Friday, October 11, 2013

Reading Like and As a Writer

Starting about twenty or perhaps twenty-five years ago, you became aware with some concern how much longer it was taking you to read things and to write them.

Some of this had its genesis even earlier, while you were still a salaried person, responsible in addition to editorial reports and notes to authors for correspondence and memoranda.  Your earliest application of problem solving was to write shorter letters, briefer memoranda, even more terse agendas for editorial meetings.

Such a memo might read:

Dear All:

Agenda for Thursday editorial meeting:

1.  Quarterly sales figures
2.  Good or bad news re frontlist titles
3.  Good or bad news re backlist titles
4.  Good or bad news re titles in production
5.  Presentations of three candidates for acquisition by their respective editors.

At one point during this time, you'd been approached to be the keynote luncheon speaker for an organization it was politically expedient for your publishing house to accept.  You checked your schedule, found you were free, then wrote a letter of acceptance, which in the interests of simplicity, read, "I'll be there."

This turned out to be too simple and too direct.  Perhaps even threatening.  You received a nervous phone call in which the entertainment committee was assured where and when you would be "there."

You weren't able to articulate the significance of such things for some time, not until you realized you were in effect becoming more concerned with communication, including your interpretation of things you read.

Not by coincidence did the number of stories you wrote begin to find homes nor the content of books you read become more a living part of your memory, nor the editorial reports and letters you wrote begin to produce what you thought of as more positive results.

Nor was it a coincidence that you began to recognize how difficult writing was and how fortunate it was that you'd already fallen in love with it before making this discovery.  Even less a coincidence, your awareness that you were no longer reading for the pleasure and effect of story as you had done when you were falling in love with reading.

For some time now, even when the outcome of your reading surprises you, the sense of surprise has more to do with the technical means by which the author accomplishes the surprise.  Your concern in reading for story has to do with the things that get in the way of story rather than the actual twist or turn of event.

 At some point along the way, you'd begun to realize you were reading the way a writer reads.  In order to achieve a sufficient presence of craft when you write, you needed the experience you rashly mortgaged earlier by selling novels that had been written in a month simply because your pal, Day Keene, did.  The thing you missed was that he was being paid quite a bit more than you because he'd not only found the narrative voice that in a sense dictated these novels to him, they dictated his novels to him better than your then narrative voice dictated yours to you.

You were so bent on speed at the time that you in a real sense wrote at about the same level long enough to cause yourself to be pained by fiction.  Only when you began to read slower, watching to see how your favorite writers accomplished their effect, were you able to see into the necessary details that turned linear movement into nuanced behavior.

You've commemorated all this learning into a course scheduled for January of 2014:

Reading Like a Writer,

CCS Course Syllabus

Shelly Lowenkopf, Instructor

Course Description:  After mastering the techniques of the writing craft for themselves, most accomplished writers have realized they now read new works of other writers with a new focus, both critical and appreciative of technique and thematic scope.  They are often motivated as well to return to formative works from significant writers of the past.

This course will challenge the emerging writer student to engage in a close reading of five significant works selected to demonstrate how close reading is a trampoline to creative energy and the understanding of the dynamics of fiction and nonfiction in ways that will lead them to publication and scholarship.
This course offers the student a ten-week guided tour via lecture, discussion, and written assignments of the dramatic and thematic potentials resident in contemporary narrative.

Course Goals:  Introduce the student to narrative types, the approaches to writing original (rather than derivative) dramatic narratives based on their own preferences and reading tastes, encourage students to produce a viable proposal for a longform work or at least one completed shortform work and a significant outline of another.  The student will then learn how to revise it to the point where it becomes suitable for publication.

Course Readings:

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot.  New York:  Knopf, 1984.  

Donoghue, Emma.  Room.  New York:  Back Bay, 2011

Francis, Scott, editor.  Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market.  Cincinnati, OH, 2014

James, Henry.  Portrait of a Lady.

