Years ago when I was in college, and studying English literature and writing, I took a course called, How a writer reads. It’s been many years since the course, and I can’t even remember which professor taught the class, but there were a few key elements that I took away from that course that I think are useful when working on a book, or a short story, a screenplay or even a poem.
The best teachers in writing are the books that you read. It took years for that to sink in, but it’s true. You want to be a romance novelist you read romance novels. If you want to write YA fiction you read YA fiction. If you want to write literary fiction but all you read are crime fiction you’re not going to write a very good literary fiction piece, but you’ll probably write an awesome crime novel. If you know how to read, and if you can teach yourself how to read like a writer, then you can skip the college course and learn everything right at your own finger tips. I’m in serious debt for this information so let me share it with you freely. It’s all there for you for the taking- you want to write a book read the kind of book you want to write, and then, read some other genres of books to get your well-rounded, well-read education. You want to write a memoir read memoirs, but also read some fiction, and read some non-fiction non memoirs, but read more memoirs than anything else because that’s the class you are taking.
No one can tell you how to write. You just have to write, and then write again, and again, and again, and again. You get the picture. Books though, they can show you how to write.
A reader reads. Writers write mainly for readers, unless you are James Joyce, or William Faulkner then you write for writers. If you are Toni Morrison you write for writers and readers, and if you are Ernest Hemingway you write for readers, and writers, and journalists. If you are Stephanie Myers, or Charles Dickens, or Suzanne Collins you write for readers. Most writers write for readers. A reader wants to loose themselves, to be enlightened, to learn something about the subject, to hear a story, to be entertained, to be a part of the story. A reader picks up the book and reads it till they finish and then puts it down, and picks up a new book.
A writer reads like a reader too, but a good writer reads like a writer. A writer may read a book that is not fun to read because it is work to read. A writer takes notes then pulls the book apart—not in a criticizing way because the writer is not interested in writing reviews (unless you are a critic and like to do that)—a writer pulls the book apart in order to figure out how the author put it together. How did the author craft the book? What is the trick to their magic? The writer is looking for the tools that build the nuances, mood, tone, structure, the plot and so on. There is always something below the surface. One can even argue that something shallow can be more than it appears just by the very fact that it is shallow.
You don’t always have to know the academic language behind crafting a story in order to learn how to write one. It can be useful. It’s easy enough to find online. Type in how to craft a story and there will be hundreds of possible links. Or, take a class. Classes are good because a teacher can introduce things to you in a way that you may never have looked. They will make you write because you have to for the class. You’ll have the opportunity to meet other writers. Workshops are great too and cost less money (sometimes), but if you can’t afford school or workshops it doesn’t have to stop you from writing, and writing well. A book can teach you how to write even from the very first sentence.
I love the first line from the Bell Jar. Even if you haven’t any idea what the book is about you have the sense that something ominous is coming. It’s a hot, queer sultry summer and you know the character is in New York, but doesn’t know why. It is also the summer that the Rosenbergs were executed. You don’t have to know the significance of the Rosenberg executions to understand the book ( but it does gives you a better understanding of the cultural climate) just having the word execution in the first sentence tells you death is coming or has come, and obviously not a natural death. As I mentioned before you don’t have to know about the Rosenbergs to understand the story (you should because it’s a very important part of American history) but it does give you a time of reference. It is the summer of 1953. If you do a little info check or you are already familiar with this part of American history you know that the Rosenberg’s were executed on June 19th 1953. We don’t know exactly when Sylvia Plath’s story takes place but it’s at least the duration of 3 months. Isn’t that a great first line? We know the time, setting, temperature, temperament, and we have a character that doesn’t know why they are where they are, a character that is basically admitting she is lost. All that in 23 words. It’s a great first line. Sylvia Plath didn’t just throw that sentence together. She crafted it. She could have said it many different ways:
- I didn’t know what I was doing in New York the summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed, but what I did know was that there was something odd about the feeling of the place, and it was hot.
- The weather was hot and humid the summer that I lived in New York.
- The Rosenberg’s died the summer I lived in New York.
- The summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed was strange and humid, and I didn’t know what I was doing there.
- I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
- The summer I lived in New York the weather was queer, and sultry. The Rosenberg’s were executed during the time I had been living there. I wasn’t sure why I was there.
The first sentence sets the tone. Here is another great first line:
What? Your English teacher would roast you for that sentence. What’s happening? Someone is speaking or thinking out loud to themselves, and they are looking at some people or things. They are describing the action of hitting. This narrator also looks through the “curling flower spaces.” Who actually notices something through the curling spaces of flowers? Unless they are hiding, maybe? The Sound and the Fury is written from the point of view of different characters in the book. Benji is the first character and he is mentally disabled. Faulkner chose to write in how he believed Benji’s thinking and pattern of speech was. Benji thinks and notices things differently then an average person, but if you look carefully at the sentence you’ll see he thinks things in the order he sees them. 1) Through the fence. 2) Between the curling flower spaces. 3) I could see them hitting. 1) I am standing at the fence. 2) I am looking. 3) I see them hitting. Benji is not with whoever he is watching. He is on the other side of a fence peering through the slats or a hole maybe. There is a lot of description without even using a properly formed sentence.
Whose out there?
I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.- On the Road– Jack Kerouac
So, we know that the narrator is recently single. Ready for a road trip!? Whoo! Sex, drugs and Jazz!
If you understand the value of the first sentence then you can imagine the importance of the last sentence. Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities was so good it has one of the most well known and quoted first lines and last lines.
Not too long after ending my class I picked up two small pocket sized journals. One journal I titled: Beginnings. The other: Endings. For every book I’ve read I have copied the first sentence in to beginnings, and the last sentence into endings. I do this for me to study. I am gathering my lessons like investigations.
Another thing I do that is a fun practice, and I learned it in this class, is I try to write something in the exact voice of the author I am reading. Maybe something like directions:
Head to the house on the left, and if perchance you should see my fair maid on the corner, it is a right that you must take from there, and if you keep walking for a fortnight or so, you’ll see the blue colors much like the color of my mistress’s eyes, and that my fine sir will be the post office.
(My weak impression of Shakespeare, but you get the idea).
The point behind this practice is not to plagiarize, but to feel how the author writes, do you notice any technique from the writing? How do they create images. Are they heavy into dialogue? What kind of metaphors do they use and how do they put them together? What about their use of vocabulary? Never ever forget vocabulary. If you don’t know a word- look it up- it will enlighten you and increase your own vocabulary. Words are your tools. The more tools you have the better houses you can build.
In the end when it comes to writing your own book or short story, no one can tell you how to write one. Not really. The only way to write a is sit down and write. Besides, the real work is in the re-write, so you might as well get that first draft done.
Next time you pick up a book to read and read it like a writer. You’ll get a really low cost lesson- maybe even free, and read a book. Or don’t, just read it, and enjoy it, but know that you have all that knowledge at your finger tips.