Thursday, August 26, 2021

Sentences: The Intersection Between Reading and Writing

This summer, I read a handful of books I enjoyed, books that landed in various ways for me. When I read, I’m highly aware of authors’ prose choices and styles. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer; maybe it’s because I’m an English nerd. (I’m sure there’s an intersection there somewhere.) Regardless, my summer reading has me thinking about sentence-level writing.

I began The Radetzky March a month ago. The book has been a slow crawl for me, not because author Joseph Roth isn’t holding my attention. On the contrary. I find myself entranced by his language choices, reading and rereading sentences. Pitching the 1932 book to a friend the other day, I explained that one chapter “begins with a long description of a steak dinner.” My friend rolled his eyes. I know, I know. “But the language will keep you turning pages,” I said. This brings me back to Raymond Chandler’s wonderful statement: “There are no dull books, only dull minds.” In other words: What constitutes compelling fiction? Anything, if the writer can convey the message in an engaging manner.

So how does that happen? As writers, we need to carefully consider the question: How do we engage readers? Because if you’re publishing your work, you’re no longer writing only for yourself. Beyond creating characters readers relate to and want to spend time with, beyond a storyline readers find suspenseful enough to keep turning pages, how can we engage them?

As a reader, I love books that offer language that woos me. However, when I write, I write not as a reader, but as a writer. Again, there’s an intersection there, I’m sure, but I know my strengths lie in character and dialogue. I’m not a prose stylist of Michael Chabon’s ilk. I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union four times the past two years and continue to laugh aloud at his dark humor and marvel at Chabon’s string of clauses and compound sentences.

When writing, I’m attempting to get what it is in my mind onto the page as clearly and cleanly as possible. (Stephen King, in On Writing, says writing fiction is archeology –– the goal is to get the story out of the ground intact.) When do the language and style choices occur? I’m certainly influenced by what I read, but I’m not thinking of “style” or “compound sentences” or “description.” I’m thinking of story, of character, of helping readers to visualize the scene in a way that is vivid.

I’d be interested to hear from others: How does your reading impact your writing? How aware of style and language choices are you when you write?

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