Read Like A Writer

There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.


John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Model Lesson in Novel Writing

A Model Lesson in Novel Writing


When certain grumpy folk ask: "How do you propose to draw up your lessons on 'The way to find Local Colour'; 'Plotting'; 'How to manage a Love-Scene,' and so forth?" it is expected that a writer like myself will be greatly disconcerted. Not at all. It so happens that a distinguished critic, now deceased, once delivered himself on the possibility of teaching literary art, and I propose to quote a paragraph or two from his article. "The morning finds the master in his working arm-chair; and seated about the room which is generally the study, but is now the studio, are some half-dozen pupils. The subject for the hour is narrative-construction, and the master holds in his hand a small MS. which, as he slowly reads it aloud, proves to be a somewhat elaborate synopsis of the story of one of his own published or projected novels. The reading over, students are free to state objections, or to ask questions. One remarks that the dénouement is brought about by a mere accident, and therefore seems to lack the inevitableness which, the master has always taught, is essential to organic unity. The criticism is recognised as intelligent, but the master shows that the accident has not the purely fortuitous character which renders it obnoxious to the general objection. While it is technically an accident, it is in reality hardly accidental, but an occurrence which fits naturally into an opening provided by a given set of circumstances, the circumstances having been brought about by a course of action which is vitally characteristic of the person whose fate is involved. Then the master himself will ask a question. 'The students,' he says, 'will have noticed that a character who takes no important part in the action until the story is more than half told, makes an insignificant and unnoticeable appearance in a very early chapter, where he seems a purposeless and irrelevant intrusion.' They have paper before them, and he gives them twenty minutes in which to state their opinion as to whether this premature appearance is, or is not, justified by the canons of narrative art, giving, of course, the reasons upon which that opinion has been formed. The papers are handed in to be reported upon next morning, and the lesson is at an end."

This is James Ashcroft Noble's idea of handling a theme in fiction; one of a large and varied number. To me it is a feasible plan emanating from a man who was the sanest of literary advisers. If it be objected that Mr Noble was only a critic and not a novelist, perhaps a word from Sir Walter Besant may add the needful element of authority. "I can conceive of a lecturer dissecting a work, or a series of works, showing how the thing sprang first from a central figure in a central group; how there arose about this group, scenery, the setting of the fable; how the atmosphere became presently charged with the presence of mankind, other characters attaching themselves to the group; how situations, scenes, conversations, led up little by little to the full development of this central idea. I can also conceive of a School of Fiction in which the students should be made to practise observation, description, dialogue, and dramatic effects. The student, in fact, would be taught how to use his tools." A reading-class for the artistic study of great writers could not be other than helpful. One lesson might be devoted to the way in which the best authors foreshadowed crises and important turns in events. An example may be found in "Julius Cæsar," where, in the second scene, the soothsayer says:
"Beware the Ides of March!"

—a solitary voice in strange contrast with those by whom he is surrounded, and preparing us for the dark deed upon which the play is based. Or the text-book might be a modern novel—Hardy's "Well-Beloved" for instance—a work full of delicate literary craftsmanship. The storm which overtook Pierston and Miss Bencomb is prepared for—first by the conversation of two men who pass them on the road, and one of whom casually remarks that the weather seems likely to change; then Pierston himself observes "the evening—louring"; finally, and most suddenly, the rain descends in perfect fury.

Excrept from "How to Write a Novel: A Practical Guide to the Art of Fiction"

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