Want to write like J.D. Salinger? (Plus, weekend blizzard prompt)

One final J.D. Salinger post, and then I’ll leave him the way he liked it best: Alone.

After hearing back from a few people wondering about the Write Like the Masters tips I mentioned in my post about what made Salinger’s writing so great, I dug around and whipped up an excerpt about perhaps the most powerful aspect of The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield’s voice. (A voice so good that while Salinger may have only published one novel, it still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year.)

And also, for one of the best articles about Salinger in the last week, check out “Dear Jerry, You Old Bastard: My Adventures Answering J.D. Salinger’s Mail” on Slate.

For our swag drawing, I’ll put all the comment names in a hat and pull one today, and announce the victor of the free books Monday. Have an excellent weekend – here’s to writing through blizzards!

* * *

Voice Lessons from a Master Stylist
(From William Cane’s
Write Like the Masters)

Holden Caulfield is certainly like young people we all know: He has difficulty relating to his parents and he is alienated from all his friends and school associates. Not that young people don’t have friends; on the contrary, they have on average more friends than their parents and adults in general; but the fact is that young people often feel alienated from their world and from the older generation. They often move through adolescence feeling that no one understands them, even their best friends. This may be one reason why Holden appeals so strongly to young people. On analysis it’s clear that he has no deep relationships, and no personal connection with anyone other than his little sister, Phoebe. He is, as Christopher Booker has pointed out, a man who wanders from person to person without making any significant connection. For many young people, this is precisely what adolescence feels like.

Another characteristic that makes Holden Caulfield come alive for readers of all generations is his unique and facetious voice. In fiction and nonfiction, voice refers to the feeling and tone of writing, a certain flavor determined by word choice and phrasing that gives a text dimension and makes it distinctly and peculiarly human. The voice of a writer is usually easier to hear in first-person texts because third-person narratives so often mimic the “beige voice” of an objective reporter. With first person it’s usually easier to be intimate, unique, and quirky; indeed, open any page of The Catcher in the Rye and you’ll hear Holden’s voice loud and clear.

Salinger makes use of teen barbarisms and he employs numerous leitmotifs, that is, words or phrases that recur with a character and lend him personality. F. Scott Fitzgerald used the same technique in The Great Gatsby (1925) (one of Salinger’s favorite books) where an effective leitmotif was Gatsby’s habit of calling people “old sport”—a phrase that did more to characterize him as affected upper crust than it did to describe the people he addressed. Similarly, in The Catcher in the Rye we have the often repeated goddamn, madman, and phoney. Such words characterize Holden more than the people he describes. The use of leitmotifs is one way Salinger achieves a unique voice for his protagonist. The frequent use of italics, careful attention to diction (general word choice), and repetition all add to the sound of Holden’s voice. For example, “The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That’s the terrible part. I swear to God I’m a madman.” This passage from the end of chapter 17 illustrates the use of italics, careful word choice, and repetition, helping maintain the intimate and unique sound of Holden’s voice. No one used voice better than Salinger, and if you pay attention to the way he captures the voice of his main character in The Catcher in the Rye—as consistently and saliently as Twain does in Huckleberry Finn—you’ll surely be learning the technique from a master.

(For more about the book, which features sections on everyone from Dostoevsky to King, click here.)

* * *

WRITING PROMPT: The Wait is Over
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking, feel free to e-mail your story to me at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

After a year’s wait, you finally strike—it’s yours. But once you get home, you discover that it’s nothing—nothing—like you thought it’d be.

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4 thoughts on “Want to write like J.D. Salinger? (Plus, weekend blizzard prompt)

  1. Baron

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  2. Mandy Hartley

    Mark, I love how you go a direction I would never expect.
    Martha, love the twist. Definitely not silver fish 😉

    Her Mom dropped a waffle on her plate, but Sarah barely noticed. Only part of her was at the table. She could feel her brother’s elbow demanding the syrup and her Dad’s voice rung in her ears, but she had no idea what he was talking about. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now.

    She had waited her whole life to feel like a girl and now that she had acted like one, she wished that she hadn’t. Dressed for church and safely within the loud orbit of her family, she could almost believe that she hadn’t gone through with it. Sarah McEachern, faster than anyone in three counties on a track and captain of the basketball team, had had sex with Tommy Walker. It wasn’t even a date, it was a science project.

    Tommy was measuring the Borax in the cup they had found in front of his Mother’s bottle of Captain Morgan when she decided to do it. The cup clattered noisily on the tile, but that was ok because it was plastic and Tommy’s parents had gone to the movies. Once Sarah had kissed him, Tommy had taken care of the rest. At least that was something that she was glad about. Something that had gone the way she had hoped. Tommy had a lot of experience with girls. It was the main reason she had picked him. They hadn’t even left the kitchen. She had lost her virginity on weird green 70’s linoleum that Tommy’s Mom was always complaining about, but never changing.

    Now, she just wanted to forget about the whole thing. If she squinched her eyes and really concentrated, her little sister’s demands for Elmo could probably drown out the echoes in her head but her Mom would certainly notice that. Acting like a mental patient was not the way to go; that would just get her the worried Mom look and lots of questions. She didn’t want lots of questions, she had too many of her own.

