Reading like a writer

The thesis of this book (“Reading like a Writer,” by Francine Prose) is simple, yet powerful: an excellent way to improve your writing is simply to read. Read those who’ve perfected particular skills and learn to emulate them.

The book tours through various aspects of writing (fiction), such as narration, voice, character, dialogue, etc. Each topic is covered like a mini-instructional lecture, and all of the points are illustrated with excerpts from great writers: Austen, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Chandler, and many others I did not recognize. In fact, reading this book is like being treated to an elite buffet: small samplings of absolutely stand-out writing, enough to make you hungry for more in a delightful way.

The down side of reading this book is that any other work you read concurrently suffers greatly by comparison. My apologies to Tad Williams, who is the unlucky author of the moment. :)

So far, here are some of the lessons I’ve gleaned:

  • Put every word on trial. Cut away everything that you can, and leave the bones to gleam in solo eloquence.
  • Employ “close reading”: consider each word that exists in the final version you’re reading. Why might the author have made those particular choices? Observe how, for masterful writers, each word conveys just the right information, and a slightly different word would have a different effect.
  • Some people avoid “classics” because they fear such books will make them feel stupid. Prose says, “But I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel.”
  • With regard to the common advice to “show, don’t tell”: “This causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out . . . when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.” That is, “telling” is okay if you do it in vibrant, precise ways.
  • Grammar is like etiquette. The writer is the host, the reader is the guest, and the writer should make the reader feel at home.
  • Keep a stack of books that contain, in your view, truly great sentences. Flip through them occasionally for inspiration.
  • To shape a paragraph, and decide where breaks should occur, think of each one as inhaling at the beginning and exhaling at the end.
  • When deciding on the point of view from which your story will be told, ask yourself not only who is speaking, but who is listening? Why is the story being told? (I found this quite intriguing and realized that for a lot of books, even ones I like, I couldn’t answer these questions.)
  • Establish a personality for the narrator through voice, diction, opinions.
  • Good dialogue always has a subtext. Those speaking may have multiple motivations, and these may not manifest directly in what they say.
  • Conversation can advance the plot.
  • In reality, conversation is plagued with inattention and miscommunication. Don’t let fictional conversation be too perfect.

Look up LaTeX symbols by drawing

This is the coolest LaTeX doodad I’ve found in ages. Detexify is a brilliant combination of useful UI and machine learning. When you can’t remember what the latex command is to render a particular symbol, you simply DRAW it and Detexify gives you a ranked list of matches. You can then give it feedback about which one was what you wanted, which it uses to re-train its model and improve for the future.

I found this tool while trying to hunt down the LaTeX command for §, which I’d never used. Here’s what I drew:

Notice it has the correct command at the top of the list!

I love discovering new ways that machine learning can be used to make daily life easier. Well, in this case for those who use LaTeX on a daily basis. That’s everyone, right?

Write About Dragons online

Brian Sanderson has a student so enamored of his teaching that he (the student) took it upon himself to record and post Sanderson’s Creative Writing lectures online (Write About Dragons). So far it seems focused on novel writing (with a sci-fi/fantasy bent), but he makes the great point that really you should only be writing something that you regularly read. Short stories, mysteries, romances, whatever; regular reading gives you an ear for the genre and style.

Intrigued by this generous offering, I’ve started out with the first lecture. You can’t actually read what he writes on the whiteboard, but it doesn’t matter, since he states everything quite clearly (and often opinionatedly :) ). So I’ve been listening to it as a good companion while I do other things, like put together a puzzle or dust my new bookshelf.

His first lecture emphasized that good writing is about skill, which comes from practice. Interestingly (to me), he de-emphasized the value of the story idea (compared to raw writing skill) and claimed that a good writing can spin gold out of the humblest straw. He also encouraged his students actually taking the class (who faced the daunting task of writing 50k words over the semester) to start fresh with some new idea, rather than trying to re-write that novel sitting in the closet that’s already been tackled 15 times and never gone anywhere useful. This was a nice reminder that it’s always possible to pick up some new project and come back to one you’re not making progress on later.

