Tuesday, February 22, 2011

FAQ - Can Writing Be Taught?

Q: Did Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and all those authors we know, get any help? I think that you don't want to be a writer -- you are one or you aren't.
A:  The questioner has a good point -- I don't think it's possible to teach the art of writing,  but I do think that there's a lot that can be taught about the craft.  I certainly learned a lot from the class I took and from some books I've read. Hints on how to write dialog, beginning with a hook, various methods for plotting, even such nuts and bolts matters as how long a book should be, or what font is preferred by agents and editors are useful to writers in today's over-crowded market.

That said, I also think there's a point of diminishing returns with classes and inspirational books and there comes a time when one must just concentrate on WRITING -- finishing that novel or memoir or collection of poems.

As for the art of writing.... 

The best advice I can give is to read books written in the kind of language you want to write. Read till the sentence structures and the music of the language comes naturally to you

Even better than reading , I think, is listening to well-read audio books. When reading, I tend to skim, in hurry to find out what happened. But when listening, I can savor the beauty of a well-turned phrase, a clever transition, an apt description. I love Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, P.G.Wodehouse, Patrick O'Brian, and Douglas Adams on audio, to name just a few.  All of these writers are in love with language and can make words sit up and beg or sentences jump through hoops.

Elizabeth George was quoted somewhere as saying she always spends a half an hour before she begins to write, reading 'up.' That is to say, reading on a higher level than she writes. I think she mentioned Jane Austen.  And I'd say that's probably not a bad idea. I know my writing would become very spare and straightforward if I went on a kick of reading Hemingway.


Read the best of what you want to write.

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18 comments:

Margaret said...

Neil Gaiman - yes, my oldest son loves his books and the art work (if it is the one I'm thinking of ...) I need to read them, he says.

And now I can as I just finished your 5th book. I so enjoyed all of them, and I teared up at the end. Just loved the sentimentality. (and I had to go hug and squeeze my 3 year old...)

Looking forward to the next one.

joanny said...

Vicki

Very good advice, I love the turn of phrase of "reading up" I just never thought of it quite as well as you stated here. However, now that you mentioned it so eloquently it does work, my son when learning to read would listen to tapes that accompanied books and he would follow along , the books were of interest to him but above his grade level, but when he was tested for school reading and writing levels, at 6 years old his levels was for a 6th grader. He was 'reading up'

I love your plants -- are they from your green house? the paphiopedilum? is gorgeous and love the new fern? splendid all the photo's.

joanny

Alan Burnett said...

A most interesting discussion Vicki. I am sure you are right about reading being a good way of learning. I remember after I first tried dipping my toe into the ink-pot (so to speak) I started to read other books in a different way : admiring the craft as well as the art.

Martin H. said...

I agree, reading can be a huge help in finding our own style. My biggest early influences were Leslie Thomas and Laurie Lee. After a while, I found my own voice, but echoes of Lee still make themselves heard on occasion.

Brian Miller said...

vicki i think this is great advice...i find my writing flags when i stop reading or slow down...like the audio book idea as well...

My Carolina Kitchen said...

Excellent advice Vicki. I find sometimes when I read certain authors, especially southern ones like Anne Rivers Sidden or Dorthea Benton Frank, I start to talk and think much more southern than I already am and I can feel their influence.

I really like the phrase "reading up," and I see others that commented do also. Very sage advice today and as always, outstanding photos. You really have an eye for photography.
Sam

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks, Margaret! And do give Gaiman a try -- he's a wonderful writer.

Joanny -- How I wish that was my greenhouse! The pictures are old ones from a trip to the D.C. Botanical Garden back in '08. I blogged about it and there are more pictures here:

http://vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com/2008/04/washington-dc.html

I see you all agree -- every once in a while I encounter a would-be writer who tells me he/she doesn't read for pleasure and I'm baffled -- I don't know how one could write with no reading background.

Canyon Girl said...

May I add P. D. James, another mystery writer with a wonderful grasp of the English language, to read UP on. She is one only writer of popular books that I read with a dictionary next to me. Thank you for this, it was very informative and interesting. Can I find your books in the Kern Co. CA library system? I will check next time I go.(Money is tight right now or I would buy them.)--Inger

Vicki Lane said...

Inger -- I know my books are in a lot of libraries. (They are mass market paperbacks and fairly affordable -- these days, libraries are hard up too.)

Libraries will often order books if readers request them.

Friko said...

These FAQs of yours are very useful; although I have found my voice, there are many things I don't know and a professional's view and advice is always worth having.

Jill said...

Beautiful photos! Great post. Just like painting and drawing....technical aspects can be taught, but the art comes from within. I think that there is also a certain drive within me that makes me HAVE to do something creative. Always trying to improve and practicing until it hurts.

Kath said...

Incredible photos, and good advice. Unbeatable combo.
Kath

tattytiara said...

That's something you really notice on blogs. I've seen people go from convoluted, hard to follow, rambling posts to seamless, fantastic writing in, like, a year, just by constantly practicing the craft (and of course the insta-feedback we get on blogs never hurts either, but there again you have to be working with what you learn from it to benefit).

Darla said...

What you said here about the *art* of writing speaks to me on such a deep level, Vicki. This is soul-writing and what a blessed gift for us to fully realize.

dana said...

I taught art in my younger days. Some people just didn't have "it". ZERO. So I taught them the joy of painting.

Some had "it" and once I threw them the rope, they took hold and climbed higher than their teacher.

Not all artists sell their work. The ones who do are labeled as successful - which is a shame.

The ones who experienced the joy experienced it every time they drew.

Vicki Lane said...

Dana -- I had a painting teacher like that. She helped all us to make the most of what little skill we possessed -- even if it was just splashing colors about.

I think too that the world of blogging has encouraged a lot of us to spread out wings in poetry -- essays -- photography -- philosophy. A most egalitarian medium.

Brenda said...

Playing "catch up" with my blog reading during a busy week! Love the idea of reading up - and I'm totally with you on the audiobooks. I listen to them on my commute to and from Morganton and really find myself catching the way an author plays with words and sentence structure. Moreso than when I read, I think.

Merisi said...

As a reader, I like to read a good book more than once, if it is well written. That way, I can give both the story and the writing their due.