I received my first rejection letter from a major publisher when I was 23 years old. I was too wordy, the letter said. I needed more control over my language. So I took that advice on the chin, and I thought to myself: Who is the most restrained writer around Who was someone very good at writing minimalist sentences?
In the end, I decided to learn from Ernest Hemingway. Often out of vogue these days, his legendary status was well-deserved. I don’t want to talk about it here, but such was his impact, a lot of contemporary writers form sentences which are unknowingly influenced by his definitive hard and lean style. (Though his were not always short sentences – one was unashamedly 424 words long.) Anyway, the point being, I became so utterly absorbed in his – and I truly hate to use the phrase – very masculine fiction. There was action, and there were things happening in between sentences, implications. There was much to be found in the absence of words, as much as their inclusion. I became so fascinated in his writing, I’d even copy out pages of his novels onto the computer screen, just to try and see how Hemingway would observe a scene and describe it, to see where such implications lay.
Hemingway’s stories brought treasures from Cuba to Africa to France. They were engaging and thoughtful. I read so many of his books – literally the majority of his output – in one year (back in the days where I could read lots of books in a year). But I also became obsessed with the myth of the writer: here was someone who was an icon for using a typewriter, a personality that extended beyond the page, so much so that reality and fiction became inseparable. Although it’s a desire laced with disappointment, his myth made me want to become a writer – he’s probably influenced others in the same way.
I’d struggle to recall some of his stories now, but I drew a lot from that period. One of the most prominent tricks I gleaned from him was one of his writing techniques: to write a thousand words a day (or whatever word-count you set) but no more – stopping even if it’s mid-scene. That way, the next day you know exactly where to pick up again, denying writer’s block. It’s something that has worked so far.
I learned much about writing scenes and characters in fewer words, but that fewer words is just one way of writing (and a simplistic method that seems to have infected creative writing classes across the World – probably to help those new to the craft). This was before I read authors like Umberto Eco and Lawrence Durrell – where one can see the power of using many words to create an entirely different effect, one not to be ignored.
I tend to have reading love-affairs with authors. When I find an author whose prose I enjoy, I devour much of their output in an intense period. I think Hemingway was my first, but he is probably an influence that least shows in my own work.
I had a similar obsession, down to wanting to live and act like my idol and use the same typewriter – mine, however, was P.G. Wodehouse. Not quite so lean or manly.
Ah, Wodehouse. My brother is a huge fan. That surprises me, Nathan, but good to know other writers had writer-crushes.
Oh love affairs with writers – my first was Sir Pterry. Along with Robert Rankin they fuelled my love of reading. I couldn’t get enough of them when I was 16. I don’t fall in love with authors anymore – I’m a serial adulterer. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Mark, have a look at Working Stiffs, a free story on my website:
You might see the influence more clearly there. My other love was Fritz Leiber, and I have ended up following his banner more than Wodehouse’s – mostly because the market for fantasy is a bit stronger than the one for drawing room farce these days…
Really interesting post, Mark. Stylistically, I’m still completely in awe of Borges: quite spare, pretty dry and detached sometimes, but packing an enormous amount of weight and meaning. Not a single word is wasted – every one of them has to be there.
Know what you mean about the fastidious editing mentality in creative writing classes, the emphasis on anorexic prose. Some of it may come from the fact that a lot of these classes (at least many of the ones I’ve been in) have taught with a duel focus, working also on non-fiction (especially journalistic) writing where the slash-and-burn approach is something you really have to master.
Gav: Used to love Pratchett and Rankin when I was around that age too. It’s really not what Rankin’s talking about as much as how he says it – that’s what really makes me laugh.