How to Write Like Tolstoy
‘…a sentence or a passage is rhythmical if, when said aloud, it falls naturally into groups of words, each well fitted by length and intonation for its place in the whole and its relation to its neighbours. If you’re writing prose, the best guide is to cultivate an instinct for the difference between what sounds right and what sounds wrong, a syllable-by-syllable attention to sound, a feel for rhyme and breath.’
Despite the incontrovertible fact that reading about writing inevitably (in the short term at least) makes one less productive, it is a habit I frequently fall into. Whether it is writing whilst standing up (Hemingway) or scribbling to the smell of rotten apples (Schiller) it is tempting to believe that if we change one or two writing rituals we will find ourselves blessed with inspiration or writing for sixteen hour stretches. So it was that I added ‘How to Write Like Tolstoy’ to a modest collection including Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ and Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
I found Cohen’s book closer to the latter in content. If you are looking for concise, prescriptive grammatical advice, the ‘Elements of Style’ is your book. If, however, you are in the mood for a sedate meander down the river of literary figures, then Cohen’s book comes a close second to King. Subjects like dialogue, editing, and character are discussed, but Cohen seems interested in the spectrum of approaches to these aspects rather than steering writers down a specific path. On the subject of editing, Cohen cites Chandler’s ‘Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon’, whilst also detailing more prosaic methodologies (Horace recommending letting a finished piece rest for nine years before assessing it). It takes all sorts, and Cohen does his best to get through as many as possible.
It is also a great
discomfort to know that modern writing tropes are not that: they are as old as the quill and will be haunting writers for many eons yet. Charlotte Bronte struggled to bring some of her novels to a satisfactory end, whilst awful, awful sex scenes are still written by great authors almost as though they are contractually obliged to sear our eyes – the chapter on sex scenes is so gratifyingly cringeworthy it is worth the sticker price by itself. It is not just schadenfreude to revel in the difficulties of brilliant authors; there is also great relief in knowing that there are universal difficulties in writing (Cohen debunks the idea that several well-known authors put down their pencils are one spectacular first draft). There is after all hope for us lowly scribblers.
Did ‘How to Write Like Tolstoy’ make me a better writer? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly made me a more inciteful reader of fiction and was an excellent comfort read.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order