Somehow, Morgen talked me into writing a blog on “beautiful writing”, and I cannot think why I accepted because I do not consider that I have the answer. To add to the problems, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and everybody has their own idea. According to the Concise Oxford, “beautiful” is something that delights the senses, so I thought while trying to work out where to start, what piece of writing has done that to me the most?
One scene came to mind before all others, a short scene from “War and Peace”, and one that I rather fancy most will have considered padding, the sort of scene the average editor would delete for not moving the story onwards, yet I remember it over 40 years after reading it. It depicts a grain harvest; you sense the swish swish swish of the scythes, the heat, the dust, and the stop for refreshments. Why would that make an impression? Because I had worked in grain fields (admittedly with combine harvesters) and I know how to use a scythe. To make an impression, I think you have to be able to get the reader into the scene and in Tolstoy’s time, peasants harvesting grain would be something most people could relate to. Of course you also need skill, and Tolstoy was a master.
If the scene is supposed to delight the senses, I think it has to be essentially static. However, if you keep writing static scenes, the book goes nowhere, which is why editors love to delete static scenes. We can now see why Tolstoy put in such a scene: you cannot remain at a climax for extended periods of time. To have a second climax, you have to come down from the first and have a period that is relatively tension-free, which is at least one correct place for a “beautiful scene”.
How to write it is more difficult. One critical point, in my opinion, is to have a clear rhythm. The objective is to get a favourable emotional response from the reader, and an awkward sentence construction merely distracts the reader. I also favour repetition. I know! Editors hate repetition, but in any art, all rules can be broken if you know what you are doing. As an example, in music harmony classes, parallel fifths are regarded as the most heinous crime, and signs of gross incompetence. Yet if you play enough Haydn sonatas, sooner or later you will find them. The difference is, of course, that Haydn was a master and knew exactly what he was doing, and why. The same with writing rules. If you know why you are doing something, and it gives the effect you want, then there is no reason not to do it. There are undoubtedly a number of further points. From a personal point of view, I prefer not to have a plethora of adjectives; for me, “beautiful writing” comes from the way it is presented, not from a long-winded description of something beautiful. “Clever” words should perhaps be avoided, because you are trying to carry the reader with you, to draw out an emotional response, and that will be spoiled by visits to the dictionary to find out what is actually being said, and by polysyllabic words that interrupt the rhythm. Finally, the best way is probably for the author to feel the scene, to insert him/herself into it. If the author can be lost in the scene that is intended to be beautiful, it will either be beautiful, or an outright disaster. The latter option is part of the reason you might need careful editing some time later.
I did indeed ask Ian to write this piece. You see folks, he made the ‘mistake’ (which others have made :)) on one of the blog posts’ comments of saying “someone should write a blog post about…” so I threw down the gauntlet, as the saying goes… well, not threw down but dropped elegantly… and very well accepted I would say. Thank you, Ian! 🙂
Ian Miller was born in 1942 and studied chemistry at the University of Canterbury (BSc Hons 1, PhD) followed by post-docs at Calgary, Southampton and Armidale. He then returned to New Zealand to work at Chemistry Division, DSIR, on recycling, biofuels and seaweed research.
In 1986 he set up his own research company to support the private half of a joint venture to make pyromellitates, the basis of high temperature resistant plastics, which, with an associated seaweed processing venture, collapsed during the late 1980s financial crisis.
In his scientific career he has written about 100 peer reviewed scientific papers and about 35 other articles and was on the Editorial Board of Botanica Marina between about 1998-2008. Early in this century he had a provisional agreement with a major publisher to write a book on how to form theories. This took a lot longer than expected, the publisher lost interest, however he completed the first part of the project and the first ebook in the series entitled “Elements of Theory” was self-published last year. The second, Troubles, about planetary formation and the origin of life, has just been released.
During his first year at University, following an argument with some Arts students, he was challenged to write a fictional book. Following two rejections, this was abandoned, but subsequently, as he began to get some television exposure while trying to promote the pyromellitates venture, Gemina was self-published, only to find as a condition of finance that all publicity for it was forbidden. It was somewhat difficult to sell books without any promotion.
Following the collapse of the pyromellitates venture, he returned to writing fiction, using both his scientific and business experience to write “science in fiction” thrillers, a type of “future history”. This series starts with Puppeteer, set in the near future when both oil and resources are in short supply, when government debts leads to the inability of governments to govern properly and when corruption is widespread. In Puppeteer, one man threatens to detonate three nuclear bombs to get revenge of corrupt officials who have ruined his life, while two others alone can stop him. Further details can be found at www.ianmiller.co.nz.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with fantasy and paranormal romance author Berni Stevens – the five hundred and forty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.