)

In trying to up my writing game, I’ve been studying the authors I admire the most. One of these is Mary Stewart.

magnifying-glass

She was a romantic suspense author whose first book was published in 1955. All of her books have lush, wonderful prose, and suspense that builds and builds to an electrifying climax. Some of her books are kind of odd and experimental (like the telepathic heroine in The Ivy Tree). But all of them involve a lonely girl, a hot guy, a mystery, and ruthless bad guys. They’re such fun.

Anyway, I was reading one of my favorites again, Madam, Will You Talk, to study her writing. They had a lot higher standards back then. Mostly, I’m noticing that where I would stop talking about a subject, Stewart goes three or four sentences deeper. Here’s an example, describing a kid named David:

His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.

If I was writing this, it would go something like this:

His face, which in the slight courtesies of small talk betrayed humor and a quick intelligence at work, seemed almost to become older. Some implacable burden almost visibly dropped on his shoulders. There had been some hardening process at work, and recently. Not a pleasant process, I thought, looking at the withdrawn profile bent over the absurd dog, and feeling suddenly angry.

It would be quite readable, as both plot and character description, but we lose this part:

One was conscious, in spite of the sensitive youth of his mouth, and the childish thin wrists and hands, of something here that could meet and challenge a quite adult destiny on its own grounds, strength for strength. The burden, whatever it was, was quite obviously recognized and accepted.

It takes us deeper into David’s character. Beyond his looks and his secrets, we have a sense that this is one tough kid.

That’s one thing I love about old books. They take us beyond the superficial description of a person, into observations about their character and problems. As a writer, this is one height that I aspire to.

In an interview with Mary Stewart, she says this about the book, which I found funny:

RT: Yes. They’re very involving books, which is a measure of the effectiveness with which you have created that world.

MS: Well, actually this is, if I may say so, the storyteller’s skill that one is either born with or one isn’t. I remember someone writing to me about my very first book, the thriller Madam, Will You Talk?. She told me that she’d taken it up to read in bed. Then at three in the morning, she wrote me a complaint. I’d come to a point in the book where I’d actually brought my exhausted heroine and her hero together, and they’d had an absolutely smashing meal, which I described in detail. She said, I had to go down to the kitchen and make myself bacon and eggs. So, I thought, well, that’s a tribute, anyway.

When I used to write everything longhand, my hand wrote a lot slower than my brain worked. I’d still be forming letters, while my brain would be chewing on the next thing to say, and how to say it. For some reason, this led to long, rambling passages as I thought deeply about scenes and characters.

Now I write on the keyboard. I can type almost as quickly as I think. Rather than this leading to introspection, I flit from topic to topic. There’s no reason to linger on each thought. With longhand, I was stuck with my writing speed, and therefore took each thought a little deeper.

I don’t know if other people are as flighty as I am. Usually I only have ten or twenty minutes at a time to write, so I’m trying to pound out as much of the story as possible. My efficiency goes up, but my depth goes down. Thank goodness for revisions–you’re forced to linger over various passages, playing with the language, thinking of how to make them go deeper.

To my amusement, Mary Stewart complained about the same thing in her interview:

RT: Do you write your books out in longhand, or do you use a typewriter?

MS: I’ve gone through different stages–I used an ordinary portable for my first books, and that wrecked my wrist. I had a very bad time with it. Then I wrote longhand, but that’s slow, and you go nearly mad because your brain is miles ahead of your hand.

When I got to about the fifth or sixth book–The Ivy Tree, I think it was–I got an electric typewriter. It frightened me to death at first, but I got used to it eventually. I used to do the whole thing myself, including five carbon copies, and it nearly killed me. Then I got a dictating machine, and I sent the tapes to a professional typist. I think that must alter your style a little because you can be longer winded. When you’re writing something, you skip bits. I dictate with all the punctuation, but it isn’t finished.

Once I’ve got the typed copy back, I then work on it. What I do is lay the typed sheets out. I have this beautiful paper, the sort that the chap wanted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and couldn’t get anymore. It’s lovely to write on. I do the corrections in longhand, but I can also just mark places with a star. I then dictate it through, putting the bits in as I go, which saves a tremendous amount of work. Then I get it typed back again. I do about four drafts for a book, so it’s still a lot of laborious work.

The rest of her interview is available here.

So yeah, I hope that someday I write with one quarter of her skill.

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2 thoughts on “Three sentences deeper (learning to write like a pro)

  1. Oh thank you so much for the link to that interview. I was moving bookcases today, upstairs to my library. (Doesn’t that sound fantastic! ) I was handling all of my Mary Stewart’s and wishing I had time to just sit and read her and bury myself into her words. She is lovely to read. So glad you wrote this today.

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    1. The interview is delightful! She comes off as such a curmudgeon, like when she talks about the cunning of scheduling an interview two years out–she forgot to be away from home that day. 😀

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