#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
When I first started trying to write (and well before I was first published), my style was, uh, well … let’s just say I was full of style. I was style-icious. That’s the ticket! I was, uh, not afraid to use words in new and inventive ways! Or, to put it in visual ways, let’s say that my style was like Phoebe from Friends‘s approach to running. I was all over the place. Seriously. I can still be that way, of course. It’s my natural tendency, and I fight it now and again. But along the way I got lots of coaching from Lisa, from the CompuServe IMPs, from my Fisher’s Five buddies, and from several other key readers (thanks Amy, Brian, Jim, and Lisa S.).
And along the way I read Kilpatrick’s book and about that same time, went back and actually read Hemingway for real. They paired together along with the book that will soon be named #4 on my list to make a stark and startling difference in the way I think about writing.
In this blog I have often spoken of the fact that the words in a manuscript are secondary to the actual story. I still agree with that, of course. Most stories are not good (in my perhaps overbearing opinion) because the stories are not really there. But the words you chose, and the way you put them forward, are actually quite important. This is where the art resides. Usage combines with the basic approach you take toward your content to make something that I’ll argue is the ever-elusive “Voice,” and this goes a long way toward what makes you interesting.
Some writers say that this “voice” thing cannot be taught, but has to be discovered through some mystical coming of age process. I don’t fall into that camp. I think usage and “voice” go together and can be taught, but only with a great deal of effort on the part of the writer, and only by eschewing the buzz-phrases and platitudes that come with so much of the advice you hear thrown about. This is where the goal of being a Real Writer (TM) meets the 10,000 hours of practice, and in my case, my teachers were Hemingway and Kilpatrick.
Reading these two books so close together, and reading them at the right moment (meaning where I was in my learning cycle), were a bit of a revelation for me. I remember coming to them from a different direction than I normally do when I read. I remember being very conscious of what I was reading, I remember reading both of these a sentence at a time, and really thinking about them. Kilpatrick’s book was clearly written by a man who fundamentally enjoyed the craft and wordplay of writing. I was an engineer back then, and I read The Writer’s Art like it was a tome on some newfangled coding technique. And Hemingway was, well, he was Hemingway, and The Old Man and the Sea was a Pulitzer Prize winner. I read it like I was reading the code of the world’s finest software engineer.
When I did that, a funny thing happened. I started to get ornery with my prose. I became judgmental. Did he walk through the door, or did he walk through the doorway? It makes a difference. One of them hurts, and the other doesn’t, after all. And, not to anyone’s wonder I’m sure, but this is when I think the craft of writing became truly fun.
A tiny aside here: I tend to get pretty nice reviews on my short stories. I work hard on them, and I like to think it shows. And even when a reviewer doesn’t like the story so much itself, the review often includes something along the line of “there’s some nice writing in here, but …” I like that. It says I’m paying attention to what I’m doing, and it also says that even when I “miss” on a reader, they still get something out of it. And here I need to admit that one of my absolute favorite bits of “criticism” comes from an Amazon review of Picasso’s Cat in which Lonnie Holder (open disclosure, he’s an acquaintance) wrote:
As I tend to do with most new authors, I read through the story very quickly. Speed reading was a big mistake because Collins is one of those rare authors who is economic in his use of words, which means that Collins’ words are heavily laden with content. Once I realized that I would have to read his words carefully (and come to savor them), I found myself enjoying science fiction in a way that I have not in quite a while.
On the other hand, I have to admit that being Full.Of.Style.!!! is a helluvalota fun!