Monday, April 2, 2012

Prose and King: Writers on Writing

Blank pages can be intimidating.

Often, I have an idea formed about what I want to write. Everything flows in my mind: I strike the right balance between humor and profundity. I create entertaining stories that evoke surprising yet insightful conclusions. Until I actually sit down to write. And then my compelling intuition devolves into a mental stutter that makes Homer Simpson sound like William Shakespeare. And I just hope that something articulate lands on the page when I am finished.

I have learned, however, that pages with words on them can be as intimidating as those without. I learned this with Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them. I know. What? This isn't Dostoevsky or Sartre. This book is about doing what we already do: this is a book about reading. So how come I put it down so many times the first four years I owned it? Prose's book, for whatever reason, terrified me.

This is my favorite part of the 2012 reading challenge: that I must finish each book I start. As a result, I am proud of the quality of books I have read lately. I kept this in mind as I picked Prose's book off the shelf. This time, I had to finish it. Or else.

And I did. I read it over the course of a week. Doggedly at times, when I was tired. And I loved it.

First of all, I find the way that Prose creates her chapters makes a lot of sense: She begins by reminding us the value of close reading. Chapter two focuses on words, chapter three on sentences. After that, she focuses on: paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, etc. Also, Prose provides examples from novels and short stories that are helpful and fascinating to read. Prose deftly guides our attention to the elements of the story that are well-executed. I found myself fascinated by stories to which I may not have paid much attention to without the benefit of Prose's expertise.

Prose has provided me with an altered reading style that has depth and even greater curiosity. I have read several books since I've read Reading Like A Writer and the impact has lasted. Also, as an avid highlighter and margin-writer of books, I have established sections that are helpful to me as I edit my own writing. The book has helpful advice and is written in a simple yet beautiful way.

I took a circuitous route from Prose to King, reading several books in between Reading Like A Writer and On Writing: King's memoir and guidebook to writers. The style of the two are quite different; whereas Prose breaks the chapters into elements of writing, King begins with the narrative of how he grew up in love with reading and writing. His series of humble jobs prior to getting his first novel published should be comforting to any beginning writer whose paycheck mocks the concept of a living wage. He then delves into his "writer's toolbox", which looks more like Prose's structure: the do's and don'ts of sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue. Afterward, he describes in great detail the van wreck that nearly killed him.

Here's what I discovered: Stephen King is funny. Self-effacing and hilarious. I read many sections of this book aloud to whomever would listen. I may have texted some of it to friends. As lovely as I found Prose's book, that's how entertaining I found King's. Both are invaluable tools that should have a home on every writer's shelf.

They disagree on certain things: Prose finds the one word (or even one sentence) paragraph to be melodramatic and believes it should be used sparingly if at all. King thinks it can help build suspense. Prose quotes Tolstoy. King quotes himself. However, the books are often similar: each quote Flannery O'Connor. Both authors have an aversion to adverbs bordering on disgust. Each writer feels word choice deserves the utmost attention. And most importantly: they each advise us to read as much as we possibly can.

Days Since Last Book Purchase: 57

Currently Reading:
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block


Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Awesome review! If there's anyone I would want to listen about writing, it's Stephen King. The guy is an awesome writer--not in the same way as Tolstoy, but great nonetheless.

And don't worry about the words flowing like gold from your mind and onto the page when you sit down. Most writers write absolute crap the first time around. That initial draft is just the framework. The real magic is in the editing. Least, that's my personal experience.

Ryan said...

I haven't read Prose but I have read King and it's the best book on the subject of writing that I have read thus far. I agree with you about how quotable King is.

I have taken so much away from King feel like I've robbed him blind, but the best thing that came from that book was that King finally unburdened me from the shackles of the adverb.

Great review and now I have to read Prose on prose.

Pocketful of Books said...

I can really relate! I always have little ideas for stories and I think 'oh I would love it if someone wrote a book about this' and then I tell it to my sister or boyfriend and they're like 'why don't you stop being so lazy and write it yourself?!' and then I try and I can'ttt! Everything sounds so rubbish written down! I annoy myself on paper!

You will get there though- I am sure of it! x

Krista said...

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