Where are our fantasy prose junkies out there? You know who you are… those of you who swoon over a brilliant metaphor, who re-read a moving passage of description over and over, who see a wall of text coming in the next paragraph and begin to salivate, who have been moved to tears by subtle, delicately-crafted lines that others skim past…
(I speak of fantasy prose in particular here because that’s my jam, and I’d like to hear from some fantasy readers who love the glorious inadequacy of the English language as much as I do. )
I’m going to try my level best to make this post epic, something that evolves over time, where I can share some of my favorite purple and evocative passages in literature. We’ll probably focus mostly on fantasy writings, but the classics of any genre are certainly in bounds. The idea is that I’ll be adding passages periodically, even daily when I can, and as a treat for those of you who are my fans (love you, mean it), I’ll include some of my own writings from time to time as well, and maybe even discuss what was rattling around in my brainbucket when I wrote them.
I want to start with something that really ran me over when I read it, and I’ll include a quick prelude as to how I came across it. The digression won’t meander too far, I promise.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of On Writing by Stephen King for my eldest son. He’s an aspiring writer with some brilliant ideas, but he’s brand-spanking-new at the whole writing business. If you write, you certainly know of the book and need no recommendation from me. Well, then again… maybe you do. When I bought it for my son, I hadn’t read it yet, and I am publishing my fourth book this summer. Oops. Now, I did know of a few quotes I had heard over the years from other writers, one in particular that I wanted to highlight for my son: that if one is to be a writer, they need to read a lot and write a lot. That was the point I was trying to make clear, and I figured it might come better from one of his idols than from his crotchety old dad.
He came downstairs a few days later raving about something from the book, and I decided it was time to dive in. I don’t intend to write a book review here, but I’ll leave it at this: King confirmed everything I believed in my marrow about writing. His conversational, unpretentious approach really inspired me to sit down at the keyboard and just write my tail off, and to do so in a complete absence of self-doubt. I’ve had several of my most productive writing sessions since.
Back to the topic at hand: in the book, King says, “A novel like Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – ‘I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand.’ ” By happy coincidence, the week before, my middle son received a truly brilliant graduation present from his grandfather – the complete leather-bound Franklin Library of 100 literary classics and collections. He had acquired these over the course of many years, beginning in the 70s, one book a month on a subscription program. Now these beautiful volumes sit in our living room, and I get a case of the flutters every time I glance over at the bookcase.
So, I says to myself I says, “Self,” I says, “I wonder if Grapes of Wrath is on the shelf?” It was, of course, and to satisfy my curiosity as to whether King’s example of greatness was one I would agree with (as if my pea-brained opinion mattered), I cracked it open and thumbed through, looking for the first passage of descriptive text I could find. This is what I found:
“The dusk passed into dark and the desert stars came out in the soft sky, stars stabbing and sharp, with few points and rays to them, and the sky was velvet.”
One could pick a nit or two with this passage, particularly the repetition of the word “stars,” but there is a beauty in it that surpasses analysis. Oh, what the hell, I’ll try.
The dusk passed into dark…
The sky didn’t darken. The sun didn’t set. The night didn’t fall. The dusk, a true thing worthy of its own name, passed into dark. There’s a feeling of deliberateness there, of intention, and if anything delineates a mere noun from a living thing, to my mind, it is intent. The dusk was not pushed away by the dark, nor swallowed by it… it was no victim here. It passed into dark.
…and the desert stars came out into the soft sky
The stars did something. This clause is the very antithesis of passive writing. Perfect. Simple, yet still flowing. Again, bringing the stars to life.
…stars stabbing and sharp, with few points and rays to them…
I don’t know what Steinbeck was meaning to say here, but I know what I hear. When the sky is hazy, as it might be in summer, the stars are anything but sharp. They are furry little things, their light diffuse, surely not “stabbing.” To me, this denotes either a clear, cool, winter night, or an extraordinarily clear night during any other time of year. Doesn’t matter. It said something to me, and it likely says something to whomever reads it. It certainly said something to Steinbeck, or I doubt he would have written it.
…and the sky was velvet.
I’m not one for the overuse of metaphors, generally, but this one is a bulls-eye, and more, it closes the passage like a mother closing a child’s bedroom door. The real beauty is in how it complements and contrasts against the flowing rhythm of the rest of this paragraph. The first movement of this literary symphony is legato; the melody is repeated again in the second, perhaps with another instrument; here, in the third, beautiful, simple staccato, like a piano player lifting his foot from the pedal, knowing these notes ring well enough on their own.
If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m an absolute geek for this stuff. If you are, too, and you’d like to join me as I share (and occasionally break down) more of the like, I have a Facebook Messenger membership thingamajig, where I can poke you when I add something to this post. Just click here (you might have to click “Get Started”) and follow the prompts.
Thanks for reading.