Douglas Glover on Crafting Sentences

Back in October I was privileged to get a free in-person writing critique from Micheline Maylor, during her stint as author-in-residence at the Calgary Public Library. She read some of my work aloud, gave specific suggestions, and also recommended a few resources. One of them was a book of essays by Douglas Glover called Attack of the Copula Spiders.

Since I don’t like to buy books unless I’m sure I’ll like them,
I ordered it from the library, and proceeded to wait several months for it to become available. Recently I picked it up and eagerly began reading.

My verdict? I found some real gems in a couple of the essays, including the title one, but other paragraphs went right over my head. Also, it turned out the most of the essays analyze specific stories and novels that I’ve never read, so I put the book aside. That said, I did copy out two paragraphs that struck me forcefully. I think you’ll find them worth pondering.

“Good prose is vigorous, aboil with verbs, packed with motion and conflict and story at the level of sentences themselves. Post-literate readers and writers do not notice this, and, when they come to write, cannot replicate the sheer imaginative density of concrete, precise action that is necessary to make words come alive on the page. When they read, they assemble a story summary in their heads, rather than make the effort to study the words on the page; when they write, they make sketches of stories, thin and vague, barely the ghosts of stories.” (From “Attack of the Copula Spiders”)

“Often when I am teaching, I find myself exhorting students to get more action on the page, and the students, bless their hearts, tend to think I want sex or a fistfight instead of the quiet little scene they have written. Often I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that their scene is missing the requisite density of syntactic action, the clash of values, the juxtaposition of contrasting elements, the raising of expectations and denial of same that make a sentence or a paragraph or a book or an essay or a poem exciting to read. Student stories tend to read, as I have said before, like sketches, rough outlines of stories. Student writers seem to feel that they are having enough trouble getting their characters in and out of rooms and somehow finding an ending without actually paying attention to the way they are writing the story. They may have a story sketch, but sentence after sentence doesn’t read like it belongs in a story; they are too flat and generic, interested mainly in communicating the general idea not the excitement of creation and the astonishing particularity of the artistic experience.” (From “The Drama of Grammar”)

Writing the kinds of sentences and stories that Glover is looking for sounds like a tall order, but a goal worth striving for.

What about you, have you read Attack of the Copula Spiders? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?