A commonplace of advice for writers is to read lots of other books. But what books should you read and how should you read them in order to write better? You could take the approach of trying to read as much as possible of everything, as much as possible of the greats of literature, or perhaps just stick to your chosen genre (but sometimes getting together a list of Nazi zombie ghost stories can be tricky).
None of these approaches is really going to work very well. The best thing to do is to take the best from the best and learn how they did it and then try to apply it to your own writing. As all genres should have good plot, good characters, good dialogue etc then just sticking to your own genre for this is pretty daft. Getting a knowledge of the other writing in your chosen genre is important though, but more for seeing how others have dealt with ideas and concepts – i.e. you don’t want to go to a publisher with what you think is a neat idea about a dark lord who creates a ring of power etc (oh but this still does happen doesn’t it!)
This is where Francine Prose’s book is a lifesaver. In eleven themed chapters she covers all the vital aspects of fiction writing and shows brilliantly how some of the great writers have dealt with these areas. I particularly like how she starts with the smallest unit of writing, Words, and builds outwards to show how the nuts and bolts of language are important to get right, not just snazzy plots or great themes. She isn’t afraid to criticise them as well where necessary, for instance the way in which Dickens repeats characters’ gestures to signpost their identities for reader.
Her technique is to take passages from great writers to illustrate what makes good writing. She appreciates that no one way is right, but shows how great writers use language to put across their stories with greater power. For instance in the chapter on Sentences, she comments on the famous 181 word sentence from Virgnia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” and how that sentence is perfectly comprehensible and readable because of the skill of the writer and how actually the words build upon each other creating a growing force because the sentence seems that its beautiful form will go on forever. In contrast she discusses these lines from Chandler’s The Big Sleep :
There was no fear in the scream. It had a sound of half-pleasurable shock, an accent of drunkenness, an overtone of pure idiocy. It was a nasty sound. It made me think of men in white and barred windows and hard narrow cots with leather write and ankle straps fastened to them.
She describes these as “wonders of snappy, outrageously excessive tough-guy prose”.
As well as being a good text for learning to write better, I also found this an inspiring book. Both in terms of wanting to hone my skills and also to investigate some of the writers I hadn’t heard of such as Henry Green or Scott Spencer.
One downside for me was that she doesn’t really deal with many genre writers in her examples. There are also moments when she uses the clichés found in really bad pulp SF writing to hammer the genre as a whole. This is a shame and perpetuates the unnecessary genre/mainstream battle that seems to be particularly popular at the moment.