Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Critical Writing

I don't think writers always have to strive for conscious awareness of everything they're doing in their prose. But sometimes you need to cut under the flesh of a story to the bones. How important is word choice, sentence length, paragraph length to producing a specific effect, such as creating suspense? What makes some dialogue sound stilted, other dialogue sound natural? How does punctuation change the flow of words? To analyze such qualities I think it’s best to begin by studying the work of other writers, work that you are not so close to as your own. I’d suggest you choose writers for study who are better than you.

One possible strategy is to retype passages or stories that you are interested in studying, not as a mere exercise but as an honest attempt to understand the process the other writer followed. Don’t even allow yourself to edit the other writer’s work at first—which you’ll probably want to do—but faithfully reproduce it before going back and trying to make it your own. Retyping a story this way puts you in the writer’s shoes, with your feet on the stones of the trail that he or she followed. Just reading a story, even if you’re trying to study it, is more like driving that same trail in a Jeep. You might see the obstacles, but they won’t bruise your heel. You need those heels bruised.


Lisa said...

This is a great idea and it works right into a revelation I had earlier this week. You know I'm a big lit fic fan (but don't hold it against me!) and I was analyzing work from some of my favorites to see how much narrative summary there was balanced against dialogue and in scene action. I used Annie Proulx's first chapter in The Shipping News. It's probably 75% narrative summary! But I realized that because she is such a skilled writer, she can get away with it. I, only other hand, would love to be able to write in that style, but I just don't have the skill. I found the same thing when I looked at two Michael Chabon novels. Lots of narrative summary interspersed with the scenes and dialogue. In the case of really skilled writers, I believe that they get away with this because every single word is there for a reason. I'm going to try your suggestion.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Charles, you know slow I type. But I' will READ a passage, rewrite it in longhand MY way, then see what a fool I am. Works all the time, unless I'm scribbling a passage from MARTHA STEWART'S LIVING. Seriously, though, you have a good point here.

miller580 said...

I really like this concept. I recently read a book by Francine Prose called "Reading Like a Writer." In the book she called for close reading. Looking at every word and discovering it's place.

While that's good, the natural tendency when reading is to complete the thought and move one. We often skip words and parts of sentences.

Thats why I think your right. Typing it forces you to get down to the word level.

I think I'll start with Hemingway...not as many words to type that way.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, unfortunately I see a lot of lesser skilled writers try that narrative summary thing and it just leaves me cold. But yeah, superb writers can get away with it.

Wayne, I thought of you after I had my worst motorcycle wreck and could only type one handed for a couple of months. I don't know how you do it.

Miller, I've done this with Hemingway and found it pretty informative. It does seem to put you in the writer's shoes.

Bernita said...

Since I've found that just re-typing my own stuff allows me to view it with a better eye, I suspect your advice is good.

cs harris said...

Interesting idea. I've done this on a broader scale, studying how a novel was constructed. I'll have to try it.

the walking man said...

I can simply read near any blog out there to find a writer better than myself.

It is an interesting idea to find a way to cut the meat away and get rid of useless information in what you are writing by "editing" the work of writers better than yourself, yet my concern is losing the uniqueness of my writers voice because I've adopted someone else's style and punctuation preferences.

Honestly? I learn more about the craft, just from reading your mini-workshop sessions than I do from anywhere else.

Jon said...

And isn't this how those apprenticed to the Old Masters learned their own technique, style and art? They copied, stroke for stroke, a painting put before them.
I have never done this with someone else's story and can only imagine the effort it would take to keep from "correcting" it.
Good post.

Erik Donald France said...

"One possible strategy is to retype passages or stories that you are interested in studying"

Spooky -- just finished reading Tobias Wolff's Old School where the protagonist is taught this technique at school (based on the Hill School). BUT, he then does this with a lesser known writer, changes a few names, and claims authorship.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, yes, I learn so much just by the revising process on my own work.

Candice, I think it's worth a shot, especially for writers who are starting out.

Mark, (Walking Man), thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated. I doubt you'd lose your unique voice. I know when I first started writing I sometimes sounded like whoever I was reading, but that didn't last very long.

Jon, good point. Exactly so. I think after you first studied the piece as written by the other author you could allow yourself to revise it to see how you might change things.

Eric, that's kind of cool. Sounds like an interesting work. This idea certainly didn't originate with me, although I can't remember where I first heard about it. I seem to remember Piers Anthony saying something about this kind of thing years ago. But I have found it an interesting exercise for myself.

Michelle's Spell said...

I love this idea! I rewrite passages from my own stories and stories that I love just to learn. I also reread all the time. It's the only way I get things.