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Pickle Me This

January 2, 2007

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer

I must recommend Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them as the most practical writing book I’ve ever come across. Prose uses contempory texts and classics to demonstrate effective techniques for developing character, writing dialogue, using details and also taking advantage of structure– word by word, sentence by sentence and with paragraphs. She expounds upon the importance of close reading and supports her emphasis with examples. I learned a lot from her advice– particularly about dialogue. But what I liked best about this book was Prose’s “anything goes” attitude.

For example, you should use long paragraphs, she says. Or short ones. Or none. You should have a consistant point of view. Or ever-changing. Have your narrator die mid-text. Write from the point of view of an amoeba. Don’t tell us what characters look like. Or describe every bit of their apparel. Her contradictory advice is not confusing in the slightest, because each guideline is given in the context of a working example, and as readers we see that different things work in different situations and toward different ends.

Prose believes one learns to write by reading successful works, rather in workshops in which students take on the role of critic towards works which aren’t even developed yet. And, she writes, “Reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form.”

I was surprised to find her chapter on reading Chekhov (who I’ve never read) one of my favourite parts of this book. Prose writes of a workshop she was teaching, and the advice she was dispensing, and how as she’d ride the bus home after her class she’d read one of Chekhov’s stories and see him working very effectively against just what she had been advising (that characters musn’t have similar names, that a story must belong to a certain character, that something must be resolved by the story’s end, etc etc). The point of all this, says Prose, is that there are no rules, and a writer only learns this singular rule and how to use it by reading. Carefully.

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