Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I first spied Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, while shelving at my former job. I sneaked a few moments to read the first few pages and Reading Like a Writerinstantly fell in love. The sentence that resonated with me, “Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books,” combined with, “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,” confirmed for me that I had found a kindred spirit. Her passion for reading and writing and the process of learning by indulging in both was the best piece of advice I had ever heard. Mrs. Prose’s comments awakened in me what I always believed to be true: great writing is an organic process that comes from creating beyond outlines and plot-pointed structures with perfect character arcs.

Great writing begins with close reading and follows with careful consideration for every word that will become a sentence, which will become a paragraph. This isn’t to say that Mrs. Prose or I believe writing should be utter chaos without any structure, but I trust if one applied her approach to their own writing, he or she would see amazing growth in how they create characters, employ narration and dialogue, and present details and gestures.

Woven throughout the book are examples from great writers that will back up what Mrs. Prose is teaching. You don’t need to be familiar with these authors or their works to appreciate them. Another reviewer I read proclaimed his dislike for Mrs. Prose’s book because he didn’t know any of the referenced works. I suspect he thought Mrs. Prose was being pretentious; I encourage you not to be intimidated by her knowledge but rather delve into the suggested reading list as soon as possible.

Another aspect of the book that appealed to me is Mrs. Prose’s admission that while there are rules in writing for the express purpose of guiding us, rules are, essentially, meant to be broken. And if you’re brave enough to ride off the reservation of writing rules, make sure you’re breaking them brilliantly.

Regardless of your preferred writing style or approach thereof, I highly recommend reading Francine Prose’s book. I would be truly surprised if you didn’t take away something positive from the experience.

Are You a Pantser?

There is much debate on which way to write a novel: Outline/Plot vs. Pantsing. Those who fall on one side or the other can provide plenty of evidence to support their chosen method of writing that shows why their way is best. So far, I’ve never seen the conversation turn into an argument. The discussion usually ends with one side giving the other a sideways, narrow-eyed, head-tipping look of pity for not seeing the error of their ways. It’s actually quite funny.

I find this debate always surfaces shortly before NaNoWriMo starts. Janalyn Voigt of Live Write Breathe offers advice for those who might consider giving pantsing a try. In my opinion, the points mentioned are only the beginning of pantsing. Since it’s not a formal writing style, I can’t imagine too many rules actually exist. Admittedly, I’ll be looking for them. Guidelines, however, probably abound.

I believe I fall closer to the pantsing end of the writing spectrum but well short of insisting it is the only way to write. I’m not against outlining, but like most things in my life, I never limit myself to one of anything. I have outlined scenes for my novels to use during the editing process and when research needed to be conducted. Otherwise, I write by the seat of my pants.

So, whether you outline/plot or pants it, I hope you enjoy Mrs. Voigt’s suggestions from her blog post Pantsing: Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.

  1. Quiet your inner editor. Without stopping to edit, you’ll complete your manuscript more quickly. Speed is important because you’ll be carrying a lot of details in your head. The longer it takes you to write the story, the harder it will be to remember them all.
  1. Write in marathons. Rather than writing at a steady pace, clearing as much uninterrupted time as possible facilitates your writing the first draft quickly. This prevents the disruption to your focus that even a small interruption can bring.
  1. Don’t let the story go cold. Sometimes you can’t avoid being called away to work on other projects, but afterwards it can be very difficult to pick up the story thread.
  1. Try to have at least some research done in advance. You probably won’t know everything you’ll need to research at this point, but the need to stop and research can throw off a writing sprint. Guarding against that happening as much as possible is a good idea.
  1. Don’t stop for research that won’t determine the plot direction. Only stop to research vital information. Bold print passages you need to check and do the research on the second pass.
  1. When you get stuck, skip to the next scene, if possible. Mark the uncompleted scene or passage to fix in your second pass.
  1. Jot things to fix on a notepad or on the first page of the manuscript. Write a quick reminder of what needs fixing while you’re immersed in the creative process and you’ll thank yourself during the editing process.


Dripping Ink – Questions for Self-critique

The Writer Has the Last Word

It is my very great pleasure to share an article by Caroline Totten of The Greater Canton Writers’ Guild, Inc.  The following article was featured in the September newsletter.  Information regarding the Guild can be found at:

Dripping Ink by Caroline Totten

Questions for Self-critique

Do your demons imitate the gods by grabbing and holding attention? (Your demons are ideas that keep poking you in the eye. If the idea arouses laughter, tears, paranoia, fright, curiosity or indignation, etc., you have acquired a point of view, which may boil into a plot.)

Does the plot offer an opportunity to provide fresh insight into the theme? (Ideally, the plot begins with a distress signal in the middle of the story. The action is already in progress and tinged with an emotional element in the main character. Usually, the setting fits the character and supports the viewpoint.)

Is the character(s) consistent in the context of the plot? (Draw the emotional tone from your personal experience and place it in the persona of the protagonist, the main character. The conflict may be psychological, physical, or ideological, or a combination of these elements.)

Here are a few aspects of the reader/author relationship to keep in mind. By being a writer, or hoping to become one, your entire self becomes an instrument to observe and record human experience. When you extrapolate heartache, joy, fear, whatever, and put them into your character, you are actually putting the reader in touch with his emotions. (Numbness, repression, or suppression are emotional factors.)

Psychologically, mystery, or suspense stories excite the mind of the reader.

Horror stories, by a circuitous route, help the reader release his fear.

Adventure stories encourage bravery.

Love stories release hormones that tenderize the heart.

Fantasy encourages imagination by offering another way of perceiving the resolution of conflict even though at the outset, the reader may be looking for escape.

Humor may release attitudes that might otherwise be socially rude or crude.

Actually, stories that contain violence, corruption, and greed may contribute to the reduction of these elements and/or act as a catharsis for the reader.

Reading fiction is not an idle past time. Its factual component may differ from nonfiction, but the result is similar. The point of view alters the reader’s perceptions.   Effective writing heightens awareness of the subject by allowing the reader to participate in the physical and mental experience of the character. Most effective stories show the character in action. In some cases, “thinking” by the character rather than dialogue or confrontation may be the entrance into a story. The approach depends on the genre, your style, and editorial desires. (At times, magazine and book editors don’t know what they want until they see it.)

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