Book Review: Reading Like a Writer

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is another one of my adventures into books about writing written by actual writers. According to Francine Prose, creative writing, ultimately, cannot be taught. She encourages the would-be writer to, instead, learn through a form of literary osmosis: study the masters. She believes the rules, usually, taught in writing classes are all too often arbitrary and restrictive. Prose shows how the great writers—masters whom stand the test of time—broke with the conventions of their day.

Keep in mind, Francine Prose is not only an accomplished author, but has experience teaching creative writing at the university level; she has seen and done it all.

“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

Anton Chekhov

Of course, there are better craft reference books out there. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of building sentences, pacing, etcetera, this book is not for you. However, if you are new to writing, and want to just know what the hell it is you are suppose to write, suppose to notice, suppose to build, suppose to engage, then this book is a must-read. Learning how the masters told their stories is never a dull undertaking.

Happy Reading!

I recommend, if you found this review helpful, you read this post, too.

What Exactly is Good Writing?

            The author of The Editor’s Companion, Steve Dunham, explains the marks of good writing: good writing is focused, has good content, uses precise language, and uses good grammar.[1] Good writing is concise; the writer should winnow away all needless words and expressions. Good writing is the result of clarity. Good writing is concerned with the reader: the writer uses words the reader understands. Good writing cares about grammar, for at least, the sake of the reader.

            I agree! I believe what constitutes good writing are the following: writing should be clear, economical, and sharp. In addition, to Dunham’s philosophy, I also think good writing embraces clarity as an even higher ideal than grammatical correctness.[2] The writer should strive for economy, clarity, and sharpness above all else.

“I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading.” – W. Alexander

            I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading; close-reading a specific, accomplished author or genre will teach the writer everything. What you will find is that good, no great writers, use, for example, paragraphs as literary respiration. Consider, Babel- Walter Morrison’s, Crossing into Poland:”

            “Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noontide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery… The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday’s blood, of slaughtered horses.” [3]

            Reread that paragraph, slowly. Typically, like you, I have been taught to write in a manner that inhales at the beginning of the paragraph, and exhales at the end. This allows for rhythmic change or a perspective shift. Here is the beginning of the very next paragraph.

            Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of the giant’s body.”

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            Notice that shift? Notice how breathless the previous paragraph left you, but then abruptly the camera shifts? That to me is brilliant writing that can only be observed through close-reading. Of course, there are volumes of books on what makes good writing, and even more published works of great writing, but great fiction, like poetry, respects the power of rhythm.

[1] Dunham, Steve. The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. chp 2.

[2] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 44

[3] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. ‘Crossing into Poland.’ Translated by Walter Morison. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 65

The Four Elements of Storytelling

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This might arguably be the most important concept to get right about your writing. The four elements of storytelling are an absolute must. They are physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Yes, P.I.E.S. Yum! How well a writer weaves together all four, is the difference between a great and terrible book.

Physical storytelling is the action and plot in your story. These are character descriptions, actions, story events, setting, conflict, resolution, and plot twists and turns. These are essential within every story.

But what is not physical storytelling? I am glad you asked. What is not physical storytelling is what a character is thinking, how they are feeling, goals, dreams, etcetera. I repeat, none of those are part of physical storytelling.

Intellectual storytelling is your characters analytical thoughts. These are character beliefs, understanding of the conflict, personal opinions about other characters (life, love, politics, etcetera), and of course your characters’ viewpoint. Pro tip here, ideally your characters viewpoints will conflict. Tension is everything in creative writing. Intellectual storytelling adds that element of tension because your characters will often have different thoughts and viewpoints, which clash until a resolution at the end. For more on creating characters see my post, Create Captivating Characters.

Related Post: W. Alexander’s Published Work

Things that are not intellectual storytelling is feelings, fears, what makes a character happy, and what they hope or dream for. Those are all wonderful things, and they have their place. But do not confuse them with intellectual storytelling. Everything has its place. Again, we will talk weaving at the end.

Emotional storytelling. Every writer has a particular strength, and this is my wheelhouse. I love revealing my character’s emotions. But what is emotional storytelling? Again, I am glad you asked. Emotional storytelling is your characters’ inner most feelings, dreams, hopes, how they react emotionally, how a character feels about an event in the story, and how your character will feel about other characters. Through your character’s emotions, your story will make the readers feel something. This is where you will find the pulse in my art. I get hot just writing about it. If you do this right, you can change a reader’s life.

Things that are not emotional storytelling are plot, actions, details of conflict and resolution, any ramifications of the conflict, or what what your character believes about anything. Keep in mind, you already know how to write all of this, it is intuitive. But being able to understand the difference, will allow you authority over your prose. As in, your characters will never run away from you and do their own thing. Which sadly happens all too often.

The Day god Died: Chapters I & II

“…I hated him and his kind. I hated his affluence, his expensive clothes, his chiseled looks, and the arrogance he was born too. But most of all, I hated the power he held over me, his assumption of authority, and the truth of his superiority.”

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Spiritual storytelling. I am going to pause here for a second. Many of you might say, how is spiritual not part of intellectual? And I would say, great question. The reason spiritual storytelling has its own place is because every character has a spiritual nature. Now that can mean your character is religious or not religious, but either view is a spiritual viewpoint. Atheist have a spiritual relationship, in that they deny one exists. Muslims have a spiritual relationship, in that they believe their choices have tangible consequences, and etcetera. Spiritual storytelling is simply your characters’ belief system or lack of one. Either perspective is a willful decision by your character. Good characters are human; they are walking contradictions.

Things that are elements of spiritual storytelling is a characters’ belief system (or lack of ), a possible spiritual backstory, and any internally or publicly spoken prayers. If you are writing religious fiction, or from a religious point-of-view, things like a god’s response to your characters actions (usually written in italics), a spiritual conviction, and hints as to why a certain deity is pursuing your character or vice versa.

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Things that are not spiritual storytelling is plot, emotions, dialogue and action, etcetera.

When writing creative fiction or nonfiction, only spiritual storytelling is non-essential. You can still have a great story, leaving out anything of the fantastic (fantasy) or spiritual. But note, spirituality is a very human trait. Some might be religious-like observers of science (that would fall under spiritual). Spiritual storytelling is a great way to connect a character to the reader. But, again, this is the only element of storytelling, that is non-essential.

Weaving all four elements of storytelling is the mark of a good writer. Every page will, in every book, have all four elements together.

As you can see, I still have a ways to go with my craft. But I was brave, and wanted to share my prose with you. One reason, it incorporates all four elements of storytelling. Yes, it flows without you even noticing. And the one thing a writer wants more than anything, is for a general reader to never notice the writing. But writers do notice writing, and I hope you the writer can see the weave.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Especially, if you are a writer or want to be a writer. Please comment and share my blog. I love sharing the things I am learning at Liberty University. And now, more than ever, dealing with family grief, I am in need of some encouragement.