A Must Read Book For Writers

The book in question is by Francine Prose, a great surname for a writer, and this book is different from every book I have read about writing.

I read books on the art of writing by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Lajos Egri; I learned something from each. But the book by Prose has a unique approach. She breaks down writing by these chapters; Chapter one-Words, Chapter two-sentences, then Paragraphs, followed by Narration and then Dialogue, moving on to Details and Chapter nine Gesture. There are three additional chapters, but let me state how she goes about things.

She does not tell, she shows. For example in the chapter on dialogue she uses a book by Harry Green, Loving, and uses, say two pages of dialogue between two or three characters. She tells you what to expect before you read the passages from Green’s book, then explains following the passage what Green was doing, and why, and how.

And that is why the name of her book is Reading Like a Writer. She teaches you how to read, what to look for, the why and the how of what each writer was doing. And she uses examples from writers with different styles, each of whom have different approaches, but each has a way of doing things, that when you see and easily understand what the writer is doing, you can not help but to learn.

And think about the chapters, starting from words-choosing the right word and why, and of course using examples that always gives you the ah ha moment. Now I get it. She starts with words, then of course the sentence, and on and on’ a perfect structure for writing.

And this book is not just for writers, but for readers who want to enjoy stories with an understanding of how the bones are put together.

Her book subtitled A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them is an accurate description. I love books, and I love writing them. And because I love books I discovered in the course of examples she cited writers I was unfamiliar with, and whose books I have purchased. They are coming in a brown box from Amazon and I looking forward to reading these stories in a new way.

Naturally I could have read any of the unread books in my massive slush pile, but the examples of writers she used made me want to read them. So now thanks to Francine I have learned about Harry Green, about Stuart Dybek, and Heinrich Von Kleist. I have invited them into my home, new friends to encounter, and to learn from. 

It is always exciting to encounter a new writer-new to you-and exploring there stories and now thanks to Francine Prose’s book, I can read them in a way that will make me a better reader, and a better writer.

My-e-books on Amazon

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Are You A Book Collector Or A Reader ?

I believe it was Diogenes who said “To own books without reading them is like having a painting of a bowl of fruit.” Philosophers say things like that. I would say it is like having a bowl of fruit on your dining room table, but not eating any. A book, after all, is there for you to read at any time, as the fruit is there should you get hungry. You can only eat a painting if you have a mental disorder.

I don’t have a bowl of fruit, but I do have about 300 unread books. I am working on it, however.

There are two types of bibliophiles, or so I have read. One is a collector of books, a mania really, where the hunt is the thing. Collectors like to create libraries, whether they are all first editions, or all editions of certain writers, or rare books of any genre or age; basically any idea for collecting that grabs you. Some collectors have over 10,000 books and manuscripts. But they do not read them all. Who has the time?

I have no true rare books, none worth more than $60-$70, but I do like to collect books that need homes, as well as books I want to read. If I live long enough I might get to 1,000 books, and would be there now, but somehow books have gotten lost during moves, or I gave some away, and some evaporate into thin air, going I know not where.

Then there are the bibliophiles who are inveterate readers, buying and reading with voracious, lustful appetites.  Both types of bibliophiles are compulsive, whether to collect or read, they both have a mania.

Jacques Bonnet, a French bibliophile, says, “An inextinguishable curiosity drove me to find out what lay behind the words and phrases, and the unknown reality on to which I had stumbled . . . the fanatical reader is not only anxious, he or she is curious.”

I think readers can identify with that statement. I recently read “To Fetch a Devil” about an unsolved 1938 murder of a socialite woman and her 23 year old daughter in a desert near El Paso. I was curious, not only because it was unsolved, but how the author, Clint Richmond, put all the clues together and came up with a plausible, though circumstantial solution. And the solution was fascinating. And believable, even with all the complications and people involved.

Words. Sentences. They are magic. And writers are magicians.

So we collect, we read.


My Obsessive Compulsion Is Really Weird

There are those with obsessive compulsion disorders like constantly checking the stove to make sure the burners are really and truly off, or always washing their hands, or rechecking the door to make sure it is locked when leaving the house, or always looking at their legs to make sure you did not leave the house without pants.

Mine is different. It has to do with quotation marks.

No I am not kidding.

Here is how it works. I write say ten chapters of a new novel and I decide to proofread these ten chapters before continuing the novel. I try to read close, often word by word, comma by comma, but those quotation marks get to me. I will read a chapter twice, three times, looking to see if the quotation marks are there. Not only that, but to make sure there is a comma, as in “I don’t know what to say,” he said. Sometimes a period sneaks in before the closing mark, so I need to see the marks, see the comma, then of course there is the split quote, as in “I don’t know what else to say, ” he said, “but I can tell you show you something.” That is four quotation marks and two commas to confirm.

Sometimes happy fingers hit this – ‘ rather than this- ” and I must make sure I have the correct mark.

The thing is, even after checking two or three times in the first chapter, if I find a problem in the second chapter it makes me think I missed something in the first one, especially if in the second chapter I found the error on the second or third reading. So I reread the first chapter. This could go on for years. Honestly.

