Writing advice from somewhere in the middle of a great book: Barry Hughart Edition

ChroniclesMasterLiThe Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

By Barry Hughart
Subterranean Press, 2011

From the beginning of Part 2: The Story of the Stone

Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around.

“Ox,” he said, “The writing of your memoirs is doing wonders for your calligraphy, but I must question the content. Why do you choose the rare cases in which matters run melodramatically amok?”

I heroically refrained from saying, “They always do.”

“When you allow sensationalism to do the work, you’re eliminating the need for thought. Besides,” he added somewhat petulantly, “You give the impression that I’m violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there’s a need for it. Why not explain a case that was calm and rather leisurely and lovely, in which the issues were philosophical rather than frenzied?”

I scratched my nose with my mouse-whiskered writing brush as I tried to think of such a thing. All I wound up with was ink in my nostrils.

Shi tou chi,” he said.

I stared at him incredulously. “You want me to try to explain that awful mess?” I said in a high strangled voice. “Venerable Sir, you know very well it almost broke my heart, and I -”

Shi tou chi,” he repeated.

“But how can I tell the Story of the Stone?” I wailed. “In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.”

He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, “My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.”

If Kevin Hearne and G. K. Chesterton were to get together to write a book about a secular Father Brown character wandering through an ancient China that never was solving mysteries large and small, they might — just might — have come up with something as fun to read as Barry Hughart’s book.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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