PROSE DRILLS FOR UPMARKET VOICE AND MORE
by Michael Neff
If you are writing literary or upmarket, serious women's fiction, or even historical fiction, and you're not Annie Proulx or Michael Cunningham, you are well advised to develop a very competitive prose style. All writer styles and voices, in large part, are a fusion of past immersions into good (or bad) literature. It‘s so true that you only write as well as you read. The prose narrative of great authors soaks into you, their words and phrases and sentences becoming a part of you, defining your ability to express.
The point of the following prose drills is to speed up that process by a hundred fold. The selection of writers is diverse, beginning with a little Shakespeare and on up to modern lit. The names of the writers are not important, only their prose.
Each of the following blocks of narrative is to be written in long hand, as many times as you can manage. During the writing of it, repeat the phrases and portions of the narrative to yourself, read them to yourself as you go. After each block is finished, reread the entire block to yourself. Feel the rhythm, the sense of word use, the flow of it. The more times you do this, the more it will become a part of you. Continue through until the end and then start over. Write as many blocks as you can every day for two hours, for a minimum of three weeks.
Be faithful to the process. It works. We assure you. It isn't necessarily fun, rather tedious, but you will be grateful.
NOTE: you can also compose your own prose blocks and mix them if you wish to emulate a different kind of voice--a snappy comic voice, for example. We recommend Tom Robbins, Helen Fielding, and T.C. Boyle for starters.
See you at the National Book Awards!
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune - often the surfeit of our own behavior - we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves and trechers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on - an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!
Our last king, whose image even now appeared to us, was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway, thereto picked on by a most emulate pride, dared to the combat, in which our valiant 'Hamlet - for so this side of our known world esteemed him - did slay this Fortinbras, who by a sealed compact, well ratified by law and heraldry, did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands which he stood seized of to the conqueror.
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death, have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre, wherein we saw thee quietly inured, hath opened his ponderous and marble jaws to cast thee up again. What may this mean, that thou, dead corpse, again, in complete steel, revisit thus the glimpses of the moon, making night hideous, and we fools of nature so horridly to shade our disposition with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like a while they bore her up - which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and imbued unto that element; but long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years - twenty years largely wasted, the years of the wars, trying to learn to use words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure because one has only learned to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating in the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer by strength and submission, has already been discovered once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope to emulate - but there is no competition - there is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again. But perhaps neither gain nor loss, For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business, I can only say, there we have been, but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
This is concentration without elimination, both a new world and the old made explicit, understood in the completion of its partial ecstasy, the resolution of its partial horror, Time past and time future allow but a little consciousness, To be conscious is not to be in time but only in time can the moment in the rose garden, the moment in the arbor where the rain beat, the moment in the draughty church at smokefall be remembered, involved with past and future, Only through time is time conquered. Only a flicker over the strained time-ridden faces distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning, tumid apathy with no concentration, men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time, wind in and out of unwholesome lungs time before and time after.
In my beginning is my end. In succession houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. In that open field on a summer midnight, if you do not come too close, you can hear the music of the weak pipe and the little drum; and we see them dancing around the bonfire, the association of man and woman in daunsinge, signifying matrimony - a dignified and commodious sacrament. Two and two, necessary conjunction, hold each other by the hand or the arm which betokens concord. Round and round the fire, leaping through the flames, or joined in circles, rustically solemn or in rustic laughter lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes, earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth, mirth of those long since under earth, nourishing the corn.
Trampling its granite; their red backs gleam under my window around the stone corners; nothing more graceful, nothing nimbler in the wind. Westward the wave-gleaners, the old gray sea-going gulls are gathered together, the northwest wind wakening their wings to the wild spirals of the wind-dance. Fresh as the air, salt as the foam, play birds in the bright wind, fly falcons forgetting the oak and the pinewood, come gulls from the Carmel sands and the sands at the rivermouth, from Lobos and out of the limitless power of the mass of the sea, for a poem requires multitude, multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesh-eaters, musically clamorous bright hawks that hover and dart headlong, and ungainly grey hungers fledged with desire of' transgression, salt slimed beaks, from the sharp rock-shores of the world and the secret waters.
