Martin Amis Explains His Method for Writing Great Sentences

Why does Mar­tin Amis writes sen­tences well? As a nov­el­ist, he nat­u­ral­ly has a high degree of pro­fes­sion­al inter­est in the mat­ter. But why does he write sen­tences so well? One might put forth the influ­ence of his father Kings­ley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, an endur­ing con­tender for the title of the fun­ni­est nov­el in the Eng­lish lan­guage. But giv­en how sel­dom one acclaimed nov­el­ist sires anoth­er — an event, in fact, near­ly unheard of — the her­i­tabil­i­ty of lit­er­ary tal­ent remains unknow­able. As for the direct influ­ence of Amis père on Amis fils, we can almost entire­ly rule it out: not only did Kings­ley nev­er encour­age Mar­tin to fol­low in his foot­steps, only once did he offer any kind of writer­ly advice.

“We sat in high-bour­geois splen­dor, my father and I,” writes the younger Amis in his mem­oir Expe­ri­ence, “hav­ing a pre-lunch drink and talk­ing about his first pub­lished sto­ry, ‘The Sacred Rhi­no of Ugan­da’ (1932: he was ten).” The father-son dia­logue runs as fol­lows:

— It was awful in all the usu­al ways. And full of false quan­ti­ties. Things like: ‘Rag­ing and curs­ing in the blaz­ing heat …’

— What’s wrong with that? I mean I can see it’s old fash­ioned …

— You can’t have three ings like that.

— Can’t you?

— No. It would have to be: ‘Rag­ing and curs­ing in the … intol­er­a­ble heat.’

You couldn’t have three ings like that. And some­times you couldn’t even have two. The same went for -ics, -ives, -lys and -tions. And the same went for all pre­fix­es too.

43 years lat­er, Mar­tin Amis would find him­self in the role of lit­er­ary advice-giv­er, deliv­er­ing his father’s prin­ci­ple of writ­ing onstage at the Chica­go Human­i­ties Fes­ti­val. The process of imbu­ing every sen­tence with “min­i­mum ele­gance and eupho­ny,” he says in the clip above (drawn from a longer inter­view view­able here) involves “say­ing the sen­tence, sub­vo­cal­iz­ing it in your head until there’s noth­ing wrong with it. This means not repeat­ing in the same sen­tence suf­fix­es and pre­fix. If you’ve got a con­found, you can’t have a con­form. If you’ve got invi­ta­tion, you can’t have exe­cu­tion. You can’t repeat those, or an -ing, or a -ness: all that has to be one per sen­tence. I think the prose will give a sort of plea­sure with­out you being able to tell why.”

Clear­ly writ­ing a sen­tence that has “noth­ing wrong with it” goes well beyond adher­ing to the rules of spelling and gram­mar. And even after you’ve elim­i­nat­ed all ungain­ly rep­e­ti­tion, you may still have con­sid­er­able work to do before the sen­tence ris­es to a stan­dard worth uphold­ing. There are oth­er ques­tions to ask: do you, for exam­ple, tru­ly pos­sess each and every one of the words you’ve used, not just in mean­ing but sound and rhythm? In order to do so, Amis rec­om­mends acquaint­ing your­self more inti­mate­ly with the dic­tio­nary and the­saurus. If all this makes the task of the aspir­ing writer sound need­less­ly daunt­ing, fol­low instead the much sim­pler advice Amis pro­vides in the clip just above: “Get to the end of the nov­el, then wor­ry, because you’ve got some­thing in front of you that you can work on. Save the anx­i­ety for the end.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Amis Explains How to Use a The­saurus to Actu­al­ly Improve Your Writ­ing

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­tin Amis, No Strangers to Con­tro­ver­sy, Talk in 1991

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

V.S. Naipaul Cre­ates a List of 7 Rules for Begin­ning Writ­ers

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writ­ing with Style (1882)

5 Won­der­ful­ly Long Lit­er­ary Sen­tences by Samuel Beck­ett, Vir­ginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzger­ald & Oth­er Mas­ters of the Run-On

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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