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I calculated percentages of sentences that begin with a subject, adverb, etc. I also looked at percentages of sentence type used: fragments, complex sentences, etc.
Here’s what I learned: When reading your manuscript straight through for errors, highlighting different parts of speech individually (nouns, verbs, adverbs…) is an excellent editing method. This is how I started the project, and while it didn’t teach me much about my writing, scanning it piecemeal made the text pop in a different way. I discovered a dozen small errors and typos that I and my writing group had not yet found (in the first 50 pages alone).
Simplicity is okay. Forty-five percent of all my sentences are simple. I start 63 percent of my sentences with subjects. At first I was sure this was too high. But these numbers are actually pretty average compared to my favorite authors.
Levithan had the highest percentages of simple sentences and of sentences beginning with subjects (65%), but his writing is still some of the most poetic, jazzy, and prismatic writing I’ve read. Maybe this is because of the many gorgeous participial phrases in the middle or at the end of his sentences.
Similarly, Rowell’s writing gets more interesting (lots of fragments composed of participial phrases) whenever the protagonist waxes nostalgic about his girlfriend. Much like Levithan, her fragments make seemingly small, subtle emotional steps that work.
click to enlarge
Austen had the second highest percentage of fragments (Blame Mrs. Bennet’s blathering about Bingley.). Austen also uses the smallest range of tools for sentence starters, yet she scores fairly high in her use of complex sentences.
Complexity is also okay. One myth among young writers is that long sentences are always run-on sentences. This is untrue.
Take Hemingway, who is surprisingly complex. Because of his reputation as a straightforward, clear writer, I expected him to score high in fragments, but he had the least of anyone: only 2.2%.
His complex sentences were also the most complex of any I analyzed. Compared to writers like Levithan and Rowell, Hemingway often covers more ground (years, literally) with longer, more complex, and exceptionally clear sentences.
Use a range of tools. As far as sentence starters, Rowling definitely uses the widest range of tools. It’s probably not a coincidence that her varied writing has captivated children and adults alike.
Don’t focus too much on statistics. Initially, I thought that the best writing would have the greatest variation. But some sentence starters and structures work better depending on the author’s voice and the novel’s contents; Hemingway and Kingsolver, for example, punctuate their long, complex sentences with short, punchy ones. This may not make the most interesting graph, but it sets their voices apart and makes for great fiction.
My sample size is admittedly small. I’m only looking at first chapters, and there’s plenty more to learn. But my brain hurts from too much data entry, and the boarding school from my third novel beckons.
Persuasion. Jane Austen 1818/1992. Knopf Doubleday. 304 pages. [Source: Bought]
Persuasion by Jane Austen is without a doubt one of my favorite books. Persuasion, Jane Eyre, and North and South are my top three classics, top three romances. As to which of the three I like best, well, do I really have to choose between them?! I've read these three again and again and again and again. I do feel sorry for people who don't make rereading a priority in their lives!
Anne Elliot is the heroine of Persuasion. She has a father, who in turns neglects and insults her, and two sisters. Her oldest sister, when she thinks of her at all, does so in a condescending manner. Her younger sister, well, she thinks of her more often, but mainly in a way that takes advantage of her! Anne is both patient and frustrated. She's made peace with how things are, accepts that this is how things will likely remain. True, she sometimes finds herself dreaming of HIM. The man she loved passionately way back when, and, still loves to this day. The man that her family disapproved of. The man that she ultimately broke up with because she was a dutiful daughter. Captain Wentworth. Yes, sometimes she does think of him....
So when the family's financial difficulties leads the family to move to Bath and rent out their estate to a naval officer, that, is when Anne gets a second chance at life, love, and happiness. Of course, no one knew it would be to her advantage! Anne meets Captain Wentworth again. The meeting isn't without its awkwardness. And Captain Wentworth seems EAGER to marry now that he's established himself and is quite wealthy. But he's eager to marry any woman that is not Anne....
There are dozens of characters to meet in this one. Austen, like always, does a great job in creating a world we carry about, and characters we can react to! This is Captain Wentworth and Anne's story....but.... it's much more than that.
I would definitely recommend this one. And. If you get the chance to read it before Pride and Prejudice that might be even better. I think when people become so obsessed with Pride and Prejudice it can be hard for them to like Austen's other heroines. But I much prefer Persuasion to Pride and Prejudice.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about Inciting Incidents that seemed to be helpful for a lot of our readers at PubCrawl, and I’ve had a few requests to continue dissecting story beats. So I’ve decided to tackle the next one on my list: The Midpoint.
