Something awful happened to my writing last week. My pen was looping speedily across the page, the story was coming freely and easily, but I kept getting brought up short by the phrases that were coming out: blushing furiously – the tension was palpable – he bit his lip… The cliches were coming thick and fast, despite my attempts to stem the rising tide. Great collocations if you’re a language student trying to demonstrate your command of the English language. Not so great if you’re writing a literary novel.
I spent all day wrestling with the language, but it kept slipping back into its ruts. Where on earth was it coming from? That’s not how I write! Only that evening, bemoaning my day on Facebook, did I realise what had happened. Actually, the realisation came when I wrote, “It was all jolly rotten!” Jolly rotten? What am I, a schoolboy from the fifties? Ah… yes.
I’d spent all weekend reading the end of A Horse and His Boy and most of Prince Caspian aloud to my nieces. When they went home, I read everything I’d missed of The Horse and His Boy, the end of Prince Caspian, and started on Voyage of the Dawntreader. I’d drunk deeply from the cup of Narnia (I’ll leave it to CS Lewis to tell you how it was the sort of water that was purer and cleaner than anything you’d ever drunk and not really describable but made the coldest cleanest mountain spring you’d ever tasted seem tepid and brackish in comparison) and what I was writing was pure Narnia. Nineteen-fifties school-children indeed. “Courage, dearheart,” wrote one of my less-than-sympathetic friends.
You write what you read. I know this, so I’m usually careful what I read in the evening before and morning of a writing day. Somehow, caught up in the talking beasts of Narnia, I’d forgotten, and transmogrified into a talking beast myself. That’s frustrating, when you’ve read the wrong thing, but it’s a brilliant trick if you read the right thing. You can up the quality of your writing overnight. Some people pick up accents and writing styles more easily than others, but in the end we’re all language chameleons. Just think about your own accent: where did that come from? Exactly the same is true of your writing style. If you want a great style, read great writing.
What should you read? Anything you want to sound like, frankly. Scan the business books on your shelves or virtual shelves. Whose work is a delight to read, clear and strong? Skim the blogs you follow: which ones do you read for pleasure over coffee and which ones do you just scroll through restlessly for the information? Put some literature in the mix. People who make their living by writing beautifully are good people to learn from. If you don’t know where to start, try the Booker Prize winners. AS Byatt is my go-to for a vocab tonic and precise choice of words. Kazuo Ishiguro is a winner for “hook” sentences that make you want to read on. Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter for playfulness. Margaret Atwood for precision. All of them for flow.
The more you immerse yourself, the stronger the effect will be. At the very least, read the best stuff the night before and just before you write your own stuff. And beware The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s a jolly decent read, but it does all manner of beastly things to your style!