Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Other Writers and What They've Taught Me

Agatha Christie, Thou Canst be Funny

You can be funny, even when you’re writing a grim gritty dystopian (i.e. The Hunger Games trilogy). There's always room for humour. A bit of comic relief.

One of the things I love best about an Agatha Christie mystery is the amazing dry wit in her writing style. No matter how grim her novels get, how poignant, how sad, there is always room for something amusing - something to laugh at. Reading her novels always reminds me that you don't have to do anything when you write. If you're writing about war, you can have small, funny, poignant moments. If you're writing hilarious chick lit (sorry, women's fiction), it can be sad sometimes. There are no rules.

Everything is a mess of emotion. In real life, even when you feel like you never want to get out of bed again, something ridiculous can and will make you laugh again. That's how it works and blending emotions together in a novel can make it feel that much more real.

Daphne du Maurier, Thine Words Count

I talk about her all the time because she is really such a great writer. Daphne du Maurier showed me just how incredible a page, or paragraph, or entire novel of beautiful writing can be. Sure, without plot and character it falls flat, but when you've got that backdrop and your writing is then superb, it's just... awe-inspiring.

Have you ever read a book and thought 'wow, she just described that feeling exactly the way it feels. I've never been able to put it in words like that' or 'I wish I'd written it like that'? That's what du Maurier does for me. Her writing made me want to rethink every word I wrote. It made me stop being lazy with words and try to use them beautifully. 

Her writing makes me read it over and over. I never get tired of its beauty or the way it so truthfully captures elusive images and feelings. And really, you can't ask for much more than that.

Jane Austen, Thou Shalt Not Be Boring

I apologize to any Austen fans, but I've just never, ever been able to get through one of her novels, no matter how many times I've tried. (And I have. I really have.) I love adaptations on film and TV, but the actual novels bore me to tears. I personally find them so tedious and so long-winded that they make me physically groan.
But whether you like Austen or not, the general lesson stands, right? As writers, we can't be boring. As readers, we know we'll put a book down the moment it bores us. Tedious chapters, long sections of unnecessary description, preaching - these are all writing sins that easily occur but can be easily avoided if we edit judiciously and have a second and third pair of eyes read our work.

So who have you learned from, and what did they teach you? And as a reader, what do you wish you could tell writers to avoid or do more of?


  1. The most recent for me: I dig how Glen Cook showed that there is more to the fantasy genre than comic, high, and pulp...

    And totally agree with your Agatha C. based observations.
    Humor is an important part of interacting with a story... And often stories that are devoid of any balance (eg entirely about depression) fail to hold my interest. : p

  2. Philip Larkin taught me the beauty of plain English, that the most profound things can be said in language an eight-year-old could grasp.

  3. I love Agatha Christie's novels!! Never read anything by Daphne but your description makes me want to put that at the top of my reading list. I was inspired by Kate Chopin in high school. You are so right about that feeling that occurs when you read something beautiful and wish you could write that way! That's when I know I am soaking in some wonderful writing.

  4. I like the bit about humour - that's so true. I've learned a lot from writer Julie Cohen - she has a great website - as well as Kate Walker, who talks a lot about conflict. That was one of my 'aha' moments.

  5. I love it when there's humor, even when the overall book isn't positive--I think Lemony Snicket and Eoin Colfer are the ones who pull that off the best.

  6. From Preston & Child - move the story along at a good pace, like it was a movie.

  7. I think the Jane Austen thing applies to a lot of classic works of literature. The rules and audience at the time they were written were just so different that I think in some ways it's a bit unfair to judge them by modern standards. Her books don't bore me but Emma irritates me so much as a character that I've never got beyond the first few chapters.

    I won't pin it down to a specific author but plot, plot, plot. It has to make sense and conclude properly. I get immensely frustrated with books where things are left dangling due to shoddy writing. If it's to tantalise you into buying the next book then that's fine but if it's because the author was too lazy to remember what the characters were all doing then I'm not going to bother with them again.

  8. i'm reading stieg larsson's millennium trilogy, and while the story's fine, i'm more than a little bored by too much of an info dump, especially in the first book [i read #2 first], where harriet's bg is done to death! :(

  9. I've learned a lot from Laurie Halse Anderson's work. She never ceases to amaze me...She can write in every genre!