What advice would horror writer H.P. Lovecraft give to writers? Lovecraft's work is filled with rich, often florid language, and he was keenly interested in the descriptive powers of language. It's no surprise then, that, when Lovecraft wrote an essay on writing fiction for The United Amateur, words and grammar were among his chief concerns. Lovecraft advised aspiring wordsmiths to avoid popular magazines, study the prose of the King James Bible (despite not being a believer himself), and become avid collectors of words.
Lovecraft's essay "Literary Composition" focuses specifically on literary expression. He begins with a brief discussion on grammar, outlining his particular grammatical pet peeves (including "Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep."), before launching into his thoughts on what writers should read. Lovecraft notes that reading certain authors can teach writers far more about style and narration than a technical manual on writing can, but believed that writers must be judicious in their choice of reading material:
It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes. Lord Dunsany, perhaps the greatest living prose artist, derived nearly all of his stylistic tendencies from the Scriptures; and the contemporary critic Boyd points out very acutely the loss sustained by most Catholic Irish writers through their unfamiliarity with the historic volume and its traditions.
Lovecraft also recommends that writers continuously expand their vocabularies and pay careful attention to the meanings and nuances of the words they acquire. (Not surprisingly, Lovecraft advocates collecting a wide range of adjectives for those all-important descriptive passages.) What is especially interesting, though, is his advice on narration:
In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average.
It's worth reading the entire essay, both for Lovecraft's advice and the insight it offers into how he composed his own stories. If you have a Kindle or a Kindle application, you can download Lovecraft's collected Writings in the United Amateur, 1915-1922 for free on Amazon. His writing advice is outlined in the essay titled "Literary Composition." Biblioklept has also republished the essay in its entirety.
Photo by James Spurrier.