The Elements of Style

Some people are good with sentences. I try to copy them.

This, from Moby Dick, is a phenomenal piece of writing. It comes relatively early in the novel, after the men have just killed a whale.

“He’s dead, Mr. Stubb,” said Dagoo.
“Yes; both pipes smoked out!” and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.

I have a notebook full of passages that I like, and once I’ve copied one down, I write my own version (s) of it, keeping the sentence structure but altering the content to fit my novel, or just playing with words and ideas.

This passage, by Denis Johnson, comes from Jesus’ Son, and came bundled with several other writers’ work in a craft exercise given by the multi-genre expert Paul Licisky.

In case my hand-writing is too hard to follow:

This man was just basically one of those people on a boat, leaning on the rail like the others, his hands dangling over like bait. The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorous—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams.

You can see in the photograph, below Denis, me writing my own version below, my first sentence trying to start deliberately mundane and then rise to a little poetry. On the right I’m free-styling with versions of individual sentences. It’s rare, in my writing, to adopt the blithe tone of “This man was just basically one of those people…” and so it’s a useful challenge to see that tone appear in my novel’s world and then have to work out what to do with it: “… despite the so familiar incense, like the sweet fumes of a hash pipe, meant to cover the smell of the cafe’s two toilets.”

Madame Bovary, by the way, is a great source for this kind of imitation and riffing.

Tell me any passages from writers you like. The notebook is hungry.



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