Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading and Writing

by Libby Hellmann

I admit it. I was in a slump. A funk. I didn’t want to face the computer. I was honing the art of procrastination. Nursing a full blown case of Writer’s Block. Part of it was probably the cold weather. Part of it is that I’m in the saggy, baggy middle of my thriller. And part of it is just my perverse nature.

At the same time, there’s been some recent blog chatter about process and what to read when you’re writing. Whether you should read at all. Whether you should read Books about Writing. Or take courses. Since I’ve been in procrastination mode, I’m happy to weigh in.

I’m one of those writers who never took a writing course or workshop before I started writing. (I walked five miles to school in the snow, too). I took the requisite English courses in college. But that was it. I wasn’t on any kind of crusade against the written word. It was simply that I had no plans to become a writer. I was going to be a film-maker. The Lina Wertmuller of the US, in fact. Making dramatic, layered, and beautiful films. I did get a masters degree in film production. I even worked on a few features. Unfortunately I never became Lina. Or even a distant clone.

Still, during my film days, I read a lot. Mostly thrillers: Le Carre, Ludlum, Follet, Deighton. After a while, I moved into mysteries. My first was Jerry Healy’s The Staked Goat, thanks to my mother, who passed it along after I complained that thrillers were all sounding the same. I read widely. I read often. And then I started to write. It was that simple.

I still read all the time. Especially when I’m writing. And I agree with James Hall, whose recent essay in the MWA newsletter
talks about the importance of doing just that. For me good writing is a template. I deconstruct it. I see how another writer builds their action scenes, how they combine dialogue and narrative, how they develop the voice of their characters. Not only is it fun – almost like working a puzzle or er—a detective story – but sometimes it even gets me unstuck.

Which brings me to Books on Writing. Again, I think the best way to learn to write – besides reading -- is to write. Join a writer’s group. Get some feedback. In fact, I usually avoid books on writing. But I’ve just run across a book (thanks, Judy!) that’s different, because its thesis is that in order to learn how to write you must read. Period.

It’s called Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. In it the author says the best way to learn how to read is by close reading. She says those who say “oh I can’t read so and so…” or “I can’t read anyone while I’m writing” are basically full of beans. That you absolutely SHOULD and MUST read good writers while you’re writing. Not to plagiarize… but to see how they constructed things. The architecture of their books. For example, how they move from lyricism to violence, or how they parse the rhythm of their prose. Prose (the perfect surname, isn’t it?) loads her chapters with excerpts from authors like Flannery O’Connor to James Baldwin to Emily Bronte, Raymond Chandler, and more. There are chapters on sentences, paragraphs, narration, character and dialogue. There’s even a chapter on “Books To Be Read Immediately,” although as it goes on for five pages, I’m not sure how immediately I’ll get through them.

If you have a love of language -- and what writer doesn’t? -- you will happily inhale this book.
You might even find inspiration in its pages. Or a path that cuts through Writer’s Block.

I did. I’m back to writing. And feeling much better, thank you.


S N Paretsky said...

Dear Libby,

I do agree with you. If you aren't in love with the word on the page, why are you writing it if you're not reading it? I always think it smacks of insecurity--a fear of being shown up--or arrogance--I know I'm the best, I have nothing to learn.

Thanks, too, for the tip on Prose's book. I'll race out and get it as soon as the thaw has reliably set in. The book on writing I truly love is Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House. The essays don't exactly teach the nuts and bolts of writing, but they talk about writing with passion.

And oh, do I know that proscratination in the middle complex--I love your image, the saggy baggy middle.

Keep on trucking.


Anonymous said...

Bob Axelrod said...

I keep forgetting my password and so I signed in as anon again.

Dear Libby,

I'm going to go out on a limb and state that most books on writing are written by ... well writers. And moving farther out where the branch begins to bend, I make another assertion - that writers who can write, do, and those who can't, write books on how to write.

Perhaps your recommendation is the exception to my rule. I haven't read it. But I have read a lot of material on how to write - not novels but screenplays.

Almost without exception, the writers seem compelled to make long-winded personal observations (they are writers afterall), muck up the useful information with a great deal of unnecessary detail, or use convoluted compound sentences (not unlike this one) that they must think makes them sound intelligent - all in the name of teaching one how to write what is, by necessity, the most economical of written forms today. Wow I need a deep breath after that sentence. I guess these "teachers" think that writers have all the time in the world to sift through chaff to get to the wheat or however that saying goes.

That said, I do believe in reading while you're writing. Okay maybe not at the exact same time, but you know what I mean. And not necessarily books on writing or works similar to your own. Just read, read, read. Newspapers, magazines, non-fiction and fiction unrelated to your work. You will find ideas and inspiration in every one of these sources that will help you make your work that much richer, layered and accurate. It may even give birth to an entire character or plot. At the very least it will expose you to how other writers use words and craft sentences in ways you may not have thought.

