Great Writers: Willa Cather

A quick study on Willa Cather’s multilayered style for a writer I was mentoring:

You don’t need endless modifiers to draw a believable character, but a well placed adjective or adjective, combined with telling detail, can sometimes do double duty, both setting the stage and establishing the actors. Here are two random passages (the first from near the beginning and the second from closer to the end) of a Willa Cather short story. The first, though as formal in style as the one that follows, is rather more spare than the second, in which modifiers are layered one atop another as the daughter-in-law struggles to determine what it is about Rosicky that makes him so different from other farmers—other people—that she has known:

1. With Mary, to feed creatures was a natural expression of affection,—her chickens, the calves, her big hungry boys. It was a rare pleasure to feed a young man whom she seldom saw and of whom she was as proud as if he belonged to her. Some country housekeepers would have stopped to spread a white cloth over the oilcloth, to change the thick cups and plates for their best china, and the wooden-handled knives for plated ones. But not Mary.

          “You must take us as you find us, Doctor Ed. I’d be glad to put out my good things for you if you was expected, but I’m glad to get you any way at all.”

          He knew she was glad,—she threw back her head and spoke out as if she were announcing him to the whole prairie. Rosicky hadn’t said anything at all; he merely smiled his twinkling smile, put some more coal on the fire, and went into his own room to pour the Doctor a little drink in a medicine glass. When they were all seated, he watched his wife’s face from his end of the table and spoke to her in Czech. Then, with the instinct of politeness which seldom failed him, he turned to the Doctor and said slyly: “I was just tellin’ her not to ask you no question about Mrs. Marshall until you eat some breakfast. My wife, she’s terrible fur to ask questions.”


2. “I like mighty well to see dat little child, Polly,” was all he said. Then he closed his eyes and lay half-smiling. But Polly sat still, thinking hard. She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone, really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there. You saw it in his eyes, —perhaps that was why they were merry. You felt it in his hands, too. After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his warm, broad, flexible brown hand. She had never seen another one in the least like it. She wondered if it wasn’t a kind of gypsy hand, it was so alive and quick and light in its communications,—very strange in a farmer. Nearly all the farmers she knew had huge lumps of fists, like mauls, or they were knotty and bony and uncomfortable-looking, with stiff fingers. But Rosicky’s was quicksilver, flexible, muscular, about the color of a pale cigar, with deep, deep creases across the palm. It wasn’t nervous, it wasn’t a stupid lump; it was a warm brown human hand, with some cleverness in it, a good deal of generosity, and something else which Polly could only call “gypsy-like,”—something nimble and lively and sure, in the way that animals are.

            —“Neighbor Rosicky,” Willa Cather


The first passage is deceptively simple—no fancy words, no poetic metaphors, no drawn-out belaboring of metaphors to describe the scene. But I say deceptive because that’s exactly the “trick” Cather is using, if you want to call it that. Her words and sentences are simple, straightforward, and as plain as Mary’s everyday tableware…because that is the Rosicky household stripped to its essence. The point of view is omniscient (typical of the times; this was published in 1932), though you are barely aware of the fact as you are reading it as it all seems very natural because Cather doesn’t stay inside any one character’s head for long; what she does is more like eavesdropping, or peeking around corners. Anything else would weigh down the story and complicate the sense that these are what many of us rural folks call “good people,” two bland words that nevertheless carry reams of nuanced meaning.

The second passage has an entirely different feel, yet you can still feel Cather’s deft touch with the language, again choosing everyday words and images (after all, she is still describing the same family—in this case, the eponymous main character), but stringing them together in an entirely different way. But again, the simplicity is deceptive. If you compare the cadence of this passage to that of the first, you get a different feel altogether. The first passage is matter-of-fact, homespun, declarative sentences. Cather balances long sentences with short ones, but none of them are particularly intricate or complex. There’s a certain rough poetry in her choice of details (the oilskin everyday tablecloth, the liquor in a medicine glass, big hungry boys lumped together with chickens, calves, and other “creatures”), but the narrator (Cather) is saying, it is what it is. The second passage, though, is packed with poetic imagery, metaphors, and speculation. Whereas the first passage places us in a country kitchen with farmer folk and the local doctor, the second on thrusts us into someone’s head (Polly, the daughter-in-law) and keeps us there while she flounders for just the right word, the right metaphor, the essence of Rosicky. She picks one, then another, stringing them together not just with commas but with ands (“alive and quick and light in its communications”…“nimble and lively and sure, in the way that animals are”) because when you’re groping for just the right word, that’s how they sift up: one, then another, then another…. The pace of the ever-changing imagery flings us headlong forward in a way that the casual pace of the first passage did not, which makes sense given what happens next.

Ostensibly Polly is talking about Rosicky’s hand, but in reality she is struggling to decide what Rosicky himself is all about. The next lines after that paragraph tell us that Cather isn’t just blathering on about hands for no reason: “Polly remembered that hour long afterwards; it had been like an awakening to her. It seemed to her that she had never learned so much about life from anything as from old Rosicky’s hand. It brought her to herself; it communicated some direct and untranslatable message.” He dies, of course, soon after. But because we have learned so much about him and his family, we know that these are not people who will be beaten down by grief and loss (as some others are in the story) but who will be grateful to have known him and for learning from him how to live well (“I’d rather put some colour into my children’s faces than put money in the bank,” Mary says earlier). It all foreshadows the final scene where the Doctor heads out to the farm a few weeks after Rosicky has died, but stops before he gets there by the “beautiful” graveyard that the farmer himself first described earlier on. The Doctor compares the “arranged and lonely” graveyards of the city with this place that is open and free, with neighbors passing by, and Rosicky’s own cattle grazing in a nearby field. The last lines: “Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky’s life seemed to him complete and beautiful.”

