They say one of the best ways to learn about writing is through reading. Some books ooze with such magnificent prose and/or technique, be it plot, characterization, etc. that we want to crawl inside the pages to study what it has achieved. We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said:
It turns out that’s called “Reading like a writer.” I thought everyone did it, but it also turns out they don’t: It’s the first thing my wife, Delia Sherman, always has to teach in her summer Intro to Fantasy MFA class at Hollins U.
So I got myself a pretty good basic sense of how to write sentences. But then, during time in college I should have spent studying, a new writer hit me like an atom bomb.
The series that first showed me how much a writer could really mess with your head was, of course, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series, a six-volume historical beloved of SF/F writers from Guy Gavriel Kay and Kim Stanley Robinson to Joan D. Vinge , Alaya Dawn Johnson and Max Gladstone. It messed with my head, all right: the protagonist, in Renaissance Europe and the Scots borders, is an utterly charismatic polymath gender-flexible survivor and dealer-out of all the abuse a reader can enjoy and then some – and in some 36,000 pages, you only get his viewpoint three (I think it’s three; I used to have this stuff cold!) times.
That was lesson #1, as I struggled to figure out just how Dunnett was messing with me so successfully. She also does a lot with withholding and revealing information: if you go back at the end of the book, you’ll find almost everything was there along along. She does it by redirection.
The best part is that she makes you love it. Even while she’s doing things to her characters that are probably illegal in every state in the Union, even when you’re going, “Oh, come on, Dorothy; I know Lymond is always right, but in this case, there’s no way!” – even then, you’re glorying in the wit and hilarity of her characters, her plotline, her demanding and illuminating prose . . .
And that’s another lesson: Your readers will follow you anywhere, if you make it gorgeous for them.
More recently, there was Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – and I have to say: There are no words. I don’t think I could do what she does, and I’m not sure I’d want to. It is so totally sui generis: as if she created an entire new style just to tell Cromwell’s story (“as if?”). But surely some close text analysis would yield some neat tricks? Hmmm…. Maybe what we need is a Writer’s Book Club, where we meet to pick apart the technique of a new novel each time. Who’s in?
I could name a lot of others whose technique I admire and think about: Peter Dickinson, Anthony Trollope, Jane Gardam…
Learning from other writers is a lifetime’s learning; as Chaucer wrote:
The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne
Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge….
You didn’t really think he meant “love” by all that, did you?
The other day I told my son’s friends that writing was like having homework for the rest of your life. But the only way to improve as a writer is to constantly enroll in these Continuing Education courses. I’m a slow reader anyway since I’m constantly trying to figure out how writers achieve certain effects. And it’s a little weird when you get to the point of having some of your friends as teachers. My next two courses are: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.
My one word summary is: rich. There is so much done right in these works that I want to pull each sentence apart. However, I have particular dissection goals in mind for these two:
- breaking down the level of world-building (how the world is constructed)
- breaking down the “message” and themes (examining what each writer is trying to say/comment upon – plus I am looking at my writing with an eye questioning if I’m putting enough ideas into my work)
- breaking down the structure (because I’m studying not only how the story is put together but how that telling impacts the reader’s experience)
A book I’ve thought on a fair bit lately is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was published in 1899. I was fairly critical of the book’s racial portrayals over at Apex Magazine, but as I said in that essay, there’s still a whole lot to admire in the novel. It’s only fair to talk about some of the book’s brilliance and why it’s still relevant for modern readers and writers.
The standard advice many beginning writers receive is to open with dialog and avoid opening with a stretch of description. In Heart of Darkness, the reader finds three whole pages of nothing but descriptive narrative before we encounter the first bit of dialog. But Conrad’s prose is so excellent that I didn’t mind. Here’s the second paragraph, for instance:
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
“In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint” is not only a much more evocative way of describing “seamless” but also foreshadows the protagonist’s focus on rebuilding (and, later, struggling to keep afloat) the steamboat he’s put in charge of. The description “in the luminous space” has a lovely consonance to it, and further, it evokes the brightness of the open sea and sky — a world that is lost to Marlow on his journey into darkness.
There’s great color and detail in the middle: tanned sails, drifting barges, red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, gleams of varnished bowsprits. These descriptors pop and put the seascape right in the reader’s mind with just a few words. And “vanishing flatness” has a satisfying assonance to it.
The final line of the paragraph — “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” — is loaded with wonderful atmosphere. The assonance of the repetitive “ohs” in “mournful gloom, brooding motionless over” make that part of the description read like a lament. And that line further foreshadows the themes of the book. Why is the greatest town on earth so burdened with a hanging gloom? Because the horrors in the Congo have traveled there, psychic parasites on the souls of the men who have survived that darkness.
And that’s just the opening. It’s especially amazing considering that English was a second or third language for Conrad. The other descriptions throughout the book are equally evocative and stylish. If you can look past the despicable characters and racism in the novel, it’s an excellent study in vivid prose and represents a good model for those who seek to improve the quality of their own descriptive writing.
