East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Reading for writing


41I5CmtqNWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_On the subject of writing handbooks, I think I already expressed my unorthodox views – as far as I’m concerned, if it works for you it’s fine.
Me, I collect the things – and my friends know, and often give me writing books for my birthday, or for Christmas.

One thing I think is a pity is, most writing handbooks are written with the absolute beginner in mind – they spend all of the time talking about Point of View, Show Don’t tell, Infodumps and Exposition, and then maybe they give us the short version of the Hero’s Journey.
Nothing really wrong with that but, ok, let’s say I got that part by the time I was 16 and by the time I was 20 I had learned – thanks to authors like Tom Robbins or Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block or Karl Hiaasen – that all of that stuff was good and fine and writing was something else altogether.

So I do collect writing books, but I really really cherish advanced books.
And I was given one for my birthday – it’s called Narrative Design: working with imagination, craft and form, it was written by Madison Smartt Bell, and it is a book about reading.

41n++HoQucL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The idea is deceptively simple – Bell has collected a number of short stories, by established writers and by writing workshop students.
Each story is thoroughly annotated, marking every interesting bit of writing technique adopted by the author – most 10/15 pages stories get 80/100 notes.
Then, each story is followed by a complete analysis, focusing how the mechanisms used by the author work together, building the structure.
Basically, the book looks at how a short narrative is designed, trying to define how a certain choice of words, phrase condtruction, paragraph assemblage was used to achieve a certain effect.

The book also includes an in-depth reflection on the nature of criticism and the dynamics – the ecology, I would say, given my background – of writing workshops. Another very interesting topic.

This is a big, complicated, deep book about writing, the sort that takes long to read and is highly satisfying.
Let all the posers talk about POV and Infodumps – it’s a good way to avoid doing any work while still acting like “writers”.
This book goes where writing becomes what it is supposed to be – the ability to build images and sensations using words in a certain way, by design.
Unsurprisingly, this is a university-level coursebook, published by academic publisher Norton.

It’s tough, demanding, quite expensive, and yet highly recommended.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Reading for writing

  1. Does “How fiction works’ by James Wood enter your canon?


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