Meanwhile, though, I'd like to serve up two very short extracts of great writing – the first descriptive; the second empathetic.
'At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays – always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow.'
This is brilliant. Strong and simple prelude (sky is white, trees are black) gives way to a metaphor that – at first glance – might seem overblown or sentimental, then reveals itself in fact to be perfectly-judged. The obvious sexuality of 'naked and tender' seems glib and perhaps obvious – until Yates adds that masterstroke: the 'curds of shriveled snow'.
Debasing the image of the (feminine) buttocks with those measly semen-like squirts. And, crucially, the metaphor passes the test: it's also real.
Then, 20 pages or so later, a fantastic piece of psychological observation. (One of many, I might add: I've chosen this particular example fairly arbitrarily). Two characters, wife and husband, have just had a taut emotional exchange (to call it an argument is perhaps to simplify). They've pulled over their car, and the woman has dashed thirty yards away along the roadside, pursued shortly by her husband. She '[isn't] crying; ... only standing there, with her back to him.':
"What the hell," he said. "What the hell's this all about? Come on back to the car.""No. I will in a minute. Just let me stand here a minute, all right?"His arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances.
That's the difference between okay writing and great writing. The great writer remembers that even amidst anger and emotional turmoil, we can still be painfully self-conscious; laughably prim.