I mentioned 50k words as a challenge. Not coincidentally, National Novel Writing Month also sets the bar at 50k words. The difference (in my view) is that in this class you are generating writing you actually want other people to read. NNWM is purely focused on volume, explicitly instructing you to ignore quality. (“Don’t worry, it’ll come out in the editing process,” which is a bit like “Don’t worry, that red wine stain will come out when you wash it.”) The class is organized around small groups that provide each other feedback, so you’re obligated to share with, and to read the products of, your classmates.

He also identified two major categories of writers: discovery-based (or “gardeners”) and outline-based (or “architects”). I like exploring and discovery as much as the next person, but (unless prompted by NNWM) I’m unlikely to ever just start writing and see where it goes. I want a plan. I want signposts. That makes me more of an architect by nature — and therefore vulnerable to architect foibles, like never actually starting the story because you’re trying to perfect the clever planned plot twists or the world-building. Gardeners, on the other hand, suffer from writing along until they figure out what the story is about, then going back to ret-con the earlier material to match, then writing more and figuring out what it’s REALLY about, then circling back to ret-con some more, and never finishing for entirely different reasons.

After concluding with some tips about how to contribute productively to a critique group (as critiquer or as person on the spot), Brandon exhorts students to go off and create a LiveJournal account to make sharing their material easy. Get out there and get writing!

A precise dose of words

Constrained art forms, like haiku or alliterative poetry or Weird Al parodies, have always intrigued me: I admire those who can create while laboring under (sometimes quite strict) limitations. Yesterday, I happened upon Each day, they post a topic, and seven primary contributors write a story on that topic, using exactly 100 words, no more, no less. Visitors are encouraged to post their own stories.

The most recent topic was from June 19: “No one is listening.” Always up for a challenge, I posted this story:

A Furtive Caesura

My entrance is coming up in thirty seconds. I can hear the pirate’s brassy threats and Lisa’s pleading replies. I’m about to sweep in and save her from the villain. I brush at the curtain with my sword and check the timing. Twenty seconds left.

I duck away from the bright stage entrance and slip the note into her red canvas bookbag. I’m back at the curtain with three seconds to go. One deep breath, and I’m striding onto the stage, sword at the ready, howling for the pirate to let Lisa go. She’ll find out about the breakup later.

You can contribute your own story here.

(This post is also 100 words.)

The next Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of my absolute favorite authors. (If I’d realized his brilliance a little earlier, I might have avoided detention in middle school.) I’ve particularly enjoyed Roughing It (including his tales of traveling through Utah (and meeting Brigham Young), setting a forest fire near Mono Lake, crunching across barely-cooled lava in Kilauea, and other amazing adventures), Letters to the Earth (with hilarious retellings of Adam and Eve’s first experiences in the world), At a Fire (satire of an etiquette book likely titled “At a Dance”, which would have indicated the order in which ladies may be asked to dance, etc.), and a dinner speech on the crazy English alphabet (don’t worry, he picked on German, too), and more.

But I never thought of being Mark Twain myself.

To promote a new book on Twain trivia, the Twainia folks are having a competition titled “I Am The Next Mark Twain.” Contestants are to read an unfinished piece by Twain (Conversations with Satan) and finish it, using up to 300 words. Entries will be judged 50% on “originality of idea/creativity” and 50% on “writing style”. Entries are due May 31. I’m immediately intrigued. Who’s in it with me?

Another interesting Twain resource: The Mark Twain Project is working to put all of Twain’s writings (including his letters) online in a central location. Not only do they provide access to the texts, but they also provide a split-pane view so you can see the original text plus edits that were made and explanatory notes side-by-side. In some cases, you can also see a scanned version of the original handwritten version (mainly for letters). (It reminds me a little of the marvelous online version of Darwin’s works.) To date, only some of his letters have been added to the archive, but they make for delightful reading, including his courtship letters to his future wife, Livy. And more is in the works!

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