I know a lot of writers struggle with middles, but I’m actually not one of them. For me, the middle of the novel is simply an extension of the beginning, and in fact, I tend to think of my books more or less in halves: the beginning, and then the end. The point that delineates the beginning from the end is the midpoint.
First of all, let me say: there is no wrong way to write a novel. Write however works best for you. For me, my stories tend to naturally structure themselves into four acts, with three inflection points: Revelation (end of Act I), Realization (end of Act II), and Resolution (end of Act III). The Realization (end of Act II) generally tends to be my Midpoint.1
So what is the Midpoint, exactly? Why is it given such emphasis in all these story structure/plot books? I mean, a middle is just the boring bridge between the opening and the ending, right?
Personally, for me, the Midpoint is the moment of greatest change; in fact, I would argue it is the top of the mountain of your story arc. Everything builds up to it, and then everything unravels from it. The Midpoint is what the beginning of your novel is working towardsand what the ending of your novel is working from. Because of this, I actually think the Midpoint of your novel is where your story reveals itself.
What do I mean by that? I mean that the sort of plot point/character development that is your Midpoint2 reveals the type of story you’re writing. The “point” of your book, as it were.
For example, in Pride & Prejudice, the Midpoint of the novel is when Darcy sends Lizzy a letter, explaining himself after she has turned down his offer of marriage. Until she reads his letter, Lizzy has been staunch in her prejudice against Mr. Darcy based on a bad first impression, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Suddenly, she realizes she has interpreted all his actions incorrectly due to a mistaken pride in her own cleverness.
And there you have it, the entire point of Pride & Prejudice, as neatly summarized by the Midpoint.
The Midpoint is often referred to as a Midpoint Reversal, because there is often some sort of reversal of fortune or big twist or some other reveal that changes the entire context of the story (as in the case of Pride & Prejudice). However, not all Midpoints involve a reversal of some kind. For example, the Midpoint of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone3 is when Harry discovers just what Hogwarts has been protecting: the eponymous stone itself. And there you have it: the point of the first Harry Potter book.
All stories, regardless of how they’re structured, have Midpoints. They may not fall in the exact middle of your book, but they are in that neighborhood nonetheless. Without them, you have a “sagging middle” and, I would argue, no actual point to your story.
So there you have it: Midpoints! Are there any other story beats you guys would like for me to cover? Sound off in the comments!
There are many, many, MANY ways to structure your novel. Traditionally, Western movies and screenplays are divided into three acts. Plays are often one or two acts. Tragedies can be five acts. Far Eastern narrative structure tends to fall into four acts. ↩
And to be honest, the Midpoint is the one of the few places in your manuscript where the plot point and character development should be the same thing. ↩
I HATE that the title was changed for the U.S. edition; it makes absolutely no sense to call it a “sorcerer’s stone” when a philosopher’s stone is a real thing. ↩
Happy 240th birthday, Jane Austen! Jane Austen was born this day, 16 December 1775 in Hampshire, England. Birthdays were important events in Jane Austen’s life – those of others perhaps more so than her own.
When you’re stupborn, you’re stupid and stubborn. I know because that’s what I am. At least that’s what I surmise. The lab tests are inconclusive, but a decade of firsthand observation cannot be ignored.
After more than ten years of writing, revising, reading, work-shopping, conference-going, networking, critique-grouping, class-taking, submitting and querying, I am still without a book contract. A smarter, less bull-headed person would have given up by now.
And why not? No one is forcing me into this pursuit. It’s self-inflicted without question. Yet, here I am peering into the shiny, giddy-go-lucky face of a new year and I am trudging ahead. I am not buoyed by hope or spurred by optimism. In fact, I feel quite hopeless. But my chronic stupbornness will not permit me to retreat or resign.
How about you?
Are you stupborn too?
You are? Oh, bless your heart. You need a cookie and a nap. But first, I’ve culled these quotes to encourage you:
There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me. ~ Jane Austen
I promise I shall never give up, and that I’ll die yelling and laughing, and that until then I’ll rush around this world I insist is holy and pull at everyone’s lapel and make them confess to me and to all. ~ Jack Kerouac
It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed. ~ Albert Einstein
Happy New Year, my dear, sweet, stupid, stubborn friends. (And yes, yes, certainly, warm wishes to my smart friends too.)
Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers. Margaret C. Sullivan. Quirk Publishing. 224 pages. [Source: Library]
Love Jane Austen? You should read Jane Austen Cover to Cover. The book is about Jane Austen, her books, her book covers--a history of their many publications over the past two hundred years. For the most part, the book follows a certain chronology providing readers with context. (For example, covers with teens or tweens in mind differ from covers with adult collectors in mind differ from covers with scholars in mind.) Each edition has a spread. And it's just a joy to see all the covers. There are great covers. There are horrible covers. I liked it best when Sullivan talked about the horrible covers!!! I laughed out loud so many times reading this book!!! [See also: "5 Ridiculous Jane Austen Book Covers, Explained in Hilarious "Deleted Scenes."
