Thursday, April 7, 2011

Read to learn to write

I believe a good book is second only to discipline as the ideal writing teacher.

I've always heard the best thing a writer can do is read good books. But I usually get so involved in the story that no time is spent figuring out how the author made her masterpiece. I always thought it would ruin the magic to look too closely. But this semester, I've been reading and analyzing writerly elements in classic stories, finding style and point of view and character development and so on. And I've found it's true--to read a good book closely is to learn something about writing. The following is a list of a few things I learned this semester by reading from a writerly point of view.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • If you can afford it, ignore the market. Quiet character-driven books only need to be written well in order to be magical all on their own, no wand necessary.
  • Some of your beautiful descriptions will be skimmed. Write them anyway.
  • Pacing is a powerful poetic tool. If a character's appeal is her freedom of imagination and action, dulling those traits in a sudden swoop of summarizing narrative can be off-putting.
  • A story about a girl doesn't have to include a boy love interest. But if you must, and if he's an ass, let her break a slate over his head and hold a grudge till nearly the end.
Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The imagination of an adult can fill in the blank space between sparse descriptions beautifully. Just think what the imagination of a child can do.
  • Children's books are sometimes about adults. Especially classics.
  • Babies cry and behave badly at least sometimes. Surely.
Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
  • Irony and fantastic elements can give figurative language added depth. If done well, the reader hopes and guesses at what is true and what is imagined. When a cow curtsies to a King, it's literal. So when trees are said to dance, do they really? No need to answer. Let the reader decide.
  • There's a strong irony in opposites. Sometimes children like disagreeable adults.
  • If someone asks what your protagonist's motivation is, and you can't answer, that doesn't mean you've done something wrong. Necessarily.
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
  • Similes are good. But they're also overused. Stretch your figurative wings.
  • "Show, don't tell" is a suggestion, not a rule. Sometimes, "Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short" pretty much sums it up.
  • It's totally worth it to get good at ending chapters with cliffhangers.
  • Illustrations can greatly enhance or greatly detract.
The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • A book without parents isn't always a book without parents.
  • Sometimes a character could be omitted and the story wouldn't change. If so, maybe that character should get the ax or needs more purpose.
  • For early readers, sometimes just a little tension is plenty enough to engage. The adult mind will not necessarily be entertained by every children's book.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
  • If a character has unbelievable abilities, one way to keep him convincing is to allow the narrator to acknowledge the juxtaposition.
  • Not showing the bad guy might be scarier than showing him, especially if he's just a slimy brain thing.
  • However, to children, a slimy brain thing might well be terrifying.
  • Therefore, always remember that you are an adult and shouldn't get yourself upset if, for example, you think Harry should have ended up with Hermione or something like that. You are only allowed to read certain books because you've got the money to buy them, not because they were ever intended to entertain you (not that I'm suggesting a particular readership for Harry, I'm just saying, if you're all grown up and sticking your nose in, just remember, it's not really about you).
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Sometimes your protagonist can get away with murder.
  • Really obvious foreshadowing does not necessarily decrease tension, but you'd better be able to write damn good action scenes if you're going to tell the reader all ends well. And consider including stabbings and gunshot wounds. And treasure. And a parrot.
  • Your narrator can switch to a different character in the middle of the book and then switch back or never come back or whatever you want really.
  • It's okay to write a terribly frustrating character, one the reader loves on one page and hates on the next, but I suspect it takes a lot of skill.
  • The reader does not have to understand every word to enjoy your story. Write it as it should be written and hope you inspire ownership of dictionaries.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
  • Parental figures don't have to die for protagonists to have adventures. Sometimes they're just not around at the moment.
  • Stories are saying something. Even if what they're saying is over your head.
  • Authors are saying something. Even if they won't tell what they're saying.
  • Allegory can work, but consistency (in everything) is key.