Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
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's review
Sep 27, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, 2007, critical-theory
Read in August, 2007

I was eagerly awaiting the paperback edition to read this, it sounded so interesting. And it was. Is. Grr. Don't worry, it's not about grammar or punctuation. This is about reading for enjoyment and also for inspiration, motivation, guidance, example....

Divided into chapters on words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, dialogue, gestures - you get the picture - Prose (isn't that the most perfect name?!) uses analysis, anecdotes and extensive quotes to bring books and short stories to life.

The first chapter, on Close Reading, was very reassuring and gave me cause to be quite pleased with myself too. (Writers are perhaps the most needy of people, constantly needing reassurance and a bolstering of the ego.) She offers advice to new writers on reading books like 'professional' writers do:
I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction. ... What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

This is so true. From the time I could read - also the time I could write - I was fascinated by how stories were created, formed, structured, plotted. I was the only kid in my class, if not my entire primary school, who wrote what the teachers called "sagas" (a new word for me): very involved stories, complete with dialogue, plot, beginning, middle, ending, and illustrations. Even my punctuation - learnt from reading - was spot-on. I'm sure they weren't particularly original, but they satisfied a great, urgent need in me, and still do. I also learnt - and continue to learn - vocabulary: I can still remember discovering the word "melancholy" from a book I was reading in grade 5, and it was fun to work out the meanings of new words from the context in which they were used. Sadly, this means I often struggle to give a dictionary-definition of a word; I'm more likely to put it in a sentence and expect people to get it like I do. Better get better at that if I want to be a teacher!

Different books got me started on experimenting with different styles. After reading the Silver Brumby books, for instance, I practiced writing description, creating pieces that weren't even complete short stories, often discarded, like sketches. After reading Georgette Heyer's Regency romances (don't knock 'em till you've read 'em!), I practiced dialogue - she has a great knack for it. And so on.

The works that Francine Prose quotes from are a little more sophisticated than the ones I used growing up, but the principle is the same. Her chapters on gestures and details is a great reference for me - they're often overlooked aspects in my writing, that still needs a lot of work. I fear cliches, which are almost unavoidable. She leans towards Chekov, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce, Flaubert, Kleist, Alice Munro, Melville, Austen, Paula Fox and Henry Green, for example - only a few of the books she mentions or uses in analysis have I read. A particularly fun chapter, Character, starts with an anecdote of the time when, slightly out of mischief, she assigned a story by Heinrich von Kleist called The Marquise of O- to a group of students in Utah: all mormons, which was about a lady who was raped by the chivalrous knight while unconscious after he'd saved her from a fire (during a battle), and so on, only to discover that the students came alive in their discussions and talked about the characters like they knew them personally.

The problem with this book is it gets you so impatient not only to start reading these works of literature, but also to go back over your own writing and see what traps, if any, you've fallen into, or how you can lift up a passage of dialogue or even reveal your characters in a different way. It's definitely one of the better writing guides I've come across - and the only one I've ever bothered to read, since it's an informal guide at best, not at all condescending, and lacks a superiority complex. Prose loves to read as much as she loves to write, and teaches as well, and has a real talent for opening up an otherwise dry passage to the treasures going on in the inner workings.

What Prose also mentions is that there are no rules, that every time she tried to give advice to her students such as Don't write from the point of view (first person) of someone who dies in the story, she finds a story - often by Chekov - that contradicts that rule, and works. In this sense, writing is a very distinct artform: you learn how to do it "properly", just as you learn how to draw a face with perfect proportions, before you go all Picasso on it and have the eyes sticking out the side and the nose upside-down. Perhaps an absolute genius would skip that learning stage, but if we do it's like - what's the expression? Learning to run before you can walk? It takes time, and patience, and hard work, and perseverance, but if you have the passion it's not painful in the slightest. And if you lose momentum, or get writer's block, Prose has some great advice: to have a shelf put aside for especially inspiring novels, to pick up one author who excels at, say, dialogue, and read a passage at random for inspiration. She even has a list of "Books to be read immediately" at the end of the book. For myself, I can say that this works, though I usually read the entire book to get into the flow of a style. Even when working on my fantasy story, though, I often prefer to read literature. I find it helps to stop me from slipping into cliche-mode.

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08/03/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Cassie (new) - added it

Cassie I have just started this and definitely agree that the first chapter feels very reassuring. Great review, I definitely plan to continue with this one :)

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