I’ve just read a devastating review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, written by no other than the writer of reading Like A Writer Francine Prose.
It’s the more devastating because Prose is a spectacular writer in her own right and someone capable of dissecting prose to its skeletal bits and highlighting past injuries, improper joint formations.
As I write that last sentence, I hesitate. Overwriting is a curse. It’s easy to get caught up in the flow of some spiralling metaphor and waft off to some puddle of murk.
According to Prose, that’s what happens in The Goldfinch. At one point she seems in despair, “Doesn’t anyone care about how something is written anymore?”, being very clear that this book’s failings are more so because it is being held up to be a literary novel.
It’s a cautionary tale for me, princess of the mismatched metaphor. Great in a funny novel, not so good in a serious one. I am proud of my ability to stick unusual things together, but I will now keep in mind that my cleverness may not be appreciated.
“Kill your darlings” they quote at writers everywhere, and it’s true. A clever turn of phrase should probably be terminated with extreme prejudice.
As for me, I think I’ll avoid The Goldfinch. 800 pages of thick prose about disastrous lives sounds too much for me in this gloomy weather.
I remember once having a lengthy and somewhat gruesome chat about how you would dispose of a body in these recycling focused days. Would you drop it by the medical school? Dissect it and put the hip joints and such in either the plastic or metal recycling containers? Take the head and the mercury fillings to the harmful waste dump day?
It’s a conundrum.
Likewise, how do you learn to write about murder most foul? Merely calling up your local cop shop and asking for tips might lead to awkward questions and notes home from school asking you to please not offer to chaperone the next field trip. Calling a local psychiatrist and pretending to be a psychopath isn’t recommended, either – unfortunately, so much psychiatry is based on first impressions you might end up with way too much time to write and too many drugs to be coherent.
The obvious choice is to read read read read mysteries, following the excellent (if somewhat dry) Francine Prose’s guidelines to Reading like a writer. Well, I’ve done that, and I have a problem with that approach.
If the mystery is good, I get all wrapped up in the story and race through, barely noticing the plot techniques while I get pulled along. If it’s bad, I only notice the things that hold it up, ruin the credibility.
I remember once being so disenchanted with a book that I dropped everything to see if the plant the author had described actually grew in the place she’d put it. (It didn’t).
I know a book has missed the mark for me when I get that fussy.
So I take courses, rub up against “real” writers, shop my stuff to contests and unsuspecting friends, try to get critiqued. This last bit is harder than it looks. Even in writing groups, there’s the tendency to be nice.
One of my stories involved a pedophile that I apparently described so well that people didn’t want to read my stuff anymore. So I had to play nicey nicey and write nicey stuff for a bit.
So, instead, I send things to contests. The ones that give you feedback. I figure I’m paying someone my entry fee to have a close, uninvolved reader have a look.
Sometimes the feedback is useful, sometimes it’s just a line or two. Sometimes it is harsh, sometimes it’s helpful. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to turn it around and offer my comments on other’s writing. I can only hope I’m the helpful type.
In the meantime, I’ve had help from:
and my favourite resource for ways to kill people and those awkward dinner table silences:
D.P. Lyle. Check out his books. Best way to find stuff out without getting asked questions you can’t answer…