Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

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by Francine Prose

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Long before there were creative-writing workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, says Francine Prose.

In Reading Like a Writer, Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters. She reads the work of the very best

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Long before there were creative-writing workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, says Francine Prose.

In Reading Like a Writer, Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters. She reads the work of the very best writers—Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov—and discovers why their work has endured. She takes pleasure in the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; she is deeply moved by the brilliant characterization in George Eliot's Middlemarch. She looks to John Le Carré for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue, to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail, and to James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield for clever examples of how to employ gesture to create character. She cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, Reading Like a Writer will inspire readers to return to literature with a fresh eye and an eager heart.

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Editorial Reviews

Centuries before college creative writing programs, would-be authors learned their craft by reading. Francine Prose, a talented wordsmith herself, utilizes this time-honored approach in this inviting, practical guide. Reading Like a Writer performs a double service by making us both better writers and more attentive readers. Her refreshingly egalitarian choice of exemplars demonstrates that writing skills are not found only in elite literary circles. One of the best recent writing guides we have seen.

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Reading Like a Writer

A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
By Francine Prose

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Francine Prose
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060777044

Chapter One

Close Reading

Can creative writing be taught?

It's a reasonable question, but no matter how often I've been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can't be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don't believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he's a giant bug.

What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it's being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we'd spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I've beencommitting criminal fraud.

Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took. This was in the 1970s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class. Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what's superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut is essential. It's satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory, before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, we read our work aloud. That year, I was beginning what would become my first novel. And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was encouraged by their eagerness to hear more.

That's the experience I describe, the answer I give people who ask about teaching creative writing: A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write.

Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.

Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

Though writers have learned from the masters in a formal, methodical way--Harry Crews has described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled pacing, tone, and point of view--the truth is this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis. After I've written an essay in which I've quoted at length from great writers, so that I've had to copy out long passages of their work, I've noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent.

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls "putting every word on trial for its life": changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that 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.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. 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. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned us to write a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusion on which we would base our final essay.

It all seemed so dull, so mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it. Without this tedious, time-consuming exercise, all of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas.

Still, we liked our English teacher, we wanted to please him. And searching for every . . .


Excerpted from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose Copyright © 2006 by Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Like a Writer 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading Like a Writer threatens to be the next On Writing Well or Bird by Bird, Theses are types of entry level books, which writing instructors require for an undergrad writing course. But this one falls short. Her canon and examples are meant to make professors nod or change, obviously avoiding and attempting to change the literature required in high school and in undergrad English programs. The list of books is a bit dated and some can really be out of touch for today's reader. As she continues on to the second half of the book her good-humored jabs and pleasant levity came less and less frequently and the prose analysis became less dynamic, then less objective, then more geared toward easily debatable opinion. This book excels over others such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Bird by Bird, in that you have the opinions of fiction from an extremely important American writer in our time. On the topic of technique, Prose breaks from the standard advice given to writers that they should 'show' action and personality instead of 'tell' through narration Prose says some of the greatest writing is telling (from a narrator's insight). She points to the opening page of Pride and Predjudice as an example of telling being wonderfully executed I point to Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude as a confirming example among my recent reads. And in the mass market, The DaVinci Code (though it would be poo-pooed by the literati) makes good use of telling, to really keep the plot moving and fast paced. I just think the problem with telling occurs when a narrator really has nothing interesting or engaging to add, or does not stay within 'the character' of the narrator, causing the telling to be simply fillerâ¿¿a construction of a lazy writer. The author must truly learn how to show before telling and that is why introductory writing material must stress this: there is just so much lazily constructed text that I think showing is a worthy goal for the beginner. The second gem of advice is the focus Prose places on crafting the perfect sentence. Learning the importance of agonizing over every word was beneficial to me and that alone made it worth purchasing this book. This is so tough to do. I was inspired and driven to increase the effort I had put into several sections for my novel and Prose's advice helped push me to the next level, so thank you Francine for that! What raised the book to a 3.75 out of 5, is the focus that Prose puts on reading quality literature while writing in order to emulate it, rather than avoiding brilliant writing so that you won't be discouraged when comparing. I add that even if you end up being pummeled to death by a writing group or a workshop through their excessively critical or conversely simple air-headed praise (where you're not even sure if they read it). I think there is an argument though that really makes for showing, in that in beginning to write you really need to know how to do both, and you for sure could see the examples (from your fiction class) where telling is an absolute cheap and easy way out of creating true tension or conflict in your work but now I'm seeing the benefits of both. I've gone through periods where I've hated reading pluperfect literature while writing because it is so discouraging, and periods where some great stuff has been soured in my eyes by one misinformed comment from a well-meaning classmate. I love reading the greats now while I'm writing, because I've given myself over to imitation. Joyceian, Bradburian and Mertonian. Why not? Go for it. If you can emulate without stealing, then you're writing really tight stuff and you're mimicking the proven techniques of the greatest writers. That's every writer's goal right? Write.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Francine Prose is fine craftsman and an inspiriting writer of fiction as well as book on history and art. In this current excellent book she shares her vast experience in teaching and in communicating with students, friends, critics, writers both alive and dead, and now with us, the fortunate audience. Prose is really talking about how both she and other writers practive their craft and in doing so she shares motivational information on how to better enjoy reading: her premise is that if we understand how great works are created we will better appreciated the art of reading. Beginning with a very informative essay on the concept of reading slowly, for the words and word structures, not unlike the old pastime of reading aloud to a group, Prose seduces us into her world of complete pleasure with the written word. She early on advises us as to the writers she most cherishes - and they are legion - and then develops a manner of looking at the page over several categories of thinking. Her chapters (after 'Close Reading') are as follows: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gestures. In each fascinating chapter she shows us how different authors have successfully addressed each issue of storytelling - and the examples are fascinatingly learned. Prose ends her book with words to encourage us to go back to the classics to better serve our reading of current literature. It all works well - we leave her book hungry to read more! Grady Harp
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CarvingCarver More than 1 year ago
If you are NOT a writer, don't buy this book. It has writer written all over it. Use some sense. Some of the people here on B&N are a few cards short of a deck. :-D
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Writerly79 More than 1 year ago
"Reading Like a Writer" is a great tool for writers in almost any stage. It uses examples from relevant literature, past and present, and demonstrates techniques that the authors have used to make their writing work and flow for the reader. It teaches us how to look for these things in literature, deliberate decisions and choices that authors have made in their writing and why they work. Most of all, the teaching is easy to apply to one's own writing. It is practical and extremely helpful. I used "Reading Like a Writer" as a suggested text for a recent fiction course that I took but I think that one could use it as their own course and definitely learn a lot from it on one's own. I'm sure I will refer back to it often as time goes on.
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writing_teacher More than 1 year ago
It is nice to have my teaching style validated by this author. She has some interesting insights. The book will be most helpful if you have read a lot of classic literature (like more modern-ish like Faulkner rather than Shakespeare). Thought provoking... sums up this book the best.
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