Over at The View From Here, Mike is running a competition. He's in the process of posting a three-part interview with Helen Corner of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and is offering a prize for the best answer to the question: What do you think the four cornerstones of good writing are? This got me thinking and playing around with a few ideas, and of course it's always a challenge to know what to include and what to leave out when you're limited to four observations. How to prioritise? Why choose one thing and not another? Anyway, I had a go, and I've enjoyed the process if only because it's forced me to articulate my thinking about something that's an essential part of who I am. So here they are (rip them apart or suggest alternatives in the Comments box below, but put an entry into the competition at The View From Here too):
READ widely (and wildly). Read everything, from ancient literature to contemporary literature; read the good, the bad and the ugly; read newspapers and graphic novels and poems and plays and telephone directories and bus tickets; read other people and read yourself (and call it observation, if you like); read the weather, read politics, read the critics. And be critical: of what you read and how it’s written, and of what you write or choose not to write, of how people think and communicate and fail to communicate. Read and be critical of language and form and convention, and what works at a given point in time, and what doesn’t work, or no longer works, and why.
SHOW, don’t tell. This may well be an over-stated cornerstone, but it makes it no less true, no less significant. If I were to have anything tattooed on my forehead (in mirror-writing of course) it would be: llet t’nob ,wohS . The most obvious of lessons, but the hardest thing to maintain.
KNOW that there are no new stories, only new ways of interpreting and retelling old ones. I find this a liberating and empowering cornerstone of writing, because instead of struggling to invent a unique sequence of events that will force characters to interact in a unique way, I can focus instead on the telling of the story. I believe it’s important to know that it’s okay to borrow the basic dynamics of an idea from history or folklore or fairytales or whatever, from Shakespeare or Sophocles or whoever, because all storytellers build on borrowed stories. Stories reflect our cultural heritage and, whilst they often seem to end up in similar places (in terms of the resolution of conflict, and the growth of characters, or the view that’s presented of the world we’ve created for ourselves), it’s the adventure and the path we take towards each of these places that should be the most unique, interesting and compelling part of the journey.
PS. In searching for an image of Billy Shakespeare and Smiley Sophocles for this post, it struck me that dear old Will's portrait bore an uncanny resemblance to Marcel Duchamp's 'Mona Lisa with a Beard (L.H.C.O.O.Q.)', which is why she too appears here.