No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)
I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.
Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)
Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.
Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:
“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”
If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:
“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”
Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.
So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.