I definitely recommend this one. I read it all in one sitting. It was just so satisfying--a real delight. If you want a preview of sorts, read this Guardian piece. And for more book cover fun--specifically P&P--this NY Times slide show is fun too.
You should read Jane Austen Cover to Cover
If you are a fan of Jane Austen
If you have an interest or fascination with book covers
If you have an interest in publishing, book design, illustration, or book collecting
Have I ever mentioned before that I knit? I don’t knit as much as I used to, mostly because I have tendonitis in my wrist and if I am not careful I can very easily make it flare up and give me all kinds of unhappy pain. But I still knit, if only for short periods of time at sometimes widely spaced intervals. In spite of the fact that I don’t knit a lot, I still enjoy reading knitting magazines and collecting patterns for things I will very likely never make. But that doesn’t matter really because I get great pleasure in imagining the whole project.
Recently I was perusing the latest issue of a knitting magazine I borrow electronically from my public library and saw an advertisement for a book called The Best of Jane Austen Knits. Whaaa? Of course I immediately checked to see if my library had it and they do. Yay Hennepin County Library! I love you so very much!
The book has patterns for 27 “regency inspired designs.” That translates to lots of shawls and shrugs. But there are a few cardigans, a couple of bags, some baby clothes, a tea cozy, some elbow-length gloves, some super-cute stockings, and a few other items. I can’t imagine Austen herself wearing any of them, maybe the stockings, or her heroines, but the idea is still fun. There are a few of the shawl designs I like very much from a filmy lace to a solid cute number that is long and designed to wrap over the shoulders and tie behind the waist. And did I mention the stockings? They are just below the knee and have a pretty lace and heart pattern up the side and are held up by a satin ribbon.
There is also a “loyalty and pin ball.” These were popular projects to make and give to friends (so the book says). They have a medallion-like motif on each side. It is stuffed and sewn together and trimmed with a ribbon or twisted rope. It is made with a very fine cotton and calls for size 0000 (1.25mm) needles. I have used size 1 (2.25mm) needles before but nothing that small. It seems like it would be something really fun to try. I promise if I manage one I will take a photo to share.
For all you bookish knitters out there, I recommend you take a look at this book. It’s got some super-fun patterns in it.
Do any of you have some favorite literature-inspired knitting patterns to recommend?
According to the results of Dymocks Bookstore’s booklover’s 101 survey, that honor belongs to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. More than 15,000 bibliophiles participated in this survey.
Here’s more from The New Daily: “This year 17 Australian books made the list, including AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life and Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee…Ms Higgins said 35 books on the list have been made into successful films – including the recent Hollywood hit Fifty Shades of Grey.” We’ve linked to free samples of the top ten books below.
Free Samples of Australia’s Top 10 Favorite Books
01. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
02. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
03. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
04. Magician by Raymond Feist
05. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
06. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
07. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
08. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
09. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Silence in the Library Publishing hopes to raise $20,000 to produce an illustrated edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Artist Janet Lee has signed on to create the interior artwork and illustrator Jean Masetti will design the cover. We’ve embedded a video about the project above.
Here’s more from the Kickstarter page: “For our initial goal, Janet is producing twelve full-color, full page illustrations of critical scenes from Pride and Prejudice. She’s also producing twenty partial-page black and white illustrations that will flow with the text of the book…As we reach stretch goals, we’ll be adding full-color, full-page illustrations and black and white partial page illustrations to the book, until we’ve reached a total of twenty-four full-page illustrations and thirty partial page illustrations.”
Where would old literature professors be without energetic postgraduates? A recent human acquisition, working on the literary sociology of pulp science fiction, has introduced me to the intellectual equivalent of catnip: Google Ngrams. Anyone reading this blog must be tech-savvy by definition; you probably contrive Ngrams over your muesli. But for a woefully challenged person like myself they are the easiest way to waste an entire morning since God invented snooker.
Was there a real person behind the character Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame? According to The Daily Express, one academic named Dr. Susan Law feels that that may very well be the case.
Law argues that while she cannot be totally certain, she feels that John Parker (the first Earl of Morley) served as a muse for Jane Austen’s famous romantic male lead. She devoted five years to conducting extensive research over letters, diaries, newspapers, and a field trip.
