The Book that Ate America’s Brain

After Margaret Donsbach’s comment the other day, about choosing active over passive verbs, I reached out for a book which wasn’t there. I often lend writing manuals to students. Too often the book is returned the following week with the student saying, ‘Thank you so much, I really enjoyed that.’ What I would like them to say is, ‘It was so rich I couldn’t get past page 5 and still digest everything. I have to keep referring to it. Can I borrow it another week?’ But obviously one student did find that, and that’s where my Strunk and White is.

‘Strunk and White’ is the US bible of good writing practice.

From Wikipedia: ‘Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr., wrote The Elements of Style in 1918, privately published it in 1919, and first revised it in 1935 with editor Edward A. Tenney. In 1957 at The New Yorker magazine, the style guide reached the attention of writer E. B. White, who had studied writing under Strunk in 1919, but had since forgotten the “little book” that he described as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.

Weeks later, he wrote a feature story lauding the professor’s devotion to lucid written English prose. Meantime, Macmillan and Company publishers had commissioned White to revise The Elements of Style, then 41 years old, for a 1959 edition, because Strunk had died 13 years earlier, in 1946. His expansion and modernization of the 1935 revised edition yielded the new writing style manual, since known as Strunk & White, whose first revised edition sold some two million copies. Since 1959 the total sales of three editions of the book, in four decades, exceeded ten million copies.’

E.B. White was the author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and a collection of fabulous essays which should be at everyone’s elbow as a source of inspiration.

I have always tried to practise this active over passive principle. In short, instead of writing, ‘I was pounced on by the cat,’ you would say, ‘the cat pounced on me.’ The active version is more immediate and invites imaginative participation by the reader. So, as a quick way the liven up the writing, adopt the principle.

Reading on about Strunk and White in Wiki, I discovered that this principle appeared in the third edition, which White enlarged. The entry goes on:

‘E.B. White advises writers to have the proper mind-set, that they write to please themselves, and to aim for, in the phrase of Robert Louis Stevenson, “one moment of felicity.”

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. The Elements of Style.’ 


Who could argue with that? It’s a perfect principle beautifully stated. But of course, there are English lit professors who know much better than me:

In criticizing The Elements of Style, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, said:

‘The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules . . . It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can’t tell you why.’

Specifically, Prof. Pullum said that Strunk and White misunderstood what constitutes the passive voice, and criticized their proscribing established usages such as the split infinitive and the use of which in a restrictive relative clause. He also criticizes The Elements of Style in Language Log, a linguists’ blog about language in popular media, for promoting linguistic prescriptivism and hypercorrection among Anglophones, referring to it as “the book that ate America’s brain.”

In the Boston Globe newspaper’s review of The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005) edition describes the writing manual as an “aging zombie of a book . . . a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.”

Pardon me?

If you’re not familiar with Wikipedia, anyone can create or edit an entry. On the whole I find Wiki very reliable, but you need to develop a sixth sense about exactly who’s been adding stuff in.

Strunk and White has helped if not created a couple of generations of fine writers. I unreservedly recommend it as a style guide. But if you think it’s going to eat your brain, then by all means, find another, but don’t leave style as something that comes naturally. It doesn’t.

Do you Want to Write a Blockbuster?

I’m still reading Zuckerman’s book and have come to an important realisation: I don’t want to write a blockbuster. I’ve always known that, but it’s good to have a reason for what has just been a feeling up to now.

The book is full of gems, no doubt about that, and Zuckerman advises that if I want only gems, I should skip the next chapter, which I probably shall, for it is a comparison between several outlines of a Follett novel. I’ve tried doing that kind of thing before and no doubt it is a brilliant exercise and I’m a dull student, but I shall probably pass on.

Here and there, however, he’s said things which make me tense up. For example, ‘For a writer attempting a blockbuster novel, I would not recommend a historical setting.’ He does say elsewhere he’s writing in 1993 and things could change. Certainly back then I was forever being told ‘historicals don’t sell’. Ha! And we always had the example of Joanna Trollope dangled in front of us, who began with historicals but suddenly saw sense and began to make a fortune writing contemporary fiction set in cathedral closes. And then there was Edith Pargeter, who stopped writing authentic stories set in the past, sensibly changed her name to Ellis Peters and created an anachronistic monk-detective.

