Writing Advice Book Review: ‘Reading like a writer’ – Francine Prose

A selection of the classic novels that my wife owns and insists be put in front of my Warhammer 40k Books

A topic I know I have dealt with before (See Reading with intent: Musing on Writing), but after listening to Ms Prose’s audiobook, I thought it was worth revisiting briefly.

I picked up this audiobook on the Libby Library app, on a whim essentially, as I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. I’m happy to say it has been 9 hours well spent, as Ms Prose’s book of writing advice – nay – her book of reading advice is both entertaining and inspiring. And I mean inspiring – as soon as I finished the book I hunted through my bookshelf at home for the volumes of classic books I knew that my wife owned, and that were now acting as the respectable disguise for my ’embarrassing books’ (30+ Warhammer 40K novels). 

Reading like a writer is logically set out. Almost like a physics text book it starts with the smallest particles (words) before working its way up to more macro concepts (sentences, paragraphs). Nothing is missed by Prose as she targets character, narrator (i.e. point of view), dialogue and gesture. And each topic is illustrated by quotes from classic authors (she has a strong preference for your long dead white guys – the only women authors I can remember she mentions are the Brontës and Woolf.)

The main lesson she gives here though – the underpinning conceit of the whole book – is that writers need to learn how to read closely. How it is critical to look at the work of the masters of writing, or even just authors we love, and consider what is it about their work that we love, that makes them masters? How do they decide to break up paragraphs? Why are their sentences beautiful? What are the characters saying in this section, and what are they NOT saying? She asks us to look at how the authors use, or misuse, individual words. This close reading is apparently a learned skill, but an important one for writers trying to improve their craft.

So I’m going to try it and do exactly this. I am going to try and read short stories and novels, and even dip into my wife’s list of classic books and try to specifically identify the words and the sentences and the dialogue that they write, and try to figure out why it resonates with me. 

At the very least, I hope to pick up a few nice turns of phrase.

It’s a fantastic resource, and I recommend you pick it up. The audio book was great, but I’m going to grab a physical version to use a proper reference.

Funnily enough, thought I would start this practice of close reading with a short story from the Weird Compendium – a massive volume of short stories that was edited by the Vandermeers. (On another note I’ve also decided I will finish reading this book in 2019 – it is too early for new years resolutions?).

The story “the Aleph” is by Jorge Louis Borges, and it has some beautiful writing in it:

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series.

The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

I love that line ‘ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her‘, the pain of realising that even though someone you love dies, life moves on, other people move on. I feel like I can appreciate that pain, that grief, as it reminded me of my father’s death, and then the mundanity of living that just kept going on despite his absence. The person is gone, and eventually memory of them will be gone too.

Beyond this somewhat bleak introduction to the story, I actually found the Aleph pretty funny. The main character is talking with a person he clearly hates, one who is as pompous as he is fatuous and who is in the midst of writing a poem encapsulating the whole world. This generates some great lines that I felt carry a dry sarcasm:

So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn’t write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so…

The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

Even better is this section, that could almost be a warning about over-reliance on a thesaurus:

He then reread me four or five different fragments of the poem. He had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first “blue” had been good enough, he now wallowed in “azures,” “ceruleans,” and “ultramarines.” The word “milky” was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as “lacteal,” “lactescent,” and even made one up — “lactinacious.”

The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

I was tickled by the coincidence that the first story I looked at with the aim of interrogating the writing had sections picking on the writing of one of the characters!

So going my 2019 Goal is to look for beautiful sentences, paragraphs and words in my favourite stories. I may even drop a few of them here on this blog! Feel free to drop a few of your own favourite bits of writing in the comments.

(Secret 2019 Goal: to slip the word ‘lactinacious’ into a work email.)

So, its been a few days since I posted last (checks notes) ah…2 or 3 weeks then. Eep! Oh well. I haven’t been lazy – I’ve actually been doing some writing:

  • My directionless primary wip is sitting at 18,850, although a lot of this writing has been outlining and world building. Progress nonetheless.
  • My secondary wip is sitting at 7,200 words. This has also advanced through outlining etc, but it already had far more structure than the primary wip, so this feels a bit more advanced, despite the lower word count.
  • I just started revising the short Lovecraftian story The Envelope that I finished a zero-draft on a month ago. I figured it was time to open the vault on that one, and get up in its guts.

Published by: wildbilbo

My name is Kristian Thoroughgood, alternately known as KT to my friends, or @WildBilbo on twitter. As of August 2015, I am forty years old. Australian. My blog is intended to be both a place for me to polish my creative writing muscles (not a double entendre) and for others to read and comment on my musings. Expect short stories, articles, essays and other brain dumps. My opinions are my own, and whilst I take care to be at least moderately informed about any topic I speak or write about, these opinions are subject to rapid change in the face of passionate arguments and greater evidence. Please note - on my blog, Evidence beats Passion.

Categories Book Review, WritingLeave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s