I’ve spent the last two years analyzing novels from a variety of genres as a part of my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. These days, I never read any book without a pencil in hand so I can make notes to myself. Whenever I want to try something new in my stories, I do a field recon to see how other writers have tackled that same technique. In fact, I just wrote a horror novel, which is outside of my normal wheel house, and I having other novels to look to for structure and techniques was incredibly helpful. Here are three I analyzed.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Is anyone better at atmosphere that Shirley Jackson? She’s a master at weaving dread into every sentence. In Hill House, she uses the very dimensions of the house to create a sense of imbalance in the reader. Also, has there ever been a more tragic figure than Eleanor Vance with her cups of stars?
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. This is not a perfect novel, nor is it horror. But Flynn gets a lot of things right here, and her characters are haunted in their own ways. Her characterization is so rich. I think she only got better as she moved from this sophomore effort to her most famous novel, Gone Girl. Flynn writes broken women very, very well. Remember how I mentioned dread when I talked about Jackson? Well, Flynn’s flashbacks in this book made my stomach cramp with it. Her confident use of language combined with her ability to push her characters into dark corners results in some really satisfying reading.
- The Shining by Stephen King. Heck, anything by Stephen King. He’s the master for a reason. However, The Shining is a great example of his ability to use actual horror as a metaphor for the figurative horrors inside a character’s mind. King’s prose is always like one of those Russian dolls–there are stories within stories within stories, which is a technique I wanted to use in the novel I was writing. He also does a fantastic job in The Shining of delivering the promises of his premise in Act One and paying them off by Act Three. This is a concept I’ve been studying in a lot of novels to try to understand why readers are sometimes disappointed by book endings. It could be argued that some of King’s later books peter out at the end, but it usually doesn’t matter because we’ve enjoyed the ride so damned much.
One great thing about being a writer is that reading a lot and reading widely is part of the job description. With any profession, it’s important to have an idea of what’s going on in the field, but beyond that, reading great fiction can unlock your creative energy, remind you of why you love this stuff, and induce an excitement and enthusiasm that will get you going again on your own projects. But reading the right story at the right time can also be a palm-smacking-the-forehead revelatory experience, as you realize Yes, this! This is what I need to do!
Well, anyway, my brain works that way.
Case in point: my current work in progress started off as multi-viewpoint, third person, past tense. I’d written maybe 40% of an anticipated 100,000 words, but something felt off about it. There was something in the voice, in the “flavor” of it that I wasn’t happy with. Then several weeks ago I started reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs which is multi-viewpoint, third person, PRESENT tense, and I thought Ohhhh…
Present tense isn’t new for me. My last three novels were written in present tense, but they were first person, single viewpoint. It never occurred to me to try it in a multi-viewpoint, third person story. Sometimes I need to be shown how to use a great technique, and City of Stairs did that for me—and inspired me to promptly revise my manuscript.
I’m not one to sit down and study a book. I always mean to—and there are so many great things happening in City of Stairs that making a study of it would be a worthy enterprise—but generally I just make mental note of really cool things to try, and then move on.
But back to the notion of reading widely: City of Stairs is a fantasy novel and my work in progress is near-future, high-tech science fiction. They don’t have a lot in common. Regardless, inspiration and insight can be found all over.
I love this topic, because I have always been a studier. I’m a big believer in doing a lot of legwork before jumping into something, be it reading old exams and answers before a big law school final, or pouring over childcare sites before attempting to potty-train my son.
And it’s the same with writing. Before the first draft of my debut novel, City of Savages, I must have read dozens of post-apocalyptic novels to fully internalize their sense of bleakness and despair. And prior to writing the first word of A Criminal Magic, I re-watched my three favorite gangster films and story-boarded them scene-by-scene, to analyze what propelled them forward, and to try to pinpoint what made my viewing experience so thrilling and intense.
Right now, I’m in the early stages of writing a multi-POV novel, and because there are four main characters, I settled on third person as the best narrative device. The only problem? I’ve always considered myself a first-person writer – I love the intimacy and immediacy of first person, and I’ve never written any other way. So before jumping in, I knew I had to study. I knew I needed examples where third person could still feel familiar, and where a third-person narrator actually increased, rather than decreased, the tension. In short, I needed to read a gold standard: a multi-POV, otherworldly thriller that makes its readers care about its wide cast of characters, but still manages to keep the pacing tight and the plot twisty and compelling.
Enter Leigh Bardugo’s recent Six of Crows.
For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the novel takes place in a fantastical city called Ketterdam, a place of thieves and swindlers, where a criminal mastermind gathers a diverse crew to try to pull off an impossible heist.
But it’s Bardugo that accomplishes the real feat here: she writes in FIVE points of view. And each POV is textured; each character has her own history, motivations and agenda. I came to know, love and root for each crew-member, and even better, Bardugo’s stellar characterization didn’t slow down the break-neck pacing of the heist. If anything, it upped the stakes.