An agent friend of mine told me long ago that the best way to learn how to write well was to “read well” – meaning read quality stories, books, perhaps even recipes with nutritious ingredients rather than artificial additives.
Unfortunately, I took this advice as the agent “stating the obvious,” thinking it impossible not to read good work without taking some good for it, both as a person and a writer (I think there is a difference!) But as I got more and more immersed in the craft, and frustrated by it, I began to employ the agent’s advice and read with more concentration on the author’s style, approach, character development…punctuation. And with time, there were several writers that I turned to strictly for such education, Hemmingway, Maugham and Graham Greene, to name a few, reading their books with the eye of a fledgling architect reviewing a master’s blueprints.
Of course, this kind of approach can take the joy out of reading, and it is important to balance such introspection with bouts of unfettered immersion in a novel or memoir. And sometimes, like finding buried treasure, or at least the largest M&M in the bag, you can come across in the storyline itself wisdom about the writing life, as I did recently in The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final book, which he did not finish, dying of a heart attack while completing. The story of a movie producer chieftain resonates today, but I am finding in the pages jewels about how to write – and not just for the movies.
Below is a scene from The Last Tycoon. In it, Stahr, the movie boss, encourages (and slightly admonishes) the writer, Boxley, on how to move forward with a script. I hope you enjoy, and, moreover, if you have never read, get the book.
From The Last Tycoon:
…“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels or writing all day and you’re too tired to fight or write any more. You’re sitting there staring—dull, like we all get sometimes. A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly. She doesn’t see you, though you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table—
Stahr stood up, tossing his key ring on his desk.
“She has two dimes and a nickel—and a cardboard matchbox. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the matchbox and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove. You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window—but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone, “I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.” She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match, you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes—“
Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
Boxley felt he was being put in the wrong.
It’s just melodrama,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case, nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”
“What was the nickel for?” asked Boxley evasively.
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. Suddenly he laughed. “Oh, yes—the nickel was for the movies.”
The two invisible attendants seemed to release Boxley. He relaxed, leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“What in the hell do you pay me for?” he demanded. “I don’t understand the damn stuff.”
“You will,” said Stahr grinning, “or you wouldn’t have asked about the nickel.”