Writing about writing about writing Review 7

Part 7 of an intermittent series where I read or re-read the writing books on my shelf to see if they’re worth keeping. See previous part here

So we are onto ‘How to Fiction’ books and I started with the subject of reading. All writers start as readers and the writer’s path should start with an effort to understanding what you’re reading. So the first up was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (how’s that for nominative determinism?)

We are still in dull cover territory (see previous posts) but this one is slightly better. Sadly though the book isn’t very good. Maybe I’ve changed as I gave this a 4 star review the first time I read it (in 2013.)

Prose starts this book questioning if “creative writing can be taught” and concluding, as a teacher of creative writing, that it cannot. The chapters are “Words”, “Sentences”, “Paragraphs”, “Narrative”, “Dialogue”, “learning from Chekov” and “Detail” which give you some idea of her approach. Throughout she is a passionate advocate of reading and liberally intersperses her points with quotes (sometimes very long quotes that last several pages) from her favourite writings.

My issues with the book this time round was in the fact that the long quotes are often dull and sometimes don’t show whatever point she’s making. It seems like a way to make the word count. In ‘Details’ for example she tells a 3 page story about a writing class in order to make the point that the little details matter – but the story is odd, it’s all in reported summary so she doesn’t actually give you the details. And those long quotes – do we really need several pages of someone else’s writing out of context, extracted, to understand the points the author wants to make? I’d say not. Prose does make some good points – but you have to wade through a lot of verbiage to glean them.

Prose seems to think people have time to read the classics slowly and that reading genre is bad for you. Both of which snobbish attitudes I dislike.

I don’t think this was very useful and onto the discard pile it goes.

The other book I read was Understanding Novels by Tom Foster. A better cover, a better book. However this is essentially a LitCrit book and although you can retroengineer litcrit in your writing I don’t think it’s at all necessary. Although I enjoyed this book it’s not a ‘how to’ except by example. And if you want to read examples of writing it’s probably best to actually read novels. So another for the discard pile as it’s not really something I’ll reference.

I have two other books in the same ‘class’ – The Bestseller Code and Understanding Fiction. Which I’ll move onto next. Understanding Fiction fits the ‘how to’ subgenre where full stories are provided and then ‘interpreted.’ The Art of the Short Story which is already on my discard pile is another example. Narrative Design, by Madison Smartt Bell is another. I feel that the problem with these books will come from not wanting to re-read the short stories to get to the discussion part. Narrative Design I’ll come to when I read books on story structure.

Drop a comment with your favourite writing book or tip here or email me via the Contact page. If you’re a publisher or Indie Author and would like me to review your writing book drop me a line!

Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

4 thoughts on “Writing about writing about writing Review 7

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