So I’ve always known that, unless I see the error of my ways, I’ll never be rich and famous. But now I really know why.

It’s this: I write books I would like to read and I don’t like reading blockbusters. I suddenly realised that I’ve never read a blockbuster, not since Harold Robbin’s The Carpet Baggers when I was about 13 (I’d been told that there were a couple of pages in there that would answer all my questions).  And it was Mr Zuckerman who revealed to me why I haven’t when he said that, in order to write one, you need to create some larger-than-life characters and put them in extreme situations. Well, give me a choice in whether to watch the Godfather or Downton Abbey, I’d have no difficulty. I’ve never seen the Godfather and probably never shall. I’ve never read John Grisham, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum etc. etc. Am I a literary snob? Nope, just a type. We’re all a type, and there’s probably a dozen types to choose from.

But in principle Zuckerman is right, because thinking of Downton Abbey, as I am now (if you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of masters and servants in an English country house just before WWI), I have to say that the characters are larger than life, and the core situation is extreme.

The fact is, there are some principles in writing good fiction, and we need to know what they are. But it’s also useful to know where you stand in the spectrum that has Virginia Woolf at one end and Dan Brown at the other (no, I haven’t read him, either). I always tell my students, aim for the middle and a good story well told. You have to start somewhere…

An Artist’s Date at the V&A

I met my cousin from Canada and her friend at the Victoria and Albert Museum yesterday. We headed for the new medieval and Renaissance gallery. Last time I went there, I didn’t get past Romanesque before running out of hours; this time I got stuck at a champleve and cloisonne reliquary.

The new gallery is sublime. It makes you feel you are alone with each exhibit and here and there are little video displays showing how a thing was made, as with the enamel reliquary. My next stop was to find out why a life-sized wooden carving of Jesus on the donkey was leading a procession of fabulous ecclesiatical copes, and stood to watch a little video of a Palm Sunday procession in Austria. By this time I was getting heady and neglecting my companions.

Having done the gallery, they presented me with a brass rubbing they’d made and went off to see 20th Century Fashion, so we agreed a time to meet and I turned back to the past. This time I made a concerted effort to hack my way through the distractions to get to the Renaissance rooms.

St Roch's dog - Spanish carving.

Wow! Hangings and chairs and cressets and chandeliers and paintings and fireplaces and tiled floors and bronze knick-knacks. Oh yes, and a full suit of armour for Mr Renaissance Man. If like me you thought you knew what a vestibule was, let me tell you that yesterday I touched one and it was made of wood.

Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, a big hit in the 90s, advocates two main methods of stimulating creativity. One is Morning Pages, the other is The Artist’s Date. I find the pages easy but the date phenomenally difficult. I manage it perhaps once a month (more now that I’m walking so much). The idea is to go out on your own to somewhere that gets the juices going, a walk, a charity shop, a park, a museum.

Cardinal Giovanni - his Facebook Gravitar

So there I was in the Renaissance gallery and suddenly on my own. When I found I could take photographs, everything in me soared, and I went about taking (terrible) snaps on my rubbish new Canon, but connecting with so many beautiful things, including a Botticelli (Portrait of Smeralda Brandini). Highlight: terracotta bust of Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici taken from a life-mask. I could have been looking at the man himself. You’d think he’d have shaved for the occasion.

Do these exercises stimulate creativity? I’m not sure. I can’t point to any particular piece of writing and say, ‘That came out of two hours browsing gentlemen’s suits in a charity shop’. But I am sure that these exercises and others like them get you over blocks. Morning Pages in particular gets the writing arm nicely flexed. If you’re not familiar with the exercise, it is this: Get a bound notebook, A4 or Letter-sized, and write three pages non-stop every morning, first thing. I think it’s a brilliant way of finding your own true voice (which is not the one you start with). I was always a bit annoyed that Cameron sort of implied her system was all her own when Morning Pages at least comes from the real doyen of creative writing, Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer).

