I’ve been diligently studying about how to become a better writer, and my primary method has been reading and rereading sections of some well-written books. Honestly, that’s been my only method, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely, so much so that I’ll probably continue doing it for the rest of my life.
This morning I’m sharing samples of excellent writing that I snagged from three books. Every line in these books is good (nice all-purpose word), and rather than thumb through them looking for the perfect passage, I picked something at random from all three. See if you like them too.
Solomon Northup, the author of 12 Years a Slave, was a free man living a good life with his family in Saratoga NY until he was hoodwinked into going with two men to Washington, DC. Little did he realize their evil intentions. Northup was sold into slavery, and after 12 long years, he is free again.
Every single sentence of the book is worth rereading, even the educational sections about raising sugarcane and growing tobacco. However, this morning, I opened the book at random and came across his description of Epps, the master of the plantation where he was employed. Northup’s physical and psychological descriptions of all of the characters were all excellent. So are his scene descriptions, some so brutal that remembering them is painful.
Without further ado, here’s Northup’s characterization of Epps. “He is a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found. A rough, rude energy, united with an uncultivated mind and an avaricious spirit, are his prominent characteristics.” Right away, the reader knows that this is not the kind of man you’d enjoy spending time with.
I began Brat Farrar a few days ago, and after reading just a few pages, I could easily pick out Ruth from her twin sister Jane. “Ruth, on the other hand, wore a pink cotton frock, as fresh as when she had set off on her bicycle that morning for the Rectory. Her hands were clean and the nails unbroken, and somewhere she had found a pink ribbon and had tied the two sidepieces of her hair in a bow on the top of her head.” Isn’t that a wonderful example of “show, don’t tell?”
The Ballad of the Sad Café broke my heart. What is this thing called love? Who is this hunchback who came into town and bewitched Miss Amelia and awakened the desolate little town? McCullers describes Miss Amelia as “a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman, if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed.”
Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, the Macy brothers, and a cast of other sad characters lived in a dreary town. “Not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred years long….The winters here are short and raw, the summer s white with glare and fiery hot.” It doesn’t sound like a place I want to visit, let alone live.
I’m studying how these writers constructed sentences, described people and places, and evoked emotion. Even if my writing doesn’t improve that much, I’ll enjoy reading how the greats did it. In the meantime, I’ve selected a few photographs as writing prompts for “What’s Ahead?”
‘I’m studying how these writers constructed sentences, described people and places, and evoked emotion.’
I do this often. And whenever I find luscious phrases in novels I’m reading for delight, I jot them down in one of my ‘working’ notebooks. Referencing them comes in handy when I’m trying to wordsmith something that’s not coming together easily.
Me too. I’ve read and reread sentences from Carson McCullers lately. I can’t stop thinking about how a young person (when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) could come up with such rich detail and a keen understanding of human behavior.