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READING WITH A WRITER’S EYE

by Tania Casselle

“What’s your best tip for new writers?” That’s a question I’ve asked more than fifty authors in radio interviews, and they’re often quick to reply: “Read! Read a lot. Read with a writer’s eye.”

It’s advice that newer writers sometimes take with a grain of salt, perhaps suspecting that those already on the publishing ladder are just trying to sell more books. And even if we do take their advice, what does it mean to read with a writer’s eye? We don’t want to sound like someone else, we have our own voice and style. So how can reading other people’s work practically help with our own writing?

First, there’s the sheer inspiration of reading wonderful fiction, the motivation it gives us to jump up from the armchair and hit the keyboard. Then there’s the osmosis factor—just by reading widely we absorb the art of writing, which emerges intuitively in our work. But when our intuition fails, when we’re stuck in a project or realize that we need to polish up a craft area, that’s the time to turn our writer’s eye to our favorite fiction. Examining objectively what works successfully in a story, and how and why it works, helps us pick up tips, tricks, and techniques we can bring to our own writing problems or just give a gentle nudge to open our minds to possibilities we haven’t seen before.

After all, every challenge we face in fiction has already been solved by someone else. Why reinvent the wheel? As author John Nichols says: “See how other people do it, the same way that painters go to museums and reproduce the great masters in order to understand how Rembrandt or Picasso used color and construction. The tools of the writing trade are essentially what’s been written before.”

DEVELOPING YOUR WRITER’S EYE

“Read the first pages of five books to see what’s in common in the first pages, or the first chapters,” says Lisa Tucker, author of The Promised World and The Winters in Bloom. “This is after you’ve read the whole book, and you understand what the story is, and you want to see how it’s made, the nuts and bolts.”

Study how the writer creates and establishes her characters. “A lot of new writers think ‘If I kill somebody on page one, I’ll really have the reader.’ But you won’t, unless the person you kill is somebody we already care about. You need to bring characters to life quickly, especially if you’re going to murder them. Then the threat is so much more important. It’s a real person that’s going to be killed.”

Tucker noticed how Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? created a vivid impression of a family in the first pages, setting up the tragedy that soon befalls them. The mother, for example, is “An artist, divorced, a sort of a wild woman. You get the feeling that she has a passionate personality, there’s maybe one sentence about the painting she used to do … and the fact that she used to do it… Why doesn’t she do it anymore? You want to give us enough about the character that we’re curious about them.”

Also consider how the backstory is handled. “How much backstory must be told? Writers feel that they have to introduce everything about their backstory before they can do anything, which is not true.” Tucker suggests charting out what we’re told in the first pages about front story and backstory, noting the interplay between them, and writing down what we’re told about every character.

If your characters feel flat, Robin Romm (The Mother Garden) says “Look at the way Andre Dubus or Joy Williams create character. They’re using very particular traits, staying consistent, and they don’t say very much. It’s not a list of ‘blonde hair, blue eyes, six foot five.’ It’s more likely to be the way somebody puts a beer can on the counter.”

Romm points to Flannery O’Connor’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, when Mr. Shiflet strikes a match. The flame creeps closer to his skin till he puts it out just before it burns him. “O’Connor never says this is a dangerous man, but the fact that he let the match burn that long, that tiny detail is all you need.”

“You read a story once and it affects you, it’s a great story, but you probably don’t know how or why,” says Antonya Nelson, author of Nothing Right and Bound. “So you read it again and again, and you start to see how the writer has been manipulating your experience. How the writer has made conscious decisions about how to place its emphasis, how to inflect certain themes or moments.” Nelson suggests looking at why a story ended where it did, and how motifs move through it. “I was struck in an Edith Wharton novel by the patient way she described a character, and realized that I was trying shortcuts with a piece I was working on.”

WORD BY WORD

John Nichols (The Empanada Brotherhood) observes that we learn by imitation—it’s how children learn language and behavior. He’s taken chapters from writers he admires and typed them up, word by word. “In the process you demystify them, and you also learn a lot about how that person writes.”

