Sunday, January 25, 2009

Learn From Other Authors, But...

Frequent visitors to this site will recall my recurring advice for writers: read the work of other authors and learn from them. However, I think I need to append a coda to that song. Some things that have been published may not be the best examples for an aspiring writer. This is especially true when considering works that we consider "classics." You wouldn't dream of trying to mimic the style of William Shakespeare (or Frances Bacon, if you hold to that view) when writing a modern romance. Times change, styles change.

This was called to my attention recently when Kay forwarded to me a paragraph--actually just a sentence, a looooong sentence--from a classic work. That set me wondering what might happen if some of the authors of long ago had to submit their work nowadays. Let's have a look.

Dear Mr. DeFoe:

Thank you for submitting the manuscript for your novel, Robinson Crusoe (alternative title: Lost). I regret that we will not be able to accept it for publication. It is quite apparent that, if you are to move on as a writer, you must learn to express yourself more concisely. Simple declarative sentences in the active voice are necessary to keep the narrative flowing. For instance, consider this paragraph—or rather, this sentence—from your submission:

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through 
the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day's experience to know it more sensibly.”

How much better to say, “He reminded me that calamities most often seem to befall the upper and lower classes. On the other hand, those fortunate souls in the middle class seem to sail through life relatively untouched.”

I wish you success in finding a publisher for your work. In the meantime, perhaps you should consider attendance at a writers’ conference, combined with careful study of the books on writing contained in the enclosed list.

Your obedient servant,

Elijah J. Quillfeather
Chief Fiction Acquisitions Editor
Mugwump Press Ltd.

So, let me amend my advice. Read extensively. Use the experience to decide what elements you'd like to include in your writing...and what you'd like to avoid.


Eileen said...

Quillfeather was much kinder in that rejection than in mine. sigh.

Anne Mateer said...

Interestingly enough, I'm posting this week on a writing book that I LOVED that uses classic literature as its basis. I think it will be up on Friday or so.

Anonymous said...

OMG! Nice post. We had this very discussion recently about classical authors....and how often they would be denied now. **smile**

It's ever changing, isn't it?

Have a great day, Richard.