Monday, December 04, 2006


Writing is a craft. It's something that comes with practice and dedication. Writer's write...and write..and write. And hopefully rewrite.

It's more than just composing sentences and paragraphs to get across one idea. It's understanding the elements of writing and how those elements come together to form a whole.

It's about setting up mood and rhythm, it's about understanding character dynamics and how to anticipate what a reader's response might be.

One approach to better understanding writing is by studying how other people work.

"But I read," someone said to me recently. The person, a horror writer, explained they had read three or four horror novels through the summer, along with short stories. I nodded and asked if they studied what they read. Did they break it down? Did they ask themselves what the author did in regards to dialogue and pacing?

I am currently reading "Grapes of Wrath" by Steinbeck. I won't copy the passage here, but there is a section where Tom Joad is returning home from prison, and he stands in the doorway. His arms are slightly outstretched, resting against the doorjam and the sun is behind him like some form of halo. His face is shadowed so that at first his mother can't see who he is.

When I saw that scene I stopped and found myself going back through what I had just read to look for religious symbolism. If Joad is a Christ-figure, then how is Steinbeck preparing the reader for this? After all, Joad is returned from prison, he is quick to anger, and often behaves in a rash manner. Not exactly praiseworthy behavior.

And perhaps that counterpoint is exactly what Steinbeck plans...perhaps to show that holiness comes not from the extraordinary, but from the ordinary. From the mundane. From the common.

I point this out because it is a good example of reading and at the same time studying a device used by a writer. Also, I am sure you've noticed that the novel in question is not a horror novel (one of my complaints is that people who write genre will often just read genre and ignore important works of literature).

As a person who frequently, though not exclusively, writes horror, I did the same to "Salem's Lot" by Stephen King. I tried noting what made the work horrific and what carried along the plot. What made the story significant (I read this after reading King's "On Writing" and found that in "Salem's Lot" he broke many of the rules he himself had set down for writing).

Upon a second reading of "Salem's Lot", I noticed one thing King did to make the story effective: he didn't use the word vampire until late in the book. The reader suspects it, especially as exposed to the concept of vampirism as we are in America, but by not immediately pointing to a vampire, by redirecting us through a backstory regarding the previous owner of a possibly haunted house possessed of evil, the reader is looking for something supernatural aside from the vampire. Thus when the vampire comes, although we have suspected its presence, it is a surprise and a horrible one.

King also has the wisdom to give us first characterization and a strong setting with which we can identify before introducing something unreasonable and horrible.

A little thing.

But writing sometimes turns on little things.

If you are a writer or hope to be, take this challenge. Take whatever book you are now reading and stop. Attempt to look at it critically. See how the writer uses dialogue to build character or move along the plot. Or, see how the author changes sentence structure to fit the action, perhaps writing longer sentences for setting the stage, or shorter sentences and stronger verbs for action sequences.

"But you'll kill the book.."

AH HAH!!! I heard that. No, analyzing a book won't kill it, unless the book is bad. Instead it will give you a deeper understanding of the material and perhaps bring you closer to the writer.


SQT said...

I have always been a big believer in really looking at authors who write well to learn the craft.

I mentioned before that I love John Sandford's use of dialogue. There's this one scene in a recent book that has the main character's wife drive too fast into the driveway and crash into the garage door. It's not integral to the story but it's sets up this great dialogue between the main character and a neighbor about what just happened. It's so real and so funny. I think that kind of scene adds so much depth to a story and observing a good writer doing this is a treat IMO.

Stewart Sternberg said...

My just reminded me of a scene from John Irving's "The World According To Garp". I will refrain from describing it.

I love studying dialogue. That's why I mentioned the Neil Simon plays in an earlier posting. Strangely enough, I said to someone recently that I thought dialogue and theme were my strong points as a writer. The two individuals with me both disagreed, stating that my action scenes were the cleanest and most descriptive. They're wrong, but then they usually are.

Susan Miller said...

I don't do enough reading and have known this was a handicap with my writing from the beginning. I'm trying to do more, have done more in the past and will keep this lesson in mind.

Thanks, teach!

Jon said...

Writing is NOT a craft, dammit! Creative writing is ART. See my post.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Here is my answer to Jon, which I also put on his post...

Dammit is National Semantic Day and no one told me????

Craft, according to one dictionary: Skill in doing or making something, as in the arts; proficiency.

and furthermore...

"Craft is more acceptable when applied to literary works than to other sorts of writing, and more acceptable as a participle than as a verb. Seventy-three percent of the Usage Panel accepts the phrase beautifully crafted prose. "

Now I know there will be a rush of little feet to your defense..some of them still insisting that the post script to Bill is a good thing, which it isn't, even if Michelle said it was, which was expected,and even if this is the worst sentence ever written, which it is.....but...allow me to call what I will a craft and I will allow you to live next Thursday meeting.

Your's Truly,
Mr. Crabby Pants.

miller580 said...

Good topic. In fact this has been one of the hot button topics in my Workshop. I was reccomened a book and I will pass it on here.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

I wish I could review it, but ups has yet to deliver it. Check it out.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice, and something I do far too infrequently.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I find myself doing this all the time with short stories.

Lindsey said...

I'm a writer, and I struggle in my own words all the time. I appreciate your position on reading and writing. It's refresing to hear that people do look at work critically, because that's what I hope when people look at my stuff.
I am re-reading '1984' at the moment. I'll make sure to spend more time analyzing on a higher level.

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