Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Read what you have written in Austin

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One of our Workshop Writers, Erin Machniak, read some workshop writing of hers at an open mic this weekend, here in Austin. While we enjoyed hearing her writing read out loud — a piece based upon “These the things my mother taught me; these are the things my mother did not teach me — the mic’s organizers passed out a guide to open mic readings in the Austin area.

Austin Open MicsHere’s the handout, with readings nearly every day of the week. Some are populated by poets, others take any type of fiction. Five minutes is a good time limit for your reading. That’s going to be something on the order of 400 words. You need to read a little slower than you think — well, maybe a lot slower if you’re in a rush when you read. When all that we have is the sound of words, it helps to deliver them slow enough that we can paint pictures of what we’re hearing.

Of course, reading aloud is a feature of Workshop meetings. It’s optional, for the writing we’ve just created together. But for people like Erin who read, they receive the immediate response from other writers: only the positive response of what we remembered, what stayed with us, what was alive and working in the writing. Just-written stories deserve this gentle treatment. As I say, if you cannot identify what’s working in your writing, then you’ve got no business rooting out what is not working.

Erin’s writing will appear in our forthcoming anthology, Small Packages. Coming soon in Austin, on Amazon, and elsewhere.

How to write great sentences

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Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?

Prose goes on to show an example of what a writer can do while ignoring the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown at left; just click on it show a full-sized, readable page). Woolf’s sentence is something I share with our weekly workshop members during our eight-week sessions. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

A good sentence is the meat on the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?
  • Is my meaning clear?
  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?” A novelist friend of mine compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially is you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your toolkit. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.