  3. Martha W

    Zac, great advice on voice. Might be I’ll have to read Catcher one day soon… and this was a fun prompt, I had a hard time picking one thing to write about!

    Wow, Mark. Dark, dark, dark. But good! Love it.


    Matt stood staring at the tank of brightly colored fish, mesmerized by their brilliance. Silver Dollar fish. The tank lights reflecting off their coloring, making them the stars of the show.

    He had done what they said. Introduced the Gold Barbs first, a couple at a time. Letting them adjust. Then the Bronze Corys, same for them. Now it was time for the Silver Dollars.

    All year he had been coming here. Watching, wanting. Today was the day. "I’ll take four of them."

    "Cool." Nodding his head, the clerk grabbed a net from under the counter. "I’ll have to go in back to fish them out."

    "Fine. I’ll watch from here."

    "Whatever." The kid tugged his pants back up on his hips before slouching off down the aisle toward the door marked "employees only".

    Matt’s heart picked up speed. The green netting swished around in the tank in front of his nose, chasing fish this way and that. It created a comical ballet of sorts.

    Finally, four scooped fish later, the clerk appeared from the back. He plopped the knotted bag on the counter and punched the amount in the cash register. "Twenty-one twenty."

    After getting his change back, Matt gently picked the bag up and cradled it in the crook of his arm. He felt a couple of bumps to his arm and slowed his steps to avoid jarring the fish any further.

    Once home Matt flung open the door, hollering for Ellie. "Hey! I got the fish, babe."

    She poked her head out of the kitchen. "I thought we were going together."

    "I know. But I got so excited, I couldn’t wait."

    Ellie smiled and dropped a kiss on his lips. "You’re like a little kid sometimes."

    "Yeah." He hooked his free arm around her waist. "Let’s go put them in."

    Within minutes they stood looking at the freshwater aquarium. Ellie lifted the bag over the edge, settling it in the water. Allowing the water in the pouch to reach the same temperature as the tank water, like they’d been taught.

    Matt looped his arm around her neck. "They’ll look good together."
    Ellie leaned forward. "What are they doing?"

    The fish had begun to ram the plastic. Matt peered through the glass, his eyes narrowing. In that instant, everything changed.

    "Oh crap." He dashed around the door frame, meaning to grab the bag and toss it into the tub. But it was too late.

    It was like a blizzard of fish parts flurrying around the tank. Bits of gold and bronze drifting, spinning in a water cyclone. They could only watch the cloudy water settle.

    "I’m going to kill that kid."

    She looked at him, questioning. "Who?"

    "That clerk." He pressed his hand to the tank, only to be greeted by bumps from the fish on the inside. "These aren’t Silver Dollar fish, El."

    "Are those teeth?"


    "What are they, Matt?" she asked, backing up a step.


  4. Mark James

    Zac, this was great. I had fun going ‘out there’ with this one. And the tips on style and voice are priceless.

    They say you gotta be faithful, gotta believe, but I didn’t; couldn’t. I wanted her here, and I didn’t give a damn if she was going to a better place.

    “Why didn’t you tell me it would be like this?”

    Sitting in the circle I’d used to capture her, she looked like salvation, like she could save me from what I’d done. She raised her eyes to mine, and for a second, a heartbeat, I believed she was a virgin and her son was dead and – –

    “Would it have made a difference?” she said.

    I felt the rage swell inside me, wanted to wrap my fingers around her throat, fling her back to the pit I’d called her from.

    “Yes.” She lifted her arms out to her sides, palms up, dropped her head. “Come. Rest with me.”

    “She didn’t come back like you said.”

    “I promised you would hold her again, have her with you forever.”

    When Lissy’s body started eating her alive, I dragged her to every doctor on every continent. But I was losing the race. Lissy, she just went with me, listened to the doctors tell us how her body was eating itself, and how, in a couple months, the pain would be so bad, they’d need Morphine just to keep her from screaming.

    I found other ways, older ways, darker ways. “Send her back,” I said.

    She brought her hands together in front of her face, like she was praying, bowed her head. “I will need a further boon.”

    “Like what? I already went all the way through Hell. You stole a year from me.”

    The demon shook off the Mary mother of God act like it was too old for little kid jokes. It jumped to its feet, quick as a snake. “You still have your soul, human. Feed me. And I will do as you wish.”

    “What about your son? Was he a demon too?” I couldn’t believe I was baiting the thing in the circle, like I thought it would make a mistake.

    “We are all demons when we cannot walk beside the still waters,” it said.

    On the floor behind me, Lissy let out a low groan of pain. I turned to her. “What did I do?”

    Her face was only half there, the rest was eaten away. I could see her teeth through the mesh of bone and muscle. “Let me go,” she said.

    “She is immortal,” the thing behind me said. “Her pain is like nothing your mortal mind can imagine.”

    I picked up Lissy, held her misshapen, feverish body in my arms. She screamed at my touch.

    “Do it,” I said.

    “Step into the circle.” The voice was a low hiss that went through every bone in me.

    I crossed the thin line between life and death, left my sanity behind, walked between dreams and nightmares.

    For a moment, Lissy’s lips were soft on mine, her body was whole in my arms, and when I opened my eyes to say goodbye, she was gone.

    I’ve been walking a long time now. It’s dark here, so damn dark.


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