Lisa Tucker recalls typing out a scene from Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres.” “It helped me see how she moved from dialogue to action. I had a problem at first thinking about incorporating gestures into dialogue. Sometimes I’d have floating heads—two characters having a discussion—and I had to remember ‘Oh wait, they’re doing something!’ It made me understand how people look away, pick things up, make expressions, and how to fit that in with dialogue in such a smooth way.”

Robert Wilder typed out Ethan Canin’s story “The Year of Getting to Know Us” when he was learning to write fiction. He liked Canin’s economy and wanted to understand the structure. “I was figuring it out from the inside out. It helped me enormously about scene and summary, and fed into my understanding of what makes a scene, dialogue, description, setting, details. And to literally feel what it’s like to have those words coming out of your hands. Hopefully some of the structure of the prose and sentence-making ability will enter into your body.” Wilder’s two essay collections include Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, and his fiction has appeared in The Greensboro ReviewColorado Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review.

MENTORS & MODELS

“A lot of professors in my grad program were not crazy about my work, so I found mentorship in books,” says Pam Houston, whose latest novel is Contents May Have Shifted. Houston read Ron Carlson, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Bloom. “My contemporaries, but ahead of me in their careers. Writers who were doing things that seemed similar to what I was trying to do. I studied how they used metaphors, how they structured stories, how they made sentences.”

When Houston started writing her novel Sight Hound, she was struggling with voice. Her previous books were essentially written in her own personal voice, but she couldn’t see that approach working for Sight Hound. Yet it was a big leap to imagine it told from a different voice.

Houston laughs as she remembers. “I felt, God, I’m sick to death of this girl. Have you no range, Pam?” Then she saw The Laramie Project on stage, based on interviews with people around the murder of Matthew Shepard. “The bartender, the cop, the doctor, his parents, everybody, and they created monologues for all these characters. It’s so moving, the idea of a choral community telling the story together.” Houston bought the play that night and read it. “Seeing how a bunch of different voices could tell the story in the first person gave me permission to tiptoe into this idea of other voices. That’s how Sight Hound wound up having twelve first-person narratives.”

Novels from two very different writers were helpful studies for Tara Ison’s debut novel. “The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison was the first time I was consciously aware of the device of multiple points of view. The texture that gave the story, to use that shifting lens so seamlessly and beautifully… It was really inspiring to me.” As a teen, Ison read Stephen King’s Carrie. “It’s a narrative collage, with newspaper articles and interviews, and he takes all of these elements, and weaves them together.” Both informed Ison’s A Child Out of Alcatraz.

Ison’s second novel The List was originally written in first-person narrative voice, alternating between two characters. “It felt too claustrophobic,” says Ison, so she switched gears and revisited Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to see how he’d achieved a close third-person voice. (So close, in fact, that on earlier readings Ison had remembered it written in first person; she’d been surprised to realize it was in third person.) “I went back to study how he was able to make me feel so intimate to the character, yet he had the flexibility of third person. He could leave her mind when he needed to, to give us insights that the character could not have on her own.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“If you find a writer you love, go back and read their first novel. It’s easier to see how they’re made, they show their structure more clearly because the writer is not as good at hiding it. If you read The Song Reader, my first novel, I think it’s more clear how I did it. You could make an outline and think about what I was working with, because I wasn’t able to hide the bones.” —Lisa Tucker

Pamela Erens found a model structure for her first novel The Understory in William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev, where chapters of past story are interspersed with chapters of current story, and the two gradually converge.

“Trevor’s book starts with a character in a bad spot, in an institution, but you don’t know why. After a short chapter, you immediately jump way back in time, but the past chapters keep getting closer to the present.”

Erens’ character was in a different kind of institution, a Buddhist monastery, and her past story didn’t sprawl back as far as Trevor’s, but she immediately intuited that this was a good way to marry her material with form. “It was a very enjoyable way to bring the reader incrementally toward the present moment and explain how he got to where he was when you opened to the first page. It’s reassuring to have some sort of structure to follow.”

