We’re so excited to be hosting award-winning novelist Kate Forsyth on the blog for a series of contributions on books and writing.
Here’s her first installment, on the art of writing. Stay tuned for more!
I read a lot. I read for my own selfish pleasure, and I read for work. I read stories submitted to me by my students. I read manuscripts by aspiring writers hoping I’ll help them write better. I read books which are just not quite good enough to be published, to see if I can help diagnose what’s wrong with them.
I dissect stories for a living. Many of these manuscripts I read share the same flaws – poor structuring, slow pace, a slack narrative thread. However, by far the most common mistake that I am finding in recent years is a lack of pizzazz. A lack of playfulness.
Everybody is writing the same. Sentences are short. Emotions are deadened. Descriptive passages are pared back to the bone – or missing altogether. I feel like I’m floating in a sensory deprivation tank. Figurative language has been abandoned, there’s no alteration in pace or rhythm, no sense of lyricism, no humour, no whimsy, no veering out of control, no poetry.
I blame Ernest Hemingway. His terse minimalist style was widely copied by other American writers such as Elmore Leonard and Chuck Palahniuk, and is now widely considered the epitome of good writing. Creative writing books and courses teach the same set of rules as if they are imperatives.
Use short sentences.
Cut out all adjectives.
Never use a dialogue tag apart from said. (i.e your characters should never whisper, or moan, or screech, or whimper, or groan, or shriek.)
Never use an adverb. (No softly, no sweetly, no bitterly, no bleakly.)
Do not describe places.
Do not describe people.
Do not describe emotion.
In the hands of a gifted writer like Hemingway or Leonard, this spare, simple style can be very powerful. However, if over-used, it can led to a story of unvarying beigeness, a bass note endlessly repeated, with no melody or counterpoint.
After a while, it gets very boring. I try and encourage my writing students to be a little more adventurous. To take risks and break rules and play with language. I want them to experiment with rhythm and rhyme, and simile and symbol, and alliteration and assonance, and all the other wonderful patterns of language. I want them to listen to the sounds of words, and how they can clink together like stones, or susurrate like silk.
I want them to read poetry, and listen to music, and look at the world with wide-open eyes and ears and skin. I want them to be bold and surprising and impish and audacious. I want to snort out loud with laughter and blink away a mist of tears. I want the whiff of gunpowder in their words.
Am I the only one who is growing weary with minimalist writing, all modern beige and mousy bland?
Kate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of more than twenty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both children and adults. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 25 Novelists, coming in at No 22, just after Peter Carey. She has been called one of ‘the finest writers of this generation”, and “quite possibly … one of the best story tellers of our modern age.’