Writer’s Desk: Roald Dahl Suggests Eschewing Beastly Adjectives

Roald Dahl (Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

In 1980, Roald Dahl was one of the world’s most famous authors. But when a young Jay Williams wrote a letter to Dahl asking for some writing advice, the author of James and the Giant Peach and The Witches, among other classics, took the time to write back.

Here’s part of what Dahl said:

I have read your story. I don’t think it’s bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all…

You can see the original letter here.

The young Williams grew up to become a newspaper writer, a job that obviously requires trimming the fat. Williams later said that Dahl’s response was the best advice he’d ever been given.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Hilary

Novelist and all-around brilliant prose crafter Hilary Mantel has great advice for writers, here’s a few tastes:

  • Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  • Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
  • Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

Anybody who wrote both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies should be listened to.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Move to New York…Yet

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When he was starting out as a writer, Jonathan Franzen of St. Louis, Missouri (well, Webster Groves if we’re trying to be exact) figured New York was the kind of place that would demoralize and just eat him up. So he went to Somerville, Massachusetts, got an apartment for $300, and worked part-time. That’s when he wrote his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

So now here’s what Franzen tells new writers:

Go to, like, northeastern Ohio, and write your first book. Go someplace cheap, and move to New York later.

Rent matters.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Self-Conscious

In Dorothea Brande’s classic 1934 guide, Becoming a Writer, she identified four of the key roadblocks afflicting most scriveners. Among the most serious was learning how to get out of your own way:

Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples; the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all…

You have to keep your audience in mind at all times, of course. But if you don’t listen to your own voice first, there won’t be any audience for you to worry about.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Art

Bill Hader wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that before he was on SNL he had a very specific and romantic idea of what a writer’s life was like:

My high school girlfriend gave me a copy of Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk — this collection of her beautiful portraits of writers — and that’s how I wanted to live. Wake up, get your coffee, look outside, ruminate and sit down at your mahogany desk like Philip Roth. That’s fucking rad. That’s the life…

Many of us can relate. We know that dream.

But then we also come to discover that, well, it’s a dream:

In reality, there’s no mahogany desk. There’s only a conference room table, and you’re lying on the floor underneath it, scrawling something in mangled Italian on the back of an old lunch order for the Vinny Vedecci sketch. You can’t sit there and wait for inspiration. You think on the fly. You get the work done. You spend every day, every hour you have, trying to make the thing better…

Sometimes, as on-the-fly and unattractive as real writing is, it can be more satisfying in the end.

But a mahogany desk would still be nice.

Reader’s Corner: Autoptic Small Press Comics

My article on the 2018 Autoptic festival in Minneapolis ran in Publishers Weekly yesterday:

Founded in 2013, Autoptic is a comics and independent print festival held August 18–19 at the Aria Event Center in downtown Minneapolis and at Moon Palace Books, an independent bookseller in the city…

Writer’s Desk: Stay Curious About Everything

There are writers—some, but certainly not all—whose eyes will glaze over at the mere mention of topics like “science.” (See also: “401K,” “Retirement Planning,” “Job Security,” and “Deadlines” for other unpopular topics.) But stay with me with for this.

A couple weeks back, the great George Will turned away from deftly skewering members of his former party for bowing and scraping before the president and turned to the topic of curiosity. In “America is Sacrificing the Future,” Will talks about a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner with the glorious title “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Will approvingly highlights Flexner’s thesis, which is that many of the greatest inventions sprang not from diligent and targeted effort, but rather the application of discoveries made in the process of research for research’s sake.

Will uses Flexner to buttress his central argument that the administration’s push to cut general research budgets is a phenomenally short-sighted endeavor, not uncommon in these STEM-obsessed times: “America is eating its seed corn.”

But the point goes beyond that. Per Will:

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims ‘Eureka!’ but when he or she murmurs ‘That’s strange.’ Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists ‘driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.’

Writing is not that different. Of course, when working on that novel about the blind detective from Johannesburg, you better make sure you figure out a few things first (what’s Afrikaans for “You’re under arrest”?).

But writers, like scientists, should never stop following the urge to satisfy their often random-seeming curiosities. You never know what you might come across.