That’s a lot of people and place packed into two passages.


Rules from the “Maine Man” of Horror

Love him or hate him, there is no question that Stephen King understands the craft of writing. When he’s on his game, he is one of the best at what he does, and even when he’s not, he understands why and what’s missing. Herewith, a list of some advice from the man himself: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers.


First Personal

When Melville wrote the words, “Call me Ishmael,” his friends didn’t assume that he was changing his name from Herman. While I always assumed that since every Melville epic I slogged through took place on or near the ocean the author has some experience at sea, I didn’t assume that he was the sole surviving member of a doomed whaling voyage (and he wasn’t).

Yet I have been guilty of reading more current first-person works and wondering, “Did that happen to the author? Is that why she writes about…?”

This tendency to conflate authors with characters, and to wonder about the boundary between “write what you know” and “this is not autobiography!” has been much on my my since I published Live Free or Die. When I started writing the book I was a forty-something woman of fluid sexuality living on an island in Southern New Hampshire, as is my fictional protagonist, Katherine “Kit” McCormick. No one was ever murdered (to my knowledge) in my small town, yet certain real-life events did occur that sparked my interest in writing the book. Readers who know me personally and who visited my home on the island read the book with a certain ache of nostalgia, and they are the ones most apt so far to ask, “Did that really happen?” or “Who was that?”

Obviously, I am gratified that they believe so readily in the book’s people and places that they cannot tell where fact and fiction diverge. But they do diverge: I am not Kit, and she is not me. Which brings me to my real focus here, which is writing in the first-person point of view (POV).

I admit to being a POV purist and snob. I love a good first-person or third-person narrative, and will even become happily engrossed in a book with multiple narrators if their POVs (technically PsOV, but that looks so wrong) are separated by chapter or section (I.e., alternating person POV).

Too many third-person books written in a supposed omniscient narrative POV are often just badly written third-person books. These leave me feeling as though I have just had a few beers and a huge meal, then taken a ride on a Tilt-a-Whirl. Gack.

When I started Live Free or Die, I used the third-person POV. But as I kept going, I realized that I needed to rewrite it using a first-person POV, for two reasons. First, I wanted the immediacy that the first-person POV confers. The second, and more important, reason was that I wanted the limitation that it gives. As a strict POV purist, I know that restricting what my readers know to only what Kit McCormick knows will be more effective for the kind of story(s) I want to tell. I want readers to be feeling their way around in the dark just as she is.

My writing is always character-driven, even when I’m writing a murder mystery, where the genre would seem to depend primarily on plot. Plot is important, but I’m more interested in the story—the setting, the people, the situations, the conflicts. As Stephen King wrote in his superb book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”

More on POV another time. Right now, it’s time to get to work.

Ask Max: “Should I hire an editor?”

As a full-time freelance editor and writer, I am often asked this question by clients and colleagues alike. My response to this particular writer’s query follows.

“There seems to be two schools of thought in regards to submitting manuscripts to Publishers. One that claims Publishers have their own editors so it is not all that important to have your work edited prior to submission, and others that say your work should be as polished as possible. What are your thoughts?”

As an editor, anything I say will sound biased, of course. But I am above all a writer, and passionate about my craft, snobby as that may sound. I would never send out anything that I felt was less than my very best work. I am my own harshest editor. Yet as you probably know, the closer you are to a work, and the more time you’ve spent lovingly connecting one word to another, the more difficult it becomes to see what’s really there on the page: you see what you meant to say. So if nothing else, every writer should have one trusted, eagle-eyed person read through the manuscript for surface errors.

Yes, publishers have their own editors, and regardless of how clean and typo-free your manuscript may be when it lands before the first reader, if your book is accepted it will pass through at least one editor. However, you must edit for that first reader (probably an overworked, underpaid editor or writer wanna-be who hopes to find the next J.K. Rowling). Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts and queries every week, and when then turn to the first few pages, they are looking for any reason NOT to keep reading—a typo, a hopelessly mangled sentence, a cliché…any of these things means they can shunt that work aside and move on to the next one on the pile. For this reason, I personally have a handful of faithful detail-oriented friends and family who are happy to read through anything I plan to send out. I don’t “pay” these people, but they are editors all the same, and I reward them in every way I can.

As an editor I can tell you that there are writers with excellent ideas and fascinating plots who couldn’t write a sentence that made sense to save their own lives. There are also people who can write delicious sentences and create wonderful, fully dimensioned characters but whose books go nowhere and will put you to sleep after a page or two. There are also mediocre writers with so-so ideas, a basic command of grammar and punctuation, a workable story, and an interesting character or two. Any of those writers could get a book accepted, but the odds favor (unfortunately) the one whose book represents the least amount of work required on the part of the publisher. Once you are established, you can “get away with” a lot more: Stephen King or Dan Patterson could scribble six words on a paper towel and have a publisher send a contract for the upcoming book, because they know what they’ll be getting. For the unknown writer, you absolutely need to send in your very best, most highly polished work.

I will say that as an editor, I approach every work with the goal of making it the author’s very best work. I do not want everything I touch to sound as though I wrote it—the editor’s voice should be invisible—and apparently I am successful at that. My clients (fiction, nonfiction, short stories, novels, academic works…everything) have all said that I made their books better without stomping all over their style. This has been true even with writers who have sent me books that needed serious substantive editing.

Whew, that was probably more than you asked for. So yes, everyone needs to send out only their most polished work. Whether you pay someone to do it or take your chances with friends, family, and your own biased eye is a choice only you can make. (And yes, I have found three typos so far in my first edition of Live Free or Die, all of which were introduced during my last read-through—which I foolishly did not show to may faithful detail-oriented friends, so it is my fault, not theirs. $$%@@!!)