There was a time in my life when I read purely for pleasure. Before then, I read pretty much for pain, or more accurately, I read and it caused me pain. Like reading Thoreau’s Walden and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for English class – now there was torture. But thankfully, there was Stephen King and Stephen R. Donaldson and Stephen Coonts and even some authors not named Stephen, and I was in bliss. These were my lazy high school years. I remember reading Misery in a single day, from nine in the morning until nine at night, and I had no other desire than to feel every word on the page. It was pure hedonism.
What is good writing? Of course this is a highly subjective topic, but sometimes it’s right there on the page. Right now I’m reading Alix Ohlin’s The Missing Person, and here’s the evidence I’d like to present to the Court of Good Writing, on page 48 (paperback edition). Our narrator, Lynn, is driving in her brother’s Chevy Caprice, through the deserted desert landscape of Albuquerque:
The Sandias were brown in the distance. The houses were brown. The highways were brown. Everything was brown. The car’s wheezing air-conditioning blew a stream of tepid air over my right shoulder.
The magic of this excerpt is the last sentence, the part I boldfaced. One of the golden rules of good writing is not relying on adjectives and adverbs and opting for concrete nouns and verbs. I believe the same can be said of sentences, that the more specific you can make it, the stronger its impact will be. Ohlin could’ve easily written this sentence instead:
The car’s wheezing air-conditioning blew a stream of tepid air.
I hate to admit it, but this is probably how far I would’ve gone. I mean there’s nothing wrong with that version, but wow, having the stream of air hit me on my right shoulder is so much more specific, so much realer.
This is not an isolated incident. On page 43:
A woman’s laughter sounded loud and shrill above the din, repeating at intervals, like a ringing telephone.
That repetition, and the simile with the telephone — it gives great specificity to that sentence. This book is chock full of moments like these.