The Understory has an ominous tone which builds turn-the-page tension. Erens had already pared the writing in revisions, but during her final draft she read Camus’ The Stranger. “It’s a very short book, with a creepy sense of omission—what’s being left out.” Reading that made her trim back even more.

SCENE VS. SUMMARY

“Pay attention to where the writer is slowing down to put us in the moment with the character, versus when the writer is doing a summarizing sweep of time, to move us along. Identify moments of discovery, confrontation, and decision making, because I think those are the moments that express character so well, and those are the moments rich in conflict, and that’s when I think it’s really valuable to slow down, as opposed to summarizing for the reader.” —Tara Ison

OPEN TO ENLIGHTENMENT

John Dufresne (Requiem, Mass.) believes that reading writers who don’t write the way you do is especially useful to open up new vistas. “It snaps you out of your habitual way you write.”

Dufresne’s greatest difficulty as a writer is usually in finding his plot. “I start with characters, give them some trouble, then after one hundred pages of the novel ask myself: ‘Well, what’s the plot?’”

In turning our writer’s eye on other authors’ story plots, Dufresne suggests a few questions. “The first time you read it you were surprised at everything but when you got to the end you realized it was inevitable, it had to happen this way. So how did he effect that? Do you know why the character is doing what he’s doing at any moment? What does he want? Why does he want it? Why is he doing this to get it? The plot emanates from the behavior of the characters … here’s where the struggle begins, here’s where the character tried to get what she wanted.

“I pay attention to my own emotions. Why do I love this character so much? Why do I feel so sad at this point? The writer made me feel this way or think that way, how did she do it? When was I surprised? How did she pull that surprise off?”

One way to pick up tricks of the trade is to diagram a story you admire. You can even follow that model, using your own characters and story.

“I’ve done this with Alice Munro,” says Dufresne. “I took a story of hers and diagrammed it out and tried to write a story in exactly the same way, as an exercise… just trying to intuit what she was thinking.”

INSPIRATIONS

“Dennis Cooper opened my mind on what you can actually do in a novel,” says Don Waters, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection Desert Gothic. “Cooper began writing as a poet first, a novelist later. I love how in his sentences things are working! Several things can be happening in the same sentence. It’s that weird thing that happens when you’re striving for something, and then you see somebody else who’s already done it, and something in you just physically bursts open and you think: This is it! And Cooper walks a very risky line in what he writes about. It opened my mind to what you could actually write about in terms of subject matter.”

Waters recommends reading plays to study dialogue. “Like David Mamet, the master of hyperrealistic dialogue. Everything happens through dialogue in a play, characterization and how to move a plot.”

While obviously it’s plagiarism to copy other writers’ words, there’s a difference between form and content, and everyone’s techniques and approaches to craft and structure are all up for grabs.

“Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they never had workshops!” says Robert Westbrook, whose novels include the series of Howard Moon Deer Mysteries. “They just read and read and loved books. If you do imitate, consciously or unconsciously, your own effort is going to come out different. It comes out with your own slant.”

“What I discovered is the wonderful truth that it never sounds like the other writer,” says Pamela Erens. “It sounds like yourself, and learning that really freed me up. While you’re working on a story, things mutate so much that you end up with something that’s your own. Every writer has a completely different consciousness and inflection. How else are you going to learn? It’s a great resource. You have the whole library of literature to go to for help.

TANIA CASSELLE is freelance writer with nearly two decades of experience contributing to magazines and news media in the United States and Europe. She contributed to Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers (Tarcher), and her fiction has appeared in lit journals including New York StoriesThe Saint Ann’s ReviewSouth Dakota ReviewBitter OleanderCarve Magazine, and anthologies including Harlot Red (Serpent’s Tail Press) and Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years (Snowvigate Press). She hosts the Writers on Radio show for NPR-affiliate KRZA in New Mexico and Colorado, also broadcast on other stations.