Industry, application, technique

Angela Carter paraphrasing Michael Moorcock’s advice on how to write fiction:

‘Industry, application, technique. How do you acquire industry and application? By doing it. What about technique? You acquire that by reading. If you want to write a novel, you really ought to read one, first. Read several. Read history, geography, anthropology. Read ancient epics, myths, romances. Read cigarette cards, the backs of cereal packages, yesterday’s newspapers. [Moorcock] himself emerges as an omnivorously well-read man, but the inexhaustible curiosity that lies behind all that is something that can’t be acquired, is something you are both with.’

Carter adds:

‘He doesn’t give anything away, because it isn’t possible for him to do so. There are no real trade secrets. Fiction is as individual as a fingerprint, even if all the history of storytelling is somehow involved in every story.’

(Angela Carter, review of Colin Greenland’s Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, 1991)

A good sentence is like two oranges

‘The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer. His pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of logic. Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer, or the artist has been proved unequal to his design. And, on the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game. The genius of prose rejects the cheville no less emphatically than the laws of verse; and the cheville, I should perhaps explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound. Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we judge the strength and fitness of the first.

‘Style is synthetic; and the artist, seeking, so to speak, a peg to plait about, takes up at once two or more elements or two or more views of the subject in hand; combines, implicates, and contrasts them; and while, in one sense, he was merely seeking an occasion for the necessary knot, he will be found, in the other, to have greatly enriched the meaning, or to have transacted the work of two sentences in the space of one.’

Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’

Admit the scar

At the start of a new semester, here’s Ben Jonson on teaching and learning to write:

‘I would bring my precepts into practice, for rules are ever of less force and value than experiments. […] As we should take care that our style in writing be neither dry nor empty, we should look again it be not winding, or wanton with far-fetched descriptions; either is a vice.  But that is worse which proceeds out of want, than that which riots out of plenty. The remedy of fruitfulness is easy, but no labour will help the contrary; I will like and praise some things in a young writer which yet, if he continue in, I cannot but justly hate him for the same. There is a time to be given all things for maturity, and that even your country husband-man can teach, who to a young plant will not put the pruning-knife, because it seems to fear the iron, as not able to admit the scar. No more would I tell a green writer all his faults, lest I should make him grieve and faint, and at last despair; for nothing doth more hurt than to make him so afraid of all things as he can endeavour nothing.’

Jonson, Discoveries, 1640


‘I like most kinds of fiction, mostly for the same qualities, none of which is specific to a single genre. But what I like in and about science fiction includes these particular virtues: vitality, largeness, and exactness of imagination; playfulness, variety, and strength of metaphor; freedom from conventional literary expectations and mannerism; moral seriousness; wit; pizzazz; and beauty.

‘Let me ride a moment on that last word. The beauty of a story may be intellectual, like the beauty of a mathematical proof or a crystalline structure; it may be aesthetic, the beauty of a well-made work; it may be human, emotional, moral; it is likely to be all three. Yet science fiction critics and reviewers still often treat the story as if it were a mere exposition of ideas, as if the intellectual “message” were all. This reductionism does a serious disservice to the sophisticated and powerful techniques and experiments of much contemporary science fiction. The writers are using language as postmodernists; the critics are decades behind, not even discussing the language, deaf to the implications of sounds, rhythms, recurrences, patterns—as if text were a mere vehicle for ideas, a kind of gelatin coating for the medicine. This is naive. And it totally misses what I love best in the best science fiction, its beauty.’

Ursula K. Le Guin, introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, 1994.

Good health

‘The contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work, the disorder of my days, these are the things that make it, to say the least, difficult for me to get up in the morning. When I talk with people, when I ride on trains, life seems to have some apparent, surface goodness that does not need questioning. When I spend six or seven hours a day at my typewriter, when I try to sleep off a hangover in a broken armchair, I end by questioning everything, beginning with myself. I reach insupportably morbid conclusions, I wish half the time to die. I must achieve some equilibrium between writing and living. It must not continue to be self-destructive. When I wake in the morning I say to myself I must hit harder, I must do better, I must at least leave a respectable and enlightening record for my children, but an hour later when I sit at my typewriter I lose myself in a haze of regrets and write a page or two about Aaron sitting alone in a room, feeling the walls of his soul collapse. I must bring to my work, and it must give to me, the legitimate sense of well-being that I enjoy when the weather is good and I have had plenty of sleep. Good health is instinctive with me and it can be with literature.’

John Cheever, journals, 1952


Kafka in a letter to Max Brod, c. 1910:

‘My whole body puts me on my guard against each word; each word, before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly.’

That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Kafka: a yellow and black collected stories with a linocut of a beetle on the cover, found in the school library and picked up because of the strange name. The discovery that something totally unanticipated was possible, like installing a whole new suite of software.