I was having an online conversation recently with one of my novel-writing students about reading more thrillers–because she’s writing one–when one of her classmates chimed in with a question.
It boiled down to this: “How do you learn to write from reading? Is there an article explaining how that works?”
A number of answers occurred right away. There are so many ways to learn from reading other authors, living and dead. It’s a huge question. We learn from a form of osmosis, for example: simply by reading books for pleasure, we absorb some sense of how sentences are supposed to sound, proper grammar, new vocabulary, the idea of voice, fundamentals of worldbuilding, word play, plotting, and how to structure a variety of points of view. Everything we want to try, in fiction, is in a book somewhere.
If we want to try out some particular literary technique, chances are it’s because we read it in a book somewhere. I structured the Indigo Springs frame story as I did, in part, because I wanted to understand novels like Katherine Dunn’s exquisite and heartbreaking Geek Love.
We can break down a book we love or admire–examine it scene by scene, plot point by plot point, character journey by character journey. We can outline it, draw graphs, shuffle around cards with the story components jotted on them, all to better understand its structure. On the micro level, we can become better prose stylists by examining small pieces of writing within larger works, the passages that make your heart beat faster, the ones that sing within the mind’s ear because they’re just that effective. (Or, sometimes, the opposite. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places has some deeply annoying comma splices, which break up its rhythm quite badly.)
Many of you already know I do this, using my text fragment collection.
Moving off the beaten track of this topic, there are also a number of books and movies about readers and writers, pieces that are instructive. They’re fiction, is what I’m saying. But they can add to your understanding of craft, or discipline, or process. A somewhat frivolous example would be the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, which–amid the tasty froth of a boy meets girl tru luff always storyline–sneaks in some hard truths the value of art, the persistence and commitment it requires, genre snobbery, writer’s block, trying too hard, and giving up too soon. All that and Drew Barrymore, too!
Or, if you want something loftier in this vein–not to mention thoroughly wonderful–go pick up Alan Bennet’s novella “The Uncommon Reader” It’s about the birth of a writer, a certain eminent person who takes up reading comparatively late in life and who does nothing, for most of the story, but read, read, and read some more. If you want a fictional and yet true answer to “How do you learn to write from reading?”, this is very much it. And the beginning of that answer? Learn to read. Or, rather to read. Not glancingly or inattentively, but with passion, intent, and thoughtfulness.
(This novella is, btw, quirky and delightful. You’ll laugh.)
I hope to have more on this subject in the future, and perhaps not just from me. In the meantime, what do you all think?
I am thinking about dialog today. It’s a topic I’ve covered to some extent in my Yakkity Yak essay, but I’m wondering if there couldn’t be a way to construct some bare-bones exercises to teach beginners some of the basics of improving it.
A starting point, I think, would be to actually have dialog as opposed to implying it. So I might preamble with:
Though there aren’t necessarily any right or wrong ways to do anything in fiction-writing, it’s sometimes useful to pretend this isn’t the case. This is because some techniques generally work better than others; some strategies should be employed sparingly, rather than as a matter of habit.
With that in mind, let’s attach the label “Less Effective” to this:
Hans & Greta debated knocking on Mrs. Witch’s front door.
And this one we’ll call “More effective.”
“Should we knock?” Hans asked when they reached Mrs. Witch’s door.
Greta shook her head. “If we warn her, she’ll call the police for sure.”
Part one of the exercise would then be to supply three more less Effective sentences:
Pinnochio lied about breaking curfew, but of course his nose grew and Papa grounded him for a month.
Snow White tried to refuse the apple politely.
Mr. Straw Pig indicated he would very much prefer not to allow Wolf past his threshold, unless of course he had a warrant.
Part two would be for the writer to find and edit some examples from their own work, and part three would be analysis: did this improve your writing? How?
What do you think? Potentially useful?
I have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.
Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:
There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.
To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!
I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.
We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.
But myths about writing? Those are universal.
The one that annoys me the most has several variations:
* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.
What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”
For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.
Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.
To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.
Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.
Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.
One of the things I do as part of my teaching practice is keep an eye on links about writing and, when they seem right for a given class, post them in my classroom at UCLA. What I’ve taken to doing as of this quarter is pinning the links on a single board called, not surprisingly, Writing. This way all of my classes can access all of the links, new and old, that I’ve posted.
As I’ve begun to do this, I’ve realized that posts without graphics (the text-heavy stuff we writers naturally tend to favor) don’t pin well. I was always aware that essays with at least a few pictures were more readable–giving the eyes a break, yadda yadda–but there’s this extra element of ‘need a picture’ now that is part of the reason you’re seeing all these little meme-y things and screengrabs popping up on my site.
Visuals aside, this board has some great writing essays on it. Go, read, enjoy!
That’s right–I’ve reached S5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s my essay on the best Riley episode ever.
In other news, I am building a not-safe-for-work Grammar Cop board on Pinterest. I’m hoping this will use up the energy I spend thinking, “Its, not it’s!”
Finally, author Lynette Aspey has written a lovely essay about my Books of Chantment, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, as well as the tie-in novelette “Wild Things.”