Some writers have a mental block about writing. I have a mental block proofreading with quotation marks my bugaboo, my white whale, my Waterloo. I could give quotes about this disability, but I would have to check to make sure the quotes I used are correct.

If you find any quotation errors in these books, please forgive me. Sometimes I miss the quotation tree through the forest.

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Falling Books Kill; e-Books Don’t-Alkan’s Mystery Death

Charles-Valentin Alkan, 1813-1888,  was a French-Jewish composer whose death was said to be caused by a falling bookcase. If you are an inveterate reader, is there a better death, than being buried under a bookcase and books? How sweet.

It was believed he was reaching on a high shelf for the Talmud when the bookcase fell on him. However, years later a letter from one of his students who wrote that Alkan died in his kitchen from a heavy coat-umbrella stand. His story goes that his concierge heard moaning and found him lying on the kitchen floor. He was taken to his bed where he died that night.

Well that kills my joy. But I ask, which story is better. Killed by an umbrella stand/coat rack or a bookcase?

It was further thought the bookcase story derived from the following legend about Aryeh Leib Asher Gunzberg, 1695-1785. I quote from Wiki.

“A legend exists of his death. During his studies a book-case fell on him, covering him with books. His students were able to rescue him after an hour or so and he related to them that he had been covered by the books of the authors with whom he had quarreled. He had asked forgiveness from all of them and they all complied save for one, Mordecai Yoffe (known as the Levush) who refused. He knew therefore that he was not long for this world, and pronounced the verse in Hebrew “Aryeh shoag mi loi yiroh”; i.e. that Aryeh (the lion, meaning himself) shoag (roars), but mi (an acronym of Mordecai Yoffeh, but can also mean ‘who’) loi yiroh (is not afraid).[2]

It is speculated that this legend is the source of the urban myth surrounding the death of the French-Jewish composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose family originated from Metz.[3]

Personally I will belive the myth of Alkan’s death. I find it inspiring.

Alkan’s grave.

The good thing about e-Books is your death will not result from a falling bookcase.

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Do You Agree With Pliny’s Quote about bad books?

“It is very rarely that a bad book does not contain some merit in the cultivated man.”- Pliny the Elder.

Writers will notice Pliny used the word ‘very’ and writers know to use that word, if at all, sparingly, very sparingly, but we must forgive the Roman Pliny for he lived from 26 AD to 79 AD and was unfamiliar with modern grammarians.

I admire Pliny for he loves to read, loves book, even bad ones, for he can find something of value where others can not.

But . .

Notice the phrase ‘cultivated man.’ The implication is that if you find nothing of merit in a bad book, something to take away from the book, you are not cultivated, therefore, or as Pliny would say ‘ergo’ you are unsophisticated, uncultured, unrefined, ignorant, perhaps outright stupid.   

Well who wants to be uncultured?

So we who want to be cultured, must of course, according to Pliny, find something in all books, no mater how bad, that we can learn from, or that brings up a pleasant memory, something we understand, that connects with us no matter how tangentially, anything at all.

I have tried. I have started books that had great reviews, or at least great blurbs on the back book jacket, and after twenty pages or so I am bored. I get what is going on. I just don’t care. Books talk to us. Each of respond differently to words, sentences, stories, just as we respond differently to food. Our taste buds are different. Sushi-never for me. Moby Dick-never for me.

Conversely, I have read books without any burbs whatsoever and found the story, the writing, everything about the book an absolute delight. Sometimes we are lucky and find these little treasures.

I do try to find something of merit Mr. Pliny, but I have many unread books, so I can set aside something that doesn’t taste quite right at the moment and try something else that looks more appetizing. But I do agree, every book does contain something for all of us, it is just a matter of connection.

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What the housekeeper in “Rebecca” reveals about the writing process

If you read Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca, then you know Mrs. Danvers, the mysteriously manipulative housekeeper of Manderley. What you may not know is how her character developed. It says much about the writing process.

In an interview describing the development of Mrs. Danvers, Du Maurier said, “…the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers had become more sinister. Why I have no idea.”

Taking her at her word, I think Mrs. Danvers became more sinister in the story because writers have an instinctive sensibility for storytelling that often surprise them in the writing process. Characters simply take over no matter what the writer intends. I have no idea how Du Maurier originally envisioned Mrs. Danvers, but if she were not sinister, not a creepy manipulative, jealous, spiteful woman, there would be no tension, no conflict between her and the new Mrs. de Winter. The reader senses the conflict, more so than Mrs. de Winter.

Mrs. Danvers is the pivotal character in the story around which so much mystery revolves. Without her sinister character the story is entirely different, our feelings for Mrs. de Winter will be different, for the malevolent spirit of Mrs. Danvers will be mitigated and Mrs. de Winter will not seem so isolated, so vulnerable.

I have read about many writers, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard to name three, who have an idea for a story and in the course of writings, minor characters become major characters, and where the story was planned to go ends up going somewhere else. Again, it gets back to the writers instinct, the ability to sense when you come to the fork in the road, you take the one that feels right.

The lesson here is if you write, don’t think too much, just keeping clicking letters on the keyboard, use it like an Ouija board and see where the fingers take you.

Du Maurier also said, “Women want love to be a novel, men want a short story.” I’ll let you sort that one out.

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