Graham Greene was born today, October 2, in 1904. Still regarded a master of craft, here’s some of the expert advice he shared on writing one of his earliest books and his later revision approach:
“My long studies of Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction had taught me the importance of ‘the point of view,’ but not how to convey physical excitement. Now I can see quite clearly where I went wrong. Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb, and an object, perhaps a rhythm — little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizers the nerve.
“I should have returned to [Robert Louis] Stevenson to learn my lesson: ‘It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shaun in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.’
“No similes or metaphors there, not even an adjective. But I was too concerned with ‘the point of view’ to be aware of the simpler problems, to know that the sort of novel I was trying to write, unlike a poem, was not made with words, but with movement, action, character.
“Now when I write I put down on the page a mere skeleton of a novel — nearly all my revisions are in the nature of additions, of second thoughts to make the bare bones live — but in those days to revise was to prune and prune and prune. I was much tempted, perhaps because of my admiration for the Metaphysical poets, to exaggerated similes and my wife became adept at shooting them down. There was one, I remember, comparing something or someone in the quiet landscape of Sussex to a leopard crouching in a tree, which gave a name to the whole species. Leopards would be marked daily on the manuscript, but it took a great many years for me to get the beasts under control, and they growl at me sometimes yet.”
Wow, just consider the Robert Louis Stevenson passage Graham quotes:
… a rush of feet and a roar
… a shout from Alan
… the sound of blows
… someone crying as if hurt
No adjectives or similes, just words that express pure action : rush, roar, shout, blows, crying. What a great lesson on creating drama. Write on!
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