Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

11+

Jack Kerouac On Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Fasten your seatbelts.

We’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein’s rules and Elmore Leonard’s rules. Are you ready for Jack Kerouac’s?

Like most college liberal arts guys in the 70s, I went through a big Kerouac phase. It started, of course, with On the Road, the slightly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s roamings in post-World War II America.

There’s a myth that Kerouac completed his most famous novel in three weeks, on a rolling scroll of butcher paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop to remove pages from the typewriter. Indeed, much of On the Road was written in first draft that way, but Kerouac re-worked the manuscript several times before it was published.

Kerouac’s reputation (and, some might argue, the beginning of his ruin) was made when the New York Times called On the Road “a major achievement.” Not all critics were so moved. Time magazine characterized it as a “barbaric yawp of a book.” And later, Truman Capote would snarkily remark (did he ever remark un-snarkily?) that On the Road is “not writing. It’s typing.”

In any event, at one point Kerouac was asked to memorialize his writing advice. Let’s ride:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo

    Blow as deep as you want to blow

  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

This is not exactly the stuff of structure. Indeed, while On the Road is linear in form, Kerouac’s subsequent work became more and more experimental—with the attendant decline in sales. (I will not pause here to once again emphasize the correlation between structure and sales, even though I just did). He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47, twelve years after publication of On the Road.

What Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers were after was a new kind of prose, a sort of be-bop rhapsody that most truly captured an experience. In that regard, these wild ideas are good for getting out of the way of yourself, to become a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” The writing then becomes a kind of “tranced fixation dreaming” and makes writing “for yr own joy” possible.

This is all fine as far as it goes. Kerouac thought that was far enough. But it proved otherwise. For at some point “yr own joy” needs to translate to the readers. On the Road did that. So, too, did his next-most successful novel, The Dharma Bums. After that, things started to get sketchy.

I retain a warm place in my heart for Kerouac. He meant a lot to me in my early formation as a writer. At its best his prose is vibrant, emotional, ecstatic, as in this famous passage from On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I am literally going to be on the road today, driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas (no, I didn’t put it all on red. Came for a meeting and research for my next novel). I’ll check in, but please talk amongst yourselves. Have you read Kerouac? What do you find of value in his advice?

13+

On the Road

on the road

I have been known to use this space to prattle on a bit about how to get that creative spark exploding, using a bit of this or that. Here I go again.

I had no idea at all until a couple of hours ago that there is a low-cost transportation service popularly known — to those who know it at all — as the Chinatown bus. Its service area is expanding by the month but its purpose is to get you from your city of residence to Chinatown in New York. It can do this from Columbus, Ohio, to name but one place, for around thirty dollars (the more you plan ahead, the less a ticket will cost you). You show up on the second block of East Main Street downtown at the day and time appointed — buses leave twice a day — and twelve non-stop hours later you are dropped off at a storefront in New York’s Chinatown. I was familiar with Megabus and some of the other curb-to-curb interstate bus services but this is a new one for me. The service has its own website which you can use to book a trip and also discusses the company’s history, which is extremely interesting as well. I managed to quickly find a couple of folks who have used this and who told me some extremely interesting stories about using it. While the service was originally designed to accommodate Chinese and other Asian immigrants, anyone can use it with some money and planning.

Think about that: a non-stop trip to New York for less than it would cost you to drive there. If you got on the bus wanting inspiration, you would almost certainly have something in mind by the time you reached your destination, just by observing your fellow passengers and taking notes. If you weren’t inspired by the trip, certainly being dropped off in the middle of New York will get those creative juices percolating. I’m thinking — yes, you do smell smoke — of taking the Chinatown bus to Thrillerfest XI just for grins next year. And maybe just for the heck of it before that. I may even put it on my bucket list.

Does this appeal to you? Would you use such a trip — or any trip — as an inspirational jump starter? Or do you regard travel, regardless of mode, as a necessary evil that enables you to get where you want to go, and nothing more? And do you have a favorite travel story or novel? Mine is — of course — ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac, typed on a roll of toilet paper. Yours?

8+