East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Read like a writer


Skyfarer_144dpiI said I would be reading a book, and I am.
I am reading Joseph Brassey’s Skyfarer, that I got me in paperback for the price of a pizza, and is proving to be quite fun. Highly recommended, based on the initial premises, and I’ll tell you more once I’ve finished it (won’t be long, it reads like a breeze).
The only problem, I had to turn off the “little voice” in my head.

I guess you all remember Magnum PI, and his little voice…

Magnum: [narrates] When I write my book on how to be a world class private investigator, I’m going to include a chapter on listening to your little voice. Everybody has one, and mine was saying to stop Marcus and find out the real story behind his new car. Of course I didn’t, which is another chapter, things I should have done, but didn’t…

OK, so my little voice starts talking as I start reading, and points out all the neat things the author did with his story: nice turns of phrase, killer characterization, great dialog.

“See,” my little voice tells me, “that’s how it’s done. You should try it too! Take notes, you fool! Learn from the good ones!”

Of course we learn from the good ones.

Earlier today I was discussing with my friend Marco Siena (who happens to be a fine writer, too) about the glaring differences between Robert E. Howard’s prose, and the prose of those Howard fans that think they are emulating REH, but basically come off as turgid.
And no, turgid is not a compliment.

As a case study, with Marco we checked out the first paragraph of People of the Black Circle (that you can read in its entirety here)…

THE KING OF VENDHYA was dying. Through the hot, stifling night the temple gongs boomed and the conchs roared. Their clamor was a faint echo in the gold-domed chamber where Bhunda Chand struggled on the velvet-cushioned dais. Beads of sweat glistened on his dark skin; his fingers twisted the gold-worked fabric beneath him. He was young; no spear had touched him, no poison lurked in his wine. But his veins stood out like blue cords on his temples, and his eyes dilated with the nearness of death. Trembling slave-girls knelt at the foot of the dais, and leaning down to him, watching him with passionate intensity, was his sister, the Devi Yasmina. With her was the wazam, a noble grown old in the royal court.

WeirdTales-1934-09Now, some off-the-cuff observations.

  • The opening: the first phrase is short, direct, and hard-hitting. A single exotic word to set the color of the scene. It’s very economic.
  • The adjectives: are about 10% of the total word-count, and used sparingly. Nothing particularly complicated, the three hyphened adjectives pack together color and texture, the rest are workmanlike descriptors.
  • The words: no strange, complicated or seldom-used words. The conchs, maybe, can raise an eyebrow, but that’s it. Of the few exotic words, only two (Devi and wazam) are not person’s or place names, and they are easy to read and pronounce. They flavor the text without causing it to drag.

And it works.
It hooks the reader, serves the purpose of creating tension while describing sparingly but efficiently the whole scene, the whole palace of the King of Vendhya.

This is what I usually call reading like a writer, and I’m about to set up an online workshop on the subject. The idea is to spend an afternoon with exercises and discussion, looking at ways in which we can disassemble and reassemble the text to learn from the authors we love how to write better.

Because like Thomas Magnum used to say, you have to listen to your little voice. And put it to work.

Thomas_MagnumMagnum: [narrating] I’m not really sure which kind of private investigator I am. The Holmesian-type with the constant deductive mind, or one with a Marlowe-type intuitive sense of the darker side of human nature? Hopefully a combination of both. At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Not when you have a “little voice”. I don’t know, maybe a gently nagging “little voice” is just another way of adding what you know, to what you feel, but right now mine wasn’t “gently nagging”. It was screaming.

But not today and tomorrow.
Today and tomorrow I want to just read as a reader, and enjoy the story.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Read like a writer

  1. Great post! and I would very much like to attend such a workshop


  2. Ha! Your little voice is kinder than mine. All mine does is grumble about the author’s grammar, sentence structure and plot holes 😉


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.