Authors may diligently read books about “writing,” which, admit it, can be an effective diversion to put off the actual writing (a list of my favorites is at the bottom of this post). I’ve read a lot of them myself. And, what I’ve learned is that I’m not very good with the theoretical. I’m talking about books that provide general recommendations to do or not do this or that. I can puzzle over what the authors are trying to tell me, but my mind wanders, and the point they’re making doesn’t necessarily stick.
But what I am good at is understanding examples. If the advice-giver provides specific examples, I can extrapolate until the cows come home. Even better, I can create my own examples, riffing off those in the book. I’ve tried this with both novels and short stories. I read a piece of advice, then stop a moment and think about where in my current manuscript such an insight might apply and make a note. Yes, my advice books are marked up scandalously. Yes, the best ones are read over and over again, because the context of where I am in my writing makes such a difference to what I can absorb. Then I weave into my story the changes implied by some piece of expert insight.
Recently, I paired writing a short story about a mysterious contemporary museum with reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, recommended to me by a friend. Saunders takes four Russian authors and analyzes their stories in depth. I read a bit, worked on my story a bit, cross-referenced the two, thought about it, and plowed ahead, back and forth, working the new, deeper ideas into the text. I guarantee Chekov and Turgenev wouldn’t spot the places where my work headed down paths similar to theirs—not in plot or writing style, of course, but in what the Russians’ purpose was in various passages and how they arranged information to achieve it. Invisible though their influence may be, I’m sure my story, such as it is, is stronger for the effort.
A friend likes to say that reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out; it’s the method I used for that story.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by Booker Prize-winner George Saunders
On Writing by Stephen King (heard of him?)
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, a real eye-opener for me
From Where You Dream by Pulitzer-winner Rober Olen Butler
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter
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