Sunday, March 10, 2013
The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante
This is probably one of the most useful books I've read yet in learning how to write well. It is used as a part of curriculum in a number of universities. It's broken up into fourteen chapters which are then broken up into three parts. The first part tackles a specific writing challenge, the second part provides writing exercises and the third part includes one or two short stories or excerpts from novels by (mostly) contemporary writers.
Non fiction writers would probably find the first couple of chapters worth reading. LaPlante gives specific strategies in how to make your non fiction book flow like a fiction book, which seems to be the reigning thought in nonfiction books these days. She discusses how to notice the world around us as a writer and how to lose the “writer's voice” when putting those observations on paper.
Other good advice is on how to ensure the reader uses all his senses when he reads your stories. She devotes a chapter on how to give a story shape and how and where to apply epiphanies.
Probably the most valuable thing I got out of the book was on avoiding cliches. Cliched story lines, cliched plot twists, cliched characters and especially...cliches. As I reread my own writing, I'm appalled at how many well-trod expressions I use. But at the same time, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't want my writing to sound hackneyed, but I also think that figurative or metaphorical speech is fast disappearing in our culture because the younger generations are not reading books that use rich vocabulary or colorful expression.
I bought a couple of books that trace the origins of expressions. Where did “red herring” or “white elephant” or “the die is cast” come from? Today's young people don't care because they've never heard of these expressions. This is not a good sign. It tells me that contemporary literature has scraped the meat off writing and has left us with bare bones.
Another good chapter was on showing and telling. Speaking of cliches, since I've started writing and reading books on writing, I've read “show don't tell” until I can't hear it without rolling my eyes. I think anyone who's had to sit through seventh grade English knows this rule by now, but every “writing expert” I've come across shares this “pearl” as though they were flinging a lightning bolt at my head.
Furthermore, LaPlante proves you need both. In Chapter 5 she discusses the importance of narration and when it's appropriate. She shows how an effective writer skillfully dances back and forth between narrating and showing.
She provides an interesting chapter on voice. She defines each of the voices(first, second, third, omniscient) and provides sample writing in each voice . She shows which is the best, which should only be used by Mark Twain or Graham Greene and the tricky art of changing voices inside the same story.
The only complaint I have is that I really did not enjoy her writing examples. With the exception of one short story by the Russian author, Anton Chekov and another by Ernest Hemingway, all are contemporary examples. And all of them seem to belong to the same “Life Sucks School of Angst”. The only thing I really got from them was a more clearly defined idea of how I don't want to write.
One last chapter was particularly interesting on the importance of editors. She debates their power. How much autonomy should they have over the author's work? Is it a good thing or not? She then gives a fascinating account of one author who won many prizes and became nationally renowned for his work. It now turns out that most of his work was largely rewritten by his editor. This is only just coming out because the author has died and researchers now have access to his archives. In the end LaPlante lets the reader decide for himself by including two short stories-the same short story- supposedly by the same author. One was edited the other not. The difference is like night and day. (Sorry, can't escape cliches.)
If you are a writing student or someone who is serious about honing their skill, I would recommend this book. And if you are a fan of the "Life Sucks School of Angst", you'll even enjoy the samples.
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