Naturally I ran out of time and as I was hurrying to keep another date, this one with a slab of cake and a cup of tea, I passed by a little room which didn’t say it was for children only. With a few more minutes (or hours) to spare, I’d have had a go at drawing in perspective or writing a mini-story about a Durer engraving.

After the V&A, where I get blown away just by going to the loos (amazing stone-slab sinks and optical illusions only to be seen in mirrors in one, or original Victorian tiles in another), we went on to Harrods. What a toy shop that is! And then I walked alone across Hyde Park to Marble Arch, by which time I was positively happy. Ah yes, the nurse would say, endomorphines released by exercise. Let’s just call it happy. I feel very creative today. Up early to find time to write brilliant short story as told to me by my cousin’s friend, it’s now 5.14am and, with this post, my morning pages are done.

Al Zuckerman’s Point of View

Chapter Six of ‘Writing the Blockbuster Novel’ is about Point of View and, unlike most other writing manuals I’ve read, is short and to the point. Zuckerman, a top editor and literary consultant, says nothing of first person, or third person subjective or objective. What he does say is so worth hearing that I’m going to quote some chunks here.

To a writer aspiring to build her first bestseller, I strongly recommend Follett’s method [which is to use several PoVs]. Several kinds of richness can accrue from it, some of them unsuspected. First and foremost, it forces the author to forget about trying to tell the story in broad narrative strokes as an outside observer might most readily imagine it. Instead, from the very outset the author must burrow deep inside one character, then another, and then another, focusing on the one character who at a particular piece of the action has the largest emotional stake.

Disciplined managing of point of view in The Man from St Petersburg also has the effect of expanding one story into what almost feels like four individual stories that intersect dramatically at key points. We are exposed to one series of events, but through the sensibilities of four points of view, each with widely contrasting world views, emotional makeups, and social and economic backgrounds. This adds a breadth, scope and depth to this book that it would not otherwise have.

He goes on to say that early works by Follet and John Grisham do not have the mastery of their later works in that they use a dozen or so PoV characters, ‘most of whom appear in one chapter and disappear in the next.’

He ends the chapter thus:

Having read all the above and, hopefully, the other example novels I’ve discussed, you may now be wondering if there is an optimum number of point-of-view characters. I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you’re telling, but no fewer than three or four. With only one or two points of view, it becomes quite difficult to work up the kind of plot complexity and interpersonal drama readers expect in a big novel.

Another factor to consider is your readership. Both contemporary and historical romances are usually written from only one point of view, a woman’s, and almost all the buyers and readers of these books are women. Conversely, the same holds true for men with action-adventure novels and westerns. Authors who aim for a broad readership, one that comprises both men and women of varying ages, tend to create point-of-view characters who epitomize these differences. … The contrasts between these characters’ world views deriving from their sexes and stages of life contribute vitally to the book’s tension and drama.

And finally:

For a reader to become engrossed in your character, be it your hero or heroine or even your antagonist or villain, you must love each of them or at least feel deeply with and for them.

I can think of half a dozen exceptions to this wise advice about point of view already, and some of them Booker prize winners, but we have to bear something in mind. Editors in publishing houses tend not to be looking for midlist authors or, come to that, literary wonders (although they may be tempted by these). They want books that sell. And so we would do well to listen to what Mr Zuckerman has to say.

I for one must now ponder whether I really am in the final days of my latest novel or merely the beginning of yet another draft; to be sure, I am one character PoV missing, and I know who it is. So I’m very grateful to Ann for bringing our attention to this useful manual.

As for loving your characters, that is something I heartily endorse, no matter how difficult it is. There was a complete stand-off between me and Lorenzo de’ Medici’s wife until the day came when, miraculously, I penetrated the revulsion I felt and began to understand her. From that moment on, she became one of my strongest characters.

From Midlist to Blockbuster and Beyond

As recommended last week by Ann Reid, I’ve bought Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel – not a book I’d be seen dead reading, you understand. That title is on a par with How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Joy of Sex – not things we Brits like to admit to needing or wanting.