Here’s more from The Telegraph: “Austen, she says, spent time at the Earl’s home in Saltram House in Plymouth, Devon, during the period in which she wrote Pride and Prejudice at the turn of the 19th century. The Earl’s second wife, Frances, was also a very close friend of the celebrated writer. At the time, the historian claims, it was widely believed in literary circles that Frances was in fact the author of Pride and Prejudice, which had originally been published anonymously.”
Persuasion. Jane Austen 1818/1992. Knopf Doubleday. 304 pages. [Source: Bought]
Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. It just is. I believe this is the third time I've reviewed it. April 2011. January 2008. Out of all of Austen's opening lines, I have to admit that Persuasion's first sentence is my least favorite. Wouldn't you agree?
Opening to Sense and Sensibility: The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.
Opening to Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Opening to Mansfield Park: About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
Opening to Emma: Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Opening to Northanger Abbey: No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.
Opening to Persuasion: Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
I've already summarized the plot twice before, and, the problem with reread posts is that I have to always (try to) find new ways to say what I've already said.
Anne Elliot is the heroine of Persuasion. If you haven't read Persuasion before let me add this, please, don't expect Anne to be Elizabeth Bennet. Just don't. You'll be happier for letting Anne be Anne and not comparing her to Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor, Marianne, Catherine, or Fanny. Plenty of people misunderstand Anne--the top offenders being her very own family--I don't want you to be one of them. Don't let her family persuade you that Anne is someone to easily dismiss, a nobody.
As I was saying, Anne is the heroine of Persuasion. Eight years before the novel opens, Anne fell in love. It was a forever-love. She wanted to marry Frederick Wentworth. He wanted to marry her too. They loved each other very much. But he had no way to support her. It wasn't just that he couldn't support her in style. Her family disapproved. Her friends disapproved. Long story short, the engagement was broken off. Persuasion is all about her second chance. When Anne and Captain Wentworth meet again, eight years later, can these two come together and make it work, can they have their happily ever after? That is the very simplified version, I suppose! Austen being Austen, there are plenty of characters and stories introduced in Persuasion. It is a very enjoyable read. In places, it is quite giddy-making.
Do you have a favorite Austen hero? Captain Wentworth is perhaps one of the strongest Austen heroes. Of course, everyone is familiar with Darcy. But Wentworth has his fans as well! Perhaps in large part due to his letter to Anne:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. (234)
Personally, I love Henry Tilney, Mr. Knightley, and Captain Wentworth.
Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste.
No, it was not regret which made Anne’s heart beat in spite of herself, and brought the colour into her cheeks when she thought of Captain Wentworth unshackled and free. She had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy!
She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.
Alex Field‘s talents as an author, publisher and speaker, her love of Christmas pudding, and her overt enthusiasm for Jane Austen all cleverly amalgamate in the latest of her series, Mr Darcy and the Christmas Pudding. Having previously featured her beloved Pride and Prejudice characters in Mr Darcy and Mr Darcy the Dancing Duck, Alex […]
Jane Austen's First Love. Syrie James. 2014. Berkley Trade. 400 pages. [Source: Review copy]
I enjoyed reading Jane Austen's First Love. I admit I had my doubts at the beginning. On the one hand, after being so disappointed in Becoming Jane, I was hesitant to read anything giving Jane Austen a romance of her own. Also I wasn't wowed by The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. On the other hand, several people I respect really did love Jane Austen's First Love. While I can't say that I loved, loved, LOVED Jane Austen's First Love, I did really enjoy it. More than I thought I would at any rate.
1791. Summer of 1791. Jane and Cassandra travel to meet their brother Edward's fiancee, Elizabeth Bridges, and her family. (Several other family members go as well. The mother, but, not the father. Another brother, Charles, I believe. But the focus is mostly on Jane and Cassandra). Jane is just fifteen, she's not "out" yet. Her sister is a year or two older and is. Part of what makes this trip special, is that Jane is to be allowed certain privileges. She'll be allowed to go to dances and balls. She'll be allowed to powder her hair, etc. Most--if not all--the events will be family and friends. (Bringing together multiple families. Several of the Bridges' sisters are engaged to be married. All the engagements are being celebrated. There will be plenty of people there.)
On their trip, they happen to meet--quite dramatically--a young man named Edward Taylor. (He happens to be a neighbor, I believe.) Jane becomes smitten with him. He enjoys being with her, but, there aren't any OBVIOUS signs that he's madly, deeply in forever-and-ever-love with her. She may hope that he is "the one." But he is sixteen and not anywhere close to proposing marriage to anyone, no matter how lively, witty, charming, talented, beautiful, etc. Does Jane hope he is the one? The fictional, Jane, I mean? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Without a doubt, Jane enjoys herself tremendously, and finds time with him thrilling.
