Is it possible to teach someone to write well? “Only with qualifications” says Richard Cohen. “There’s a certain amount that can be done, but you’ve got to have some real ability to begin with.” Cohen, author of the new book How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers, came on the Matt Lewis Show to give his tips on how to write like one of the greats.
Starting from the beginning, just how important is the “lede” of your book, and how do you even begin to write? “Getting that first sentence right can be crucial, and really sets apart everything that follows.” The great books worth reading begin one of three ways. Three ways to tell your reader “I dare you to put me down and not read on,” mused Cohen.
And what of the characters? What’s in a name? Cohen explained the importance of names to classic writers such as Mark Twain, and the anathema of name-choosing to modern authors. To some writers, characters seem to take on a persona of their own, whose actions are unpredictable to the authors themselves. “The conscious mind is always at work” said Cohen, but the subconscious is also at work. When these thoughts come to life, “it seems to come from the character itself.”
Cohen’s take on plagiarism is much more nuanced than simply missing quotation marks. According to the word’s Latin roots, “to cast a net,” basing a character in a book on a real life person qualifies as plagiarism. Not in the Stephen Glass sort of way, but in the old fashioned way: a compliment of the highest order.
How to Write Like Tolstoy also considers some of literature’s trickery: unreliable narrators, and prose in the second person. Using the personal ‘you’ has “a certain intimacy attached to it,” noted Cohen. “The person who’s writing can only know so much,” he said. Lacking the third-person’s omniscience adds a mystery and unknowing to the story, a suspenseful distrust between narrator and reader.
Speaking of distrust: what if you were told that Beowulf and Jaws shared the same story arcs? Back in the 19th century, people were obsessed with deciding on the finite number of plots that existed. Christopher Booker’s classic “Seven Basic Plots of Literature” finds the narrative arcs that are found in every story from ancient Chinese to modern American.
“We never change the basic essence of the stories we tell,” concluded Matt. “They’ve always been with us.”