Would I like to write a blockbuster novel? That depends on what it means. If it means having your name embossed in letters over two inches high on a paperback that balloons as soon as you open it into a great fat thing you can’t put down because it’s a tense and breathless read but then, as soon as you finish it, you throw it in the bin and out of the mind, then no, I don’t.

If it’s a well-crafted piece that’s taken years to write and then suddenly takes off in the public consciousness, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, well then, oh yes please, of course I do.

Life is very difficult for the artist, whatever the medium. It’s super-celebrity or nobody with nothing in between. Really good actors, especially of the female variety, have to have their eyes set on Hollywood rather than the RSC if they want to get work. Cellists do better if they have magnificent thighs in slinky dresses. Singers need to be drop-dead gorgeous to look at before we start to listen to them. There are exceptions to all these of course, but in the main the entertainments industry is dominated by a small coterie of repeating faces when you can be  sure there’s hundreds if not thousands to choose from. But the producers, in whatever guise, look for the bankable name.

I’ve just looked up ‘midlist’ to see if it means what I think it means, and it does. Here’s the definition from good old Wikipedia, long may it live:

‘Midlist is a term in the publishing industry which refers to books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author). The vast majority of total titles published are midlist titles, though they represent a much smaller fraction of total book sales, which are dominated by bestsellers and other very popular titles.

Authors who consistently publish acceptable but not bestselling books are referred to as Midlist authors.’

Reading on, I discovered it was a court case in the US which changed how publishers have to account for and can depreciate unsold inventory each year that made life difficult for the midlist author. I also clicked the link to find out what The Long Tail is, and began to feel more hopeful.

Things may be changing. For a start, everyone tires of the same old same old. We all know why Pa has been absent in the current series of Larkrise to Candleford – he has another life at Downton Abbey. (Little does Ma know that he’s not a stonemason in Oxford at all, but a butler in a large country estate).

New developments like e-readers, and the sudden market dominance of Amazon’s Kindle (curses, curses, am I to be enslaved to Amazon forever? – a blockbuster company if ever there was one) will allow us to be more wide-ranging in our choices, more experimental in our purchases perhaps.

And then there’s the Long Tail. This is the view that it’s better to sell fewer longer than to sell a lot all at once. Again, the e-reader makes the Long Tail more possible, since it overcomes the huge expense of storage.

Godstow Press has just signed an agreement with the distributor, Central Books. I didn’t know about Long Tails when I was telling the director that A Tabernacle for the Sun sold about five copies a week when it was published by Allison and Busby back in 1997. ‘Fourteen years later, it is still selling five copies a week,’ I told him. ‘And that, I reckon, is a real publishing phenomenon.’ I was joking, of course, but he was quiet for a little, then said, ‘Do you know, it is.’ But we’re hoping that between us we can make it ten.

I would so much rather write something enduring than something that bursts like a firework only to die in the sky seconds later. Nevertheless, I have turned to Mr Zuckerman’s book with much interest and am half way through the chapter on Point of View. So that will be the next posting, on Wednesday.

Have a good week. My advice is, don’t worry about the fate and future of your writing, just write. It’s only the book you can’t stop writing that has a chance of becoming a book the reader can’t put down.

Chameleon’s Eye View continued…

I was a bit overwhelmed by yesterday’s response. Many thanks to everyone who contributed. For those who did not see all the comments,  Marge asked for someone to critique her novel, offering to do the same in return.

I’m not sure how to organise this, but in the background to this blog I can see the email addresses of contributors so, anyone wishing to join such a scheme of mutual critiquing, saving a hefty sum in the process, please just drop a note in the comment box here. I’ll try and find out today how to get my email address to show on the site.

With your permission, anyone applying will be copied to anyone else who’s applied, if that makes sense (it’s very early).

At that point I bow out and take no responsibility whatsoever. This is not an exercise for the faint-hearted. But as a word of advice to someone who has never critiqued before, look for the good as well as the bad and always be kind. It could be you on the receiving end and, in fact, in this scheme, it will be….