You remembered a day in August when it was foggy and sleet struck the front of your jacket with little ringing sounds and then a blue hole in the clouds opened wider and wider, like the rainbow ring that you had seen around the sun on the day before the mist had poured down from the ridges like some cold-glaring white liquid; and now the blue hole got bigger and sun came out and it was exactly 32 degrees F and you could see across the river valley again to the low brown ridge of gravel with the blue sky behind; and the wind was chilly and between the rocks grew green wet ribbons of tundra and the arctic was so beautiful that all at once you knew that you could live and die here. Snowdrifts lay steeply against that ridge, corrugated by wind rain, and the river flowed down the sand in dark blue braids. No bird sang; no sound of life was heard, but a black little spider crawled feebly in a warm spot on the mud.
The peacefulness is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them shutting their mouths on it, like a communion tablet. It is Russia I have to get across, it is some war or other. I am dragging my body quietly through the straw of the boxcars. I am stepping from this skin of old bandages, boredoms, old faces. The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, white as a knuckle and terribly upset. It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet with the 0-gape of complete despair.
They're out of the dark's ragbag, these two moles dead in the pebbled rut, shapeless as flung gloves, a few feet apart. One, by himself, seemed pitiable enough, little victim unearthed by some large creature from his orbit under the elm root. The sky's far dome is sane and clear.
Leaves, undoing their yellow caves between the road and the lake water, bare no sinister spaces. Already the moles look neutral as the stones. Their corkscrew noses, their white hands uplifted, stiffen in a family pose. I enter the soft pelt of the mole. Light's death to them: they shrivel in it. They move through their mute rooms while I sleep, palming the earth aside, grubbers after the fat children of root and rock. By day, only the topsoil heaves.
I shall never get you put together entirely, pieced, glued, and properly jointed. Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles proceed from you great lips. It's worse than a barnyard. Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other. Thirty years now I have labored to dredge the silt from your throat. I am none the wiser. Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol I crawl like an ant in mourning over the weedy acres of your brow to mend the immense skull-plates and clear the bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
All morning, with smoking breath, the handyman has been draining the goldfish ponds. They collapse like lungs, the escaped water threading back, filament by filament, to the pure Platonic table where it lives. The baby carp litter the mud like orangepeel. Southbound cars flatten the doped snakes to ribbon.
I think of the lizards airing their tongues in the crevice of an extremely small shadow, and the toad guarding his heart's droplet. The desert is white as a blind man's eye, comfortless as salt. Snake and bird doze behind the old masks of fury. We swelter like firedogs in the wind. The sun puts its cinder out. Where we lie the heat-cracked crickets congregate in their black armorplate and cry.
In this country there is neither measure nor balance to redress the dominance of rocks and woods, the passage, say, of these man-shaming clouds. The horizons are too far off; the colors assert themselves with a sort of vengeance. Each day concludes in a huge splurge of vermilions and night arrives in one gigantic step. These rocks conceive a dynasty of perfect cold. In a month we'll wonder what plates and forks are for. I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I'm here. The Pilgrims and Indians might never have happened. Planets pulse in the lake like bright amoebas, the pines blotting our voices up with the lightest breeze.
Despite her wild compulsion to talk and despite the frightened ravenous curiosity of her dormitory clique whom she awakened by sobbing over their beds, Melanie wasn't able to say clearly what finished happening half an hour ago. She remembered the Turk suddenly abandoned English and raved at her in furious Turkish ' and she told them about that and about the obscene tatoo flashing on his chest when she ripped his shirt open, and that he stopped the car on a country road, and there was a tall hedge, maples, sycamore, and a railroad track nearby, and a train was passing, passing, and passing, and beyond her moans, and later an animal trotting quickly on the gravel. a mysterious nightscreech, the sound of moon, and then, with no discontinuity, the motor starting it's cough and wretch and a cigarette waving at her mouth already lighted as if the worst were over and someone had started thinking of her in another way.
