Get Me Rewrite: Borrow from the best
By Mark Jacob
One way to become a better writer is to read lots of excellent writers. I’m not suggesting you compose sentences like those of Flannery O’Connor or Kazuo Ishiguro. But try to spot what makes great writers great.
Here’s the first paragraph of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Blind Assassin”:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
Atwood creates an immediate, compelling question that she promises to answer — in her own good time. And she sets an odd matter-of-fact tone that makes you wonder why the narrator doesn’t care more about the tragedy she’s describing. Both things make you want to keep reading.
Here’s Elizabeth Strout in “Olive Kitteridge,” describing a man driving:
Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.
That’s the second sentence of the book, yet Strout doesn’t shy away from a very long sentence – 85 words. She gets away with it because the sentence is clear, well organized and carefully paced.
Alice Walker, on the other hand, doles out information and description in a less flowing, more stop-and-start manner to make an impact in her short story “The Welcome Tale” from the book “In Love & Trouble”:
The people in church never knew what happened to the old woman; they never mentioned her to one another or to anybody else. Most of them heard sometime later that an old colored woman fell dead along the highway. Silly as it seemed, it appeared she had walked herself to death. Many of the black families along the road said they had seen the old lady high-stepping down the highway; sometimes jabbering in a low insistent voice, sometimes singing, sometimes merely gesturing excitedly with her hands. Other times silent and smiling, looking at the sky. She had been alone, they said. Some of them wondered aloud where the old woman had been going so stoutly that it had worn her heart out. They guessed maybe she had relatives across the river, some miles away, but none of them really knew.
The pace of Walker’s sentences establishes a sense of someone taking in the facts a little at a time, trying to understand them, and mostly failing. It’s masterful construction.
And then there’s this from Don DeLillo’s novel “Underworld”:
They are waiting for the ticket holders to clear the turnstiles, the last loose cluster of fans, the stragglers and loiterers. They watch the late-arriving taxis from downtown and the brilliantined men stepping dapper to the windows, policy bankers and supper club swells and Broadway hotshots, high aura’d, picking lint off their mohair sleeves.
DeLillo seems determined to make sure nothing about his prose feels ordinary. “Brilliantine” is a light, shiny fabric similar to alpaca, but even if you don’t know that (as I didn’t), the context gives you some idea of what he means. One lesson to learn from DeLillo is to be playful and distinctive. Take some chances.
The best writers are intentional, and if we can figure out their techniques and tricks, we can steal them for the greater good of our readers.
Editing is our specialty. See more at MHarris.com.