If you enjoy reading “how-to” books on writing, here’s one guaranteed to make you think more deliberately about your prose. READING LIKE A WRITER: A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is an in-depth look at how a writer reads the work of another writer to look beneath the play of words across the page, to learn techniques, and to be inspired. Long before the advent of MFA programs, the popularity of critique groups, and the hundreds upon hundreds of books published on the craft and theory of writing that line library shelves, the writer wrote in solitude and turned to the prose of those who came before him to learn his craft. Ensuing novels maintained an ongoing dialogue that continues to this day.
It is that dialogue that Prose turns to for her daily inspiration. While Prose has a definite literary bent, she describes discoveries that will enhance any writer’s work. If you have exhausted your resouces and don’t know where to turn, take a cue from Prose and learn to read–and read deeply–the way a writer reads. Apply the close reading strategies she suggests to the work of your favorite writers–commercial or not–to see how they handled various technical problems. If you’re writing commercial fiction, she offers this observation:
Mediocre writing abounds with physical cliches and stock gestures. Opening a mass-market thriller at random, I read: “Clenching her fists so hard she can feel her nails digging into the palms of her hand she forces herself to walk over to him. . . . She snuggled closer to Larry as she felt his arms tighten around her and his sweet breath warm the back of her neck. . . . She adjusted her cap as she crunched down the gravel driveway. . . . Tom bit his lip.” All of these are perfectly acceptable English sentences describing common gestures, but they feel generic. They are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. He bit his lip, she clenched her fists–our characters are nervous. The cap-adjuster is wary and determined, the couple intimate, and so forth.
Writers cover pages with familiar reactions (her heart pounded, he wrung his hands) to familiar situations. But unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told. On hearing that his business partner has just committed a murder, a man might be quite upset, and we can intuit that without needing to hear about the speed of his heartbeat or the dampness of his palms. On the other hand, if he’s glad that his partner has been caught, or if he himself is the murderer, and he smiles. . . well, that’s a different story.
In READING LIKE A WRITER, Francine Prose reminds us that the masters of the past have more than good stories to tell; they instruct as well as entertain.