Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, and has been published in the UK, the US, and Canada. She’s taught and lectured on creative writing and literary studies since 2007, and in July, she’ll teach the one-day course Writing Exquisite Sentences at Writing NSW. We spoke to Emily to find out what makes a beautiful sentence, whose prose she most admires, and the best ways to strengthen your own prose.
What makes for an exquisite sentence? What are the qualities that make good prose memorable?
For me, the key is control. Exquisite sentences can be found in every style and genre, but they are always carefully crafted. If it’s working well, the best prose contributes as much to the depth of meaning generated by the writer as elements like characterisation and plot. The writing that really makes me tingle when I read it is that which somehow makes the familiar world seem new and strange and wonderful again. It doesn’t always follow the rules that we’re often taught in creative writing classes, but it surprises us and makes us see differently, and that is magical!
What’s the best way for any writer to strengthen their prose?
Come to my workshop!! Just kidding… but seriously, I think it can be difficult for many writers to shift focus from the ‘bigger picture’ elements of narrative, like plot, characterisation, structure etc. and to develop more control over their writing on a sentence level. It’s amazing how much improving your understanding and use of elements like word choice, rhythm, imagery, subtext, and prose style can enrich your writing. One thing I can’t stress enough, though, is that it’s really important work on improving these elements outside the writing project you’re focusing on, so that you remove the pressure of knowing that you eventually want someone to read what you’re writing. In this workshop there will be lots of opportunities to practise, experiment and play in a context that is purely for learning and development, which I think makes all the difference.
Which writers do you admire for the beauty of their sentences?
Too many to list them all here (because most of the writers I love are the ones that focus on writing beautiful sentences), but some favourites would include Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner (I don’t mind a long sentence!), Patrick White, Shirley Hazzard, Christina Stead, as well as (a jumble of) more contemporary writers such as James Salter, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, Don De Lillo, Michelle De Kretser, David Malouf, Michael Ondaatje, Denis Johnson, Eileen Myles, Deborah Levy… the list goes on!
Writing Exquisite Sentences will take place at Writing NSW, Callan Park, Lilyfield, on Saturday 28 July, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here.