Strawberry picking. Dances. Dinners. Walks. Riding horses. Play acting. Matchmaking. Such is the stuff of Jane Austen's First Love.
One of the main plots surrounds the Bridges' sisters: Fanny, Elizabeth, and Sophia. They are all older than Jane. They are all of the courting age. Elizabeth and Fanny are engaged. Sophia is close to an engagement as well. Jane is watching; watching carefully, closely, analyzing and taking notes. Jane's observations lead her to believe that the sisters are mismatched! Readers meet a young Jane, an opinionated Jane, who is enjoying the idea of love, of falling in love, of finding love. What does she know of LOVE? What does she know of what makes two people compatible? It's interesting!
I also enjoyed how readers get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Jane writing The Three Sisters. I would say that readers should take the time to read this little story on their own before, during, or after the novel.
I first read Jane Austen’s Emma in an undergrad literature class. I read it for a second time in a grad school Jane Austen seminar. I wasn’t thrilled with the book either time. It all seemed so bland. Even Frank Churchill’s deception was dull. Out of Austen’s six novels this one was solidly ranked as number five for me with Mansfield Park at the bottom. On this my third reading of the book something happened. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe it’s because I have been rereading one Austen a year and this is year six making Emma last. Whatever the case may be, I very much enjoyed the book this time around. I enjoyed it so much I can’t decide if I should move it up just one notch to fourth or all the way to third. It doesn’t matter since no one cares but me, but it does help me give you an idea how much I suddenly liked the book.
I don’t have to like the protagonists of my books in order to like the book, but there has always been something about Emma herself that just rubbed me the wrong way and made me grind my teeth. Snobby, self-centered, privileged meddler about sums up how I saw her. That hasn’t changed but I found myself more sympathetic to her. A good amount of that sympathy is because of her hypochondriac of a father, Mr. Woodhouse. Oh my goodness, he sometimes made me want to break something in order to relieve my frustration over all his little worries. Emma is infinitely patient with him and should be considered for sainthood.
I believe I also unknowingly primed myself to like Emma by reading Being Wrong, a book about all the various ways we can be spectacularly wrong regarding anything and everything. And Emma turns out to spend so much time being wrong that it is almost funny especially since she prides herself on being so perceptive. Because she is a lady, however, she, for the most part, admits her errors with grace and good humor even while completely mortified by them.
I still have a problem with Mr. Knightley who is 37 or 38, even Austen can’t say for sure. Emma is 21. Mr. Knightley always talks about watching Emma grow up and even says he’s loved her since she was a girl. Isn’t that just a bit creepy? Plus, for 95% of the book he acts like he, to put it in a vulgar way because I am no lady, has a stick up his butt. Or maybe he’s a robot? No, it’s a stick since he eventually does display enough human feeling to pass the Turing Test. Mr. Knightley has all the reserve of Mr. Darcy without the wit. Even when he does declare his love for Emma and begins to act like a living person, I still can’t picture them as married. I mean, he has spent the whole book frowning at Emma, correcting her every wrong and expressing his displeasure when she violates social rules that I can’t imagine he would behave any differently once married. How insufferable to have a husband who is always right and always correcting you on everything! Since Mr. Knightley is moving into Hartfield so as not to upset Mr. Woodhouse, I frankly fear for Emma’s sanity, trapped in a home with a hypochondriac and a control freak.
What won me over with the book is the tight plot. Austen is a pro with the red herrings. All the twists and turns of who likes whom is delightful. And since the story is told mainly through Emma’s eyes we are fairly limited to her view of events which means we believe the wrong things too unless you’ve read the book before like I have and know what happens or you are an extra perceptive first-time reader. The clues are all there. Even more fun, since this is Austen we know there will be a happy ending; there will be weddings. But we are kept in suspense for most of the book about who will be marrying whom. It’s all so expertly done.
These last six years rereading one Austen novel every year have been enjoyable. At first I thought when I was done I should do it all over again, but no. Much as I liked it I think I will wait a few years before doing it again. That I will do it again I am quite certain.
"A writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently: How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of: Imagination: The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth: a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful: Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well. Dramatic Skill: The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people: Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. Writing Craft: The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development: Unconscious Reading: Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to: Practice: So. Much. Practice."I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it: "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins: You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice. Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well: Conscious Reading: Separate from the Unconscious Reading above: This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category. Cultivating a Process: Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work. Choosing the Right Material: In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge: She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) Cultivating a Purpose: Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around. If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is: Perseverance: Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. Writers, readers, reviewers: Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer?