Monday, May 03, 2010

Writing a Novel: Step 2

There are many ways to learn the art/craft of writing. One common approach is formal education - studying literature, writing, communications, etc. Another, and perhaps more common approach, is reading. But when I say reading, I'm going to add a caveat. I don't mean reading books on how to write. While these books are certainly useful, and offer plenty of insights, they can be overdone. I'm not saying is to avoid such books. No. Read them. Find the ones you like and read them over and again. But don't make a career out of reading books on the topic of writing (unless that is your career). My reasoning here is simple: I do not believe writing can be taught; rather, it can only be learned.

Honestly, I'm not playing with semantics with that last statement. I've taught writing to countless students at various levels; I've worked in seminars and workshops; I've written about writing - as I'm doing now. What has become clear to me from all of this is that the fundamental elements of writing can be passed along to those wanting to learn. But only those with a desire to learn will actually gain anything useful from the process. In other words, writing is self-taught, and along the way there are things to be learned at every level. Teachers and books on writing can offer information, but in the end it all rests upon the person wanting to learn. There comes a point when a writer must write to improve his or her craft.

What I'm saying is that the best approach to learning how to write is through reading and writing. The "writing" part I suppose is self-evident, although there are many writers to dislike writing. They either overcome this, or spend much time reading books on writing, looking for that one secret to suddenly make them a writer.

In the realm of writing, there are many aspects to be learned: grammar, style, tone, mood, theme, vocabulary among others. These are the terms that can be found through formal study. They can also be leaned simply by reading. Admittedly, the labels might not readily jump to mind, but the seeds are planted. This makes learning the "technical" side of writing easier. And with that said, there is no best approach. It varies with each writer. But know that reading is a fantastic means of learning how to write. In fact, I'd suggest reading books you dislike. Readers tend to be less engaged in such works, and highly critical from the start. This prevents you from getting lost in an engrossing text, allowing you to analyze the writing - usually identifying what it is you dislike about the book. And like everything else in life, avoid going to an extreme. It is equally important to read what you enjoy (as mentioned in the last post about writing). In the end, this method trains the reader in form, approach, style, grammar, and countless other aspects because he or she is repeatedly exposed to these things.

Of course, if it where that simple everyone would be a talented and wonderfully skilled writer. This obviously isn't the case if all of us have books we dislike. In part, that's because there is no "secret," no "formula," no "right" way to write. Creating a novel is both an art and a craft. This means aesthetics are involved, and through-out history there has never been one aesthetic that rules them all (although the topic has been written about plenty, starting with Plato).

Lastly, it is important to love words if you're a writer. Know them, friend them on Facebook, learn their nuances. And if you're reading a book, don't take them for granted. Pull out a dictionary and consider the definitions. Writers often use particular words with specific meanings, or multiple meanings. This is a part of the art. The words used are not random, although admittedly they are not always purposeful. As a reader and writer, you need to learn when there is more to a word than the word itself. This can open an entirely new world in a novel for a reader. And sometimes it is the difference between a good book and a great book. But for this to happen, you have to trust the writer. Start with the assumption that the writer knows what he or she is doing. In the end, even if the assumption was incorrect, you'll likely have learned something useful about writing.

*Note: I love adding notes to my blog posts. It seems quite silly and pointless. Nonetheless, here is one: In the above post, I've used to rhetorical tropes in the form of repetition. I confess, "rhetorical tropes" sounds stuffy. Even so, they are useful to writers, and come naturally to those who are avid readers. But sometimes it is useful to understand there names (yes, both repetitions have names). Why this is important is because once you learn many or all of the tropes, you can apply them in your writing with purpose - rather than simply "feeling" that the trope works. Also, knowing some or all of these tropes will allow you to expand your writing style. Now these tropes are rhetorical, not literary tropes/cliches such as "it was a dark and stormy night." I mention these for those who are interested in finding them in the above text and prowling the Internet for there formal names. I promise, they are not very difficult to find, and are worth the time it takes. I'll also be post a little bit more about tropes the next time.


Charles Gramlich said...

I started reading at a young age and read voraciously ever since. 99 percent of anything I know about writing came from absorbing that material, the good and the bad. Study is good, but it works best if it can build on an inner ear developed from reading.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think there is tremendous value in using formal education to learn how to read a novel for content. I once said that anybody could pass an English class, the hard part was actually learning something. If nothing else, education should teach you how to learn, how to apply skills onward. So, yeah, I think the idea put forward is a good one. Besides, we are all social creatures and examining a craft or a book together with several other folk can be a powerful experience.

Rick said...

What a wonderfully instructive post.

Akasha Savage. said...

I loved that post, it was all so true! I have learnt a lot more on the art of writing by simply reading; good books and bad books!
Often I read something in a novel and get that 'ah, that's how they do it' feeling, then try and remember the 'trick' for when I may need it.
Secretly, I think most writers would rather read than actually write!