Llosa, Mario Vargas.  Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

Smiley, Jane.  Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.  New York:  Knopf, 2006

Course Requirements:

Written and oral submissions are required as noted in addition to the quarter project:

 A proposal of at least 2000 words length for a novel, including a list and description of the major characters.   

Weekly focus:

I. Introduction to the novel
1. Definition of novel
2. Difference between a concept and a story
3. Discussion of Introduction and Chapters 2 and 3 of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.
4. Influential authors of the format
5. Crossover—Historical mystery, historical romance, etc.
6. Opening velocity
a. Essential story
b. Opening sentence
c. Opening paragraph
7. Novel and Short Story Writer’s Markets as a resource  
Assignment:  Read Persuasion.


I. Discuss Persuasion
1. Introduce tools of novel craft
2. Front-rank characters
a. Past/present examples
b. Who they are
c. What they willing to do to achieve goals
d. What surprises are they capable of bringing to story
e. How to bring this rank up to literary levels
3. Secondary and pivotal characters
4. Their expectations
5. Austen’s use of point-of-view
6. Austen’s use of subtext

Assignment, due week 3:  read chapters 10, 11, 13, Smiley. 


I. Discuss Smiley chapters in class
A. Establish backstory for front-rank characters 
B. Demonstrate dramatic event or “beat”
C. Determine present time story incident
D. Block opening scene
E. Discuss and demonstrate opening scene clues that pay off in the final scene
II.   The manuscript format
Assignment for week 4:  Read Aunt Julia and the Script Writer

I. Discuss opening scene
1. Examine format of Aunt Julia and the Script Writer
2. Introduce narrative point of view
A. First person
B. Third person
C. Reliable & unreliable narrator
D. Naïve narrator
3. Compare Austen use of subtext to Vargas Llosa

Assignment for week 5:  Read Room by Emma Donoghue

I. Discuss format, point-of-view, Room
II. Discuss narrative
1. Action as filtered through characters
2. Techniques for voiding authorial intrusion
III. Introduce concept of “The Reader Feeder”
IV. Introduce and emphasize dialogue
1. Distinguish from conversation 
2. Emphasize how it defines a character
3. Attributions in dialogue

Assignment due week 6:  At least one paragraph introducing characters and concept for student novel proposal


I. Examine and discuss student assignment.
II. Introduce and examine story arc
III. Introduce and examine non-narrative story lines
IV. Discuss genera, novel forms

Assignment due week 7: Read Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes


I. Discuss Flaubert’s Parrot 
1. Compare Flaubert’s Parrot to Madame Bovary
2. Discuss literary quitting
3. Discuss similarities of construction and literary references
4. Compare modern novel endings with mid- and late-twentieth-century endings

Assignment due week 8:  Read Portrait of a Lady


I. Discuss Portrait of a Lady
1. Comparison of Portrait to Persuasion and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street
2. Discuss novel as social and psychological force
3. Introduce and demonstrate individual voice
4. Demonstrate examples of opening scenes/paragraphs

Assignment due week 9:  Write the first draft of quarter project


I. Strategies for revision
1. Review cliffhanger technique
2. Review triggering and causality concepts
3. Review ambiguity and tension tools
4. Discuss point of no return

Assignment due week 10:  Quarter project is due


I. Review revision techniques
1. Discuss narrative formats
2. Discuss entertainment and illustration concepts
3. Discuss strategies for completing the novel
4. Examine approaches for ending scenes, including final scene
5. Examine ambiguity in the modern novel as exemplified by the 100 referenced novels in Smiley

Assignment of Units:

Students written work will earn seventy-five percent of the units awarded, their in-class participation and presentations accounting for the remaining twenty-five percent.

Among your hopes for this class are these:

You will read yet more slowly
You will lift yourself a notch or two in terms of insight and nuance
You will be able to move even closer to the status of being a multiple-personality individual and yet less self-conscious about the process.

It is not that you have by any means forgotten the students in this calculus.  You've learned long ago to trust them.

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