January 30, 2010

Learning from the Masters

Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer has provided me with some interesting ideas. This is not a book about writing per se, instead it focuses on learning write to by reading the classics. It doesn't give you a list on concrete exercises or things to look for in your writing like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers but it teaches you to think about what makes good literature.

Reading for me before was always something I just did passively; I focussed on the story and unless the language jumped off the page as brilliant or downright awful it wasn't something I was conscious of. However makes a good book? What defines a good writer? Is it purely about telling a good and enthralling story or is it about literary style?

I can think of many writers who have told a good, entertaining story but something irritated me while reading their books. As a teenager I was a huge fan of Anne Rice; I loved her stories and the world she created. I tried reading one of her books recently and I realised what annoyed me so much about her was that she can tell a good story (well up to a point in her novels but that is a different rant) but her writing style is over descriptive, too flowery and she has the annoying tendency to repeat things over and over again. On the other hand, Gabriel García Marquez has an exquisite writing style; his sense of language evokes his settings vividly but I found it felt like it took me 100 years to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

While plot is vital to a good novel or short story, it's the building blocks used in the creation of this art which certain works endure. The very words used to create the brush stokes in the big picture each hold a significant meaning, a clue to the writer's real agenda. Words are not meaningless, an author's choice in a specific word is not something decided arbitrarily. Sentences are the next step up but even the punctuation, the length of a sentence and the way it is constructed would alter the meaning if something in that sentence is changed. Paragraphs too hold a significant impact; where short paragraphs artificially induce tension and longer ones lull one into a sense of relaxation that nothing unexpected is going happen. Would a world or character lose its impact if one small detail was taken out of the story?

The story is a skeleton, it's the backbone and the foundation for a novel or short story, the very essence and without it you are just left with a pretty bit of prose; but what differentiates a piece of high literature and trash is the style; the tools and the craft used to create the piece. Two writers could take an identical story and make them entirely distinct pieces of different calibres because of how they choose to convey the plot. What is a lot of editing and writing books do tell is you what not to do - do not write clichés, do not overuse adverbs, do not repeat, show don't tell. What I liked about Reading Like a Writer is it gives you the tools to think and look closely; judge for yourself what is effective and what works in literature and how can you use it in your own writing. Being equiped to critise work not only from a negative aspect but seeing the successes in an author's work and learning from them is the best thing an aspiring writer can learn.

Maybe all this is obvious to an English Major but to someone coming from a scientific background it's helped me to learn from the best; that I can turn to Tolstoy, Nabakov and Hemingway as my teachers.

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