I’ve been honored to have had my short fiction published in some truly impressive magazines. That said, I can guarantee that if I didn’t do one simple trick to improve my prose, I would not have been published in any of the literary journals that featured my short stories.
What is that trick? Analyze how your favorite authors construct sentences.
When I delve into my personal story on The Literary Game, I never sugarcoat any of my failings. The reason I believe in such complete transparency is because I know, given my experience, that anyone can pull themselves up and become a superb writer. I certainly wasn’t always a writer with a real shot at publishing my work anywhere that was an appropriate fit; I started quite a bit more humbly than that.
I didn’t start writing until I was 20, when I decided, on a whim, to become a creative writing major while enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I felt outmatched during my time there, lost motivation to try, and my work was truly poor in quality. When I graduated, I moved back to New York City, landed a job as a teacher, and tried to forget all about the failed experiment that was my attempt to do creative writing.
My friend Russell Jaffe, a quite talented poet, moved to New York about 18 months after I graduated. We got back in touch through Facebook, and he mentioned that he was setting up a poetry reading in Williamsburg, a local arty neighborhood. Russell asked if I had written anything recently. I told him that I had not. He mentioned that he liked my stuff from Beloit, and told me if I wrote some poems, he’d put me on the show. I gained a lot of confidence from Russell’s belief in my writing’s potential and the successful show, so I started writing poetry. I amassed a huge collection of poems over four years, and then decided to do something with them, beginning to publish many in my collection and new ones as well.
As I started amassing many publishing credits for my poetry, a spontaneous rush of ideas for short fiction came into my head. Circumstances had aligned so that my friend Rairigh was able to give me a free room in rural Pennsylvania, and I had a bit of a savings from my job in academia. I quit my position and set out to be not only a poet, but also a fiction writer.
During my first few days in Clarion, Pennsylvania, I had a firm intent to write fiction, but didn’t know where to start. My sentences seemed clunky. I have always been a voracious reader, but for me, unlike many other English majors, I always saw great books as pleasure, not as something to firmly dissect and get into intellectual debates over. That being so, I rarely paid much conscious attention to the way writers constructed their sentences.
The brilliant idea that changed everything for me as a fiction writer came to me after a few frustrating days of trying, and failing, to write. I decided to head to the Clarion Public Library and study some of my favorite authors. I pulled from the shelves works by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, William Faulkner, and a few other authors whose work I admire. I studied exactly how they constructed sentences, how they did dialogue, how they transitioned between paragraphs, how they integrated description, how they paced their works, and every other feature that these impressive authors did regarding their prose.
When I came back to my apartment, I started writing my first short story and it was EASY. I didn’t steal the style from any of these authors, but I had learned exactly how good writers write and adapted that to my own vision. My summer in Clarion and fall in the nearby town of DuBois led to an impressive assortment of short fiction and my first few publications as a fiction writer.
So, in short, if you want to improve your writing, study how your favorite writers construct their prose. It will definitely help you write better.