But Mrs. Gruenwald all this time was rising and sinking like a whale, she was in a sea of her own waves and perhaps of self-generated cold, out in the middle of the lake. She cared little that Morgana girls who learned to swim were getting a dollar from home. She had deserted them, no, she had never really been with them. Not only orphans had she deserted. In the water she kept so much to the profile that her single pushing-out eyeball looked like a little bottle of something. It was said she believed in evolution.
Nina stood and bent over from the waist. Calmly, she held her cup in the spring and watched it fill. They could all see how it spangled like a cold star in the curling water. The water tasted the silver cool of the rim it went over running to her lips, and at moments the cup gave her teeth a pang. Nina heard her own throat swallowing. She paused and threw a smile about her. After she had drunk she wiped the cup on her tie and collapsed it, and put the little top on, and its ring over her finger. With that, Easter, one arm tilted, charged against the green bank and mounted it. Nina felt her surveying the spring and all from above. Jinny love was down drinking like a chicken, kissing the water only.
It was the kind of hospital you'd walk into and see an old orderly mapping barefoot - with an Aztec face straight out of the Anthropology Museum - stringmop mopping the waiting room, and held stop to watch you all the way down the hall, even though you'd know they must see plenty of Americans in there. Then there'd be the woman in the business office - young and pretty but with one smaller arm, with maybe something wrong with it, dangling half-hidden under her sweater. She'd be wearing a crucifix just like Dona's - the old cook back at the house - and she'd look suddenly up at you in such a way that at first you'd think she was going to start wailing like Dona did, the night before when you arrived - wailing in Spanish, over and over again the same thing - saying, "Oh, when will you bury him, Senora, when will you bury him, for he wanders in this house and calls out to me every night like before!"
That pavement that had in it a little lump that went right across the middle, almost like a little small curb-type thing that would cause a something that was rolled over it to bump as it went over. I did not tell about that, and I also did not tell about thesheet - white and thick and longer, it seemed to me, than the kind of sheets you would see on beds back a t the house - and about the way that sheet hung down so limply - almost wetly - on all sides from the humanish shape with the sticking-straight-up-feet on one end that trembled as they pulled out the cart and rolled it toward where I was standing out there.
The orderlies pulled back that sheet at the same time they were rolling the cart along toward me both at once, in this long graceful motion - so that the cart was rolling forward at the same time that the sheet was being pulled back, so that the body seemed to be merging toward me like a something being pushed forward out one end of a something else sliding away all in one smooth motion.
The mouth is a permanent fixture in the back of my mind. But there is nothing I can think of to say that will convey to you the look of that thing that seemed impossible to have ever been a mouth - that made it seem to me unthinkable that this would be what a human mouth could ever be reduced to - that I couldn't help but feel made it absurd to think that mouths exist at all. That that mouth could have uttered that hoarse weeping we heard ... And right in that moment I was seeing that mouth-thing, that half-open scissors-cut in a faceless bag of salt, the thingness of that bag-thing - its blind cartoon X's for eyes - like a being that wanted to cry out.
As I think of it now, we talked about our weaknesses. We were clothed in the darkness and a little drunk and tired. How I hated being weak. That was my confession. We had tried to put up hay that day, and the bales were wet. I could lift them off the ground but couldn't muster enough strength to pitch them up onto the rack. Steve - Steve worried loneliness. It was a little puzzle. He only felt it after people had come to visit. After they were gone after a few days, he didn't notice he was alone again. But if friends visited because they thought he needed the company. He wanted them to come but hated the loneliness they brought with them and left behind. He found it curious that he didn't miss people more. That feeling frightened him.
It was a wonderful conversation that contained all kinds of emptiness. It was a wonderful conversation that contained all kinds of emptiness. The silences of one who really is getting out of the habit of speaking. The natural pauses. The silence of not knowing what to say. The desire to say nothing that will fill up the silence. It was the talk of people who knew they should be sleeping and say only enough to keep the conversation going. Above us, that night, I like to think the sky was expanding, is still expanding. Another vacuum.