Points of Importance
There is no end to the amount of stimulation and help you can get from reading with critical attention. Read with every faculty alert. Notice the rhythm of the book, and whether it is accelerated or slowed when the author wishes to be emphatic. Look for mannerisms and favorite words, and decide for yourself whether they are worth trying for practice or whether they are too plainly the author’s own to reward you for learning their structure. How does he get the characters from one scene to another, or mark the passing of time? Does he alter his vocabulary and emphasis when he centers his attention first on one character and then on another? Does he seem to be omniscient, is he telling only what would be apparent to one character and allowing the story to dawn on the reader by following that character’s enlightenment? Or does he write first from the viewpoint of one and then another, and then a third? How does he get contrast? Is it, for instance, by placing character against setting incongruously —as Mark Twain put his Connecticut Yankee down into the world of King Arthur’s day?
Each writer will ask his own questions and find his own suggestive points. After the first few books—which you must read twice if you are to make good use of the work of others—you will find that you can read for enjoyment and for criticism simultaneously, reserving a second reading only for those pages where the author has been at his best or worst.
Now as to imitation for practice. When you have learned to find in the writing of others the material which is suggestive for your own work, you are in a position to imitate in the only way in which imitation can be of any use to you. The philosophies, the ideas, the dramatic notions of other writers of fiction should not be directly adopted. If you find them congenial, go back to the sources from which those authors originally drew their ideas, if you are able to find them. There study the primary sources and take any items over into your own work only when they have your deep acquiescence — never because the author in whose work you find them is temporarily successful, or because another can use them effectively. They are yours to use only when you have made them your own by full acquaintance and acceptance
Imitating Technical Excellences
But technical excellences can be imitated, and with great advantage. When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down to learn from it.
Study it even more closely than you have been studying your specimen book or specimen story as a whole. Tear it apart almost word by word. If possible, find a cognate passage in your own work to use for comparison. Let us assume, for instance, that you have trouble with that bugbear of most writers when they first begin to work seriously —conveying the passing of time. You either string out your story to no purpose, following your character through a number of unimportant or confusing activities to get him from one significant scene to another, or you drop him abruptly and take him up abruptly between two paragraphs. In the story you have been reading, which is about the length of the one you want to write, you find that the author has handled such transitions smoothly, writing just enough, but not a word too much, to convey the illusion of time’s passing between two scenes. Well, then; how does he do it? He uses—how many words? Absurd as it may seem at first to think that anything can be learned by word-counting, you will soon realize that a good author has a just sense of proportion; he is artist enough to feel how much space should be given to take his character from the thick of action in one situation into the center of the next.
How to Spend Words
In a story of five thousand words, let us say, your author has given a hundred and fifty words to the passing of a night and a day, rather unimportant, in the life of his hero. And you? Three words, or a sentence perhaps: “The next day, Conrad, etc.”* Something too skimpy about it altogether. Or, on the other hand, although there was nothing in Conrad’s night and morning that was pertinent to the story in hand, and although you have already used up all the space you can afford in the sketching of your hero’s character, by sheer inability to stop talking about him once you have started you may have given six hundred or a thousand words to the retailing of totally irrelevant matters about his day.
How does the author expend the words that you have counted? Does he drop for a few paragraphs into indirection, after having told the story up to this time straightforwardly? Does he choose words which convey action, in order to show that his hero, although not engaged during that time in anything that furthered the story, still has a full life while he is, as it were, offstage? What clues does he drop into the concluding sentence which allows him to revert to the true action? When you have found as much as you are able to find in that way, write a paragraph of your own, imitating your model sentence by sentence.
Again it may be that you feel that your writing is monotonous, that verb follows noun, and adverb follows verb, with a deadly sameness throughout your pages. You are struck by the variety, the pleasant diversity of sentence structures and rhythms in the author you are reading. Here is the real method of playing the sedulous ape: The first sentence has twelve words; you will write a twelve word sentence. It begins with two words of one syllable each, the third is a noun of two syllables, the fourth is an adjective of four syllables, the fifth an adjective of three, etc. Write one with words of the same number of syllables, noun for noun, adjective for adjective, verb for verb, being sure that the words carry their emphasis on the same syllables as those in the model. By choosing an author whose style is complementary to your own you can teach yourself a great deal about sentence formation and prose rhythm in this way. You will not wish, or need, to do it often, but to do it occasionally is remarkably helpful. You become aware of variation and tone in your reading, and learn as you read. Once having taken the trouble to analyze a sentence into its component parts and construct a similar one of your own, you will find that some part of your mind is thereafter awake to subtleties which you may have passed obliviously before.
Pick Up Fresh Words
Be on the alert to find appropriate words wherever you read, but before you use them be sure they are congruous when side by side with the words of your own vocabulary. Combing a thesaurus for what an old professor of mine used to call, contemptuously, “vivid verbs” will be far less useful than to find words in the midst of a living story; although a thesaurus is a good tool if it is used as it is meant to be.
Last of all, turn back to your own writing and read it with new eyes: read it as it will look if it makes its way into print. Are there changes you can make which will turn it into effective, diversified, vigorous prose?