Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book Review: How to Write Like Tolstoy

I'm always keen to find unfamiliar books on the subject of writing. I happened to notice this on the shelves of new acquisitions at our local library. While I don't aspire to write like the greats (that seems an unrealistic goal), I did want to discover a thing or two about how they handled certain aspects of writing. The book was not only interesting, it was also very entertaining and informative.

The broad list of topics was contained within a great sense of structure. The first chapter begins, where else, but with beginnings. Then the author moves on to things like character, point-of-view, dialogue, irony, rhythm, and revision. In his final chapter, he focuses on the importance of a good ending.

I thought this advice from Edith Wharton was excellent for choosing the best point-of-view: "Who saw this thing I am going to tell about? By whom do I mean that it shall be reported? Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why?"

Richard Cohen told of a fun little game he played once with his writing students. The game is called "Consequences" and involves each student beginning with a man's name (A), then passing their paper to the next to add a woman's name (B). From there it is passed further to receive a location (C). The final four steps involve adding "he said to her ..." (D), "she said to him ..." (E), "and the consequence was..." (F), and finally, "and the world said ..." (G). In this way, they created mini-stories where one character met another in a particular setting, engaged in significant dialogue, and meandered into a denouement. I want to share that one with the leader of my library writer's group. It sounds like such fun.

Some of the humorous bits included simple stories about writers. In one, a writer wrote one word, "the," then dashed off to a party down the hall. He returned briefly to sit at his typewriter and added three more words, "hell with it" before returning to the party. I laughed out loud. Another author would begin to write and whenever he reached a place where he didn't know what to put down, he would simply type a curse word and go on. When the first draft was completed, the work was riddled with profanity. Through revision, the author would get the manuscript into a state where it was eventually squeaky clean, with not a curse word to be seen. In similar fashion, Cohen quotes Mark Twain's advice: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

I think the little stories about author habits made the whole book thoroughly entertaining. Thus, I was so busy laughing that I didn't even realize I was also learning. It did amuse me that this author mentioned a book I had just reviewed unfavorably (because she didn't manage to make the learning entertaining enough). I love it when my reading seems to follow a theme without any conscious effort on my part. I would happily read this book again for both the insights and the amusing anecdotes.

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