This probably isn’t the best time to be blogging about the minutiae of writing – at this stage during NaNo month it’s all about getting it down, getting anything down, and getting on with the next 1,000 words. But I’ve been reading Scarlett Thomas’s excellent book Monkeys With Typewriters – without doubt the best writing book I’ve ever come across – and I had to share what I’ve learnt.
Until I read this book, I’d never considered writing ‘at the level of the sentence’ as a concept before. Not formally, anyway, no more than any writer thinks ‘Does this or that sound right, or read well, or convey the meaning I want to convey?’ Thomas has opened my eyes to the possibilities for improving your writing, for lifting it out of the ordinary and acceptable – for taking it from good enough to beautiful. And I’m not talking about lengthy descriptions or hyperbole, or flowery ‘clever’ writing that reads like an exercise in, well, creative writing …
Thomas herself is a minimalist writer, but as she says, minimalist doesn’t have to be sparse or devoid of imagery. In fact, it was her thoughts on imagery – or figurative writing – that really inspired me. And then the other day, my 5 year old daughter said this about her new black patent boots:
‘They are beautiful and they are very brave.’*
Wow. Brave, used to describe a pair of boots? But I knew exactly what she meant. With her child’s knowledge of the appropriateness or otherwise of certain words, she’d just come up with a wonderful, original metaphor for a pair of boots. Think about it, about the economy of this – you could have your character about to embark upon something challenging, maybe a job interview or a date, and he or she buys a new pair of shoes, or boots, or perhaps a coat. You could describe the boots, their colour, maybe they are high-heeled or sturdy, maybe they don’t fit as well as they could but they make their new owner feel empowered, feel brave. Imagine if you simply ascribed that characteristic to the new boots – or whatever – how much are you saying in that one word?
*It turns out my daughter didn’t make this up at all – it’s a quote from one of her favourite TV programmes, Sarah and Duck. What it does show is that the writers of Sarah and Duck are brilliant, and that the image stuck in her head and meant something to her about boots, and about the people who owned ‘brave’ boots.
There is much more I could say about this kind of writing, but Scarlett Thomas says it much better than me and I’m not about to quote big sections of her book here when anyone who is interested in learning more about sentence-level writing – and all other aspects of writing, from plot to getting started and coming up with ideas – can download her book and indulge. As I carry on with my NaNo novel, I’ll do so knowing that the time will come for me to go back through every word I’ve written and find a better way, a more elegant economical way, of saying what I want to say. I can’t wait!