That also said, I do have ONE excellent book on writing to recommend. Again, in the screenplay genre, but definitely of use to anyone who finds themselves wandering aimlessly in your "saggy baggy middle."

It's called "Writing the Second Act: Building Conflict and Tension in Your Film Script" (you can tell a writer wrote the title, but it gets better from there).
The book cuts to the chase with helpful practical advice and, eureka!, it is very well written. A joy to read. The author is Michael Halperin and the publisher is Michael Wiese Productions.

It's the only book I have ever read on writing that I'd recommend to a non-enemy.

The creative process is a joy.


spyscribbler said...

That book is SO good, it has earned an eternal, honorary spot in my nightstand among ten or twelve of the best books I've read in my whole life. I learned more from Reading Like A Writer than I have learned from any other writing book, ever.

And after I read the book, I've been reading differently. Because of that book, I keep learning, and learning, and learning with each new book I read. It never stops teaching me.

It is the BEST writing book I've ever read. I'm not sure if it's better than Stephen King's On Writing or not, but I can say that On Writing doesn't live in my nightstand.

JD Rhoades said...

The only books I've ever been able to finish are Lawrence Block's and Stephen King's. The others bore me to distraction. But I'll give Reading Like A Writer a try.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

My favorite book about writing is William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I read it probably once a year. It's mostly about non-fiction, but the principles about communicating clearly are almost all transferable. Much of the the narrative stuff about writing fiction, as Libby points out, are probably better learned through reading then through a lecture anyway.

I think King's book is quite good. The way he blends the (surprisingly frank) autobiographical stuff with the lessons he's learned about writing gives just the right context--the way we write is colored by the way we live. Many of his practical tips, like listening to heavy metal while you work, are of the "it works for me" variety, and I think he's a way too dismissive of some elements of "literary" writing that he probably considers elitist, but it's all honest and engaging and enlightening. King has amazing intuition as a writer and even if I wish some of his more recent books had been trimmed by an editor, there's a great window into those instincts in On Writing.

(It's probably related, but I think King's best books are ones in which the protagonist is a writer--The Shining, Salem's Lot, Misery, It, Bag of Bones,, no doubt a bunch of others I haven't read. But there's as much insight into the psychology of writing in those novels as there is in anyone's instructional manual.)

Libby said...

Glad you're liking the book too Sky Scribbler... it kind of puts things in perspective,reminding me why I started writing in the first place, before it became a "business"

Thanks for the Charles Baxter suggestion, Sara. I've been wanting to reread his short stories anyway. And anyone who can rekindle a passion for writing is someone I want to connect with.

Bob.. finish that screenplay! I want to read it. Do you know Robert McKee's Story? Some writers I know swear by it. Others hate it.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Oh and I'll never forget the panel I did with an author whose first book was a huge bestseller and whose subsequent books have sold fewer and fewer copies. Someone in the audience asked what authors we were reading and each person described their latest enthusiasm. When it came to this writer (who is a nice guy, my point here aside) he said that he hadn't read a book since he became an author. He said that whatever free time he has, he uses for writing.

And there was a gasp from the other authors. Part of that was sympathy. I think every writer, especially when they're working on a novel, has felt that reading is a bit of a guilty pleasure. If I have time to sit down, I should be working on my book. But almost every writer I know also understands that reading is part of the job description. It's batting practice. I don't think it's possible to improve as a writer without constant reading, and every time you sit down at your computer aren't you trying to be a better writer than you were the day before?

I don't think that particular author recognized the obvious correlation to his sales, but everyone else on that panel did.

Libby said...

Having trouble with Blogger... sorry for the abbreviated post...

I liked ON WRITING also, JD.. and without repeating what Guyot said a few days ago, I think it's more of a refresher course -- King reminds us of all the things we ought to be doing. Prose, on the other hand, leads us by the hand and shows us how different authors do it. I like the immediacy and impact of that.

Don't know the book you mentioned, Kevin. But it's funny.. I don't like the books in which King's protagonist is a writer. Too close to the bone, maybe?

Libby said...

Good point, Kevin. And now that I've figured out how to comment in this New Blogger world, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your post the other day.

You do have a way with words, my friend.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Libby!

And it might be significant that I read all of those King books before I actually became a writer.

Also, a major scene in Cast of Shadows came about specifically because I was so appalled by Robert McKee's "rules." I don't know much about the guy but it does seem like someone who knows so much about writing successful screenplays would have been able to get one produced.

I give him points for allowing himself to be portrayed in Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, since that film basically made a mockery of everything the man ever preached. I can't tell if McKee has a terrific sense of humor or if he was just completely oblivious. Either way is great.

Incidentally, if you've never read Susan Orleans' The Orchid Thief on which Adaptation was sort of and brilliantly based, do.