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Tag:  Writing Craft

Tag: Writing Craft


Litstaff Recs: How Fiction Works & Love Is Love

How Fiction Works,  by James Wood. When it comes to books on the craft of writing, I tend to gravitate to titles that teach through close readings of literature. Maybe it has to do with the grad program I attended, or that when I’m caught up in a book, I’m both figuring out my response […]


LitStack Rec: A Writer’s Notebook & Thunder Boy, Jr.

A Writer’s Notebook by Somerset Maugham Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook was first published in 1949, and though his work may have since fallen out of fashion, in his time he was a literary light, outselling contemporaries like Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson—The Guardian called Maugham “the first superstar novelist.” At the age of […]

Crash Course: essays from where writing and life collide, by Robin Black

The third book from short story writer and novelist Robin Black collects her recent essays, many of which first appeared on the great, and sadly erstwhile literary blog, Beyond the Margins. Crash Course, subtitled essays from where writing and life collide, is aptly divided into two sections. Part One, LIFE (& Writing), is followed by WRITING (& Life), and both perspectives offer insights writers will find instructive and heartening. Crash Course, while lending wisdom on a range of writing and business-of-writing topics, also reads like a memoir, showing us the writer as she reckons with her past and the self that has emerged. I especially appreciated the forthright stance Black takes with her struggles, aspirations, doubt, and sense of accomplishment, all delivered in the deft prose for which her fiction is highly praised.

There is, for example, the late start to her work as a writer—re-married with two small children, battling the dread and desire to write, while at the same time being derailed by agoraphobia. There is too, the sorrow and shame of the years of delayed work, a regret that Black sometimes finds hard to shake. Years later, despite the leap of enrolling in a graduate creative writing program and the subsequent success of two books (a story collection If I loved you I would tell you this, and a novel, Life Drawing), the worry can still persist:

“On any given day, I don’t know if I will be able to write, I don’t know if I will like what I produce…I don’t know whether, if published, it will find readers for whom it ‘succeeds’…I don’t know if I will be publicly insulted or lauded for the work I have done, or ignored.”

That unpredictability, and uncertainty, she points out, is also a state writers seek, even though (or perhaps because) it’s uncomfortable. As Black wisely observes, the rewards that come with its risks are “something for which to be grateful.”

The essay “AD(H)D I” looks at the futility of trapping oneself, and others, in a cage of perfection. As an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder, there is a period in which Black’s life is in a general state of upheaval with lack of focus and follow-through. She encounters the proverbial opposite upon meeting the man who would be her second husband, an organized, seemingly unflappable person who, as Black tells it, brings a sense of order to the chaos—though not without its complications. This orderly, attentive man unwittingly throws her own qualities into a less-attractive high relief:

“…he found my left sneaker, cleaned our clogged gutters, replaced our souring milk, and remembered to pay our bills. The bastard!”

What this essay achieves, as do so many in this collection, is the quick pivot from life to writing. In “AD(H)D I”, the turn takes place as the couple comes to an understanding based on mutual empathy—an event that for Black brings a revelation—that her husband isn’t the one who needs to change. This epiphany, as she next points out, though groundbreaking in real life, isn’t as effective in fiction, adding, “the bar for plausibility is higher in fiction than in fact.” This essay runs early in the collection, but in the facile shift from life to writing we understand how Black means to show us the way each is informed by the other.

 Crash Course is also a lesson in the short essay. Most pieces run two to five pages yet each feels complete, and effortless. Black looks at a range of issues, among them: on writing query letters (including the author’s own. Tip: think voice); on inaction in fiction; revision and letting go of first ideas; on the excellence of adverbs (shout out to Truly, Madly, Deeply); true-life anecdote versus the narrative needs of story; and some qualities of distinctive fiction (hint: momentum, authority, and “a confident intelligence”).

One of the most fascinating threads in this collection is Black’s relationship with her father, a brilliant, complicated, and troubled man whose role in her personal history is clearly powerful. In matters of achievement, we learn, the elder Black’s view was “If it isn’t to be a work of genius, it isn’t worth writing,” a standard that rendered Black, in her words, “a study in blockage.” She writes, “Even as I battle the toxic standards of success that my father breathed into my dreams, I find myself grateful for his example of how fiercely one can try to fight a demon down.”

That personal history made me wildly curious about this larger-than-life formative relationship and its role in forging the writer from her nascent self. I can guess an author as inventive, smart, and anchored by deep feeling as Black has plenty of projects in the queue, any of which I’d eagerly read, and it would be thrilling if that memoir were among them.

Read more about Robin Black here.

—Lauren Alwan

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How to Read to Read a Sentence and How to Write One, by Stanley Fish

The sentence is the coin of the realm, the catch that holds a reader fast to a story. And I love that Stanley Fish wrote a book just about sentences.  A professor of law and dean emeritus at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Fish looks at both structure and content in a way that is intellectually rigorous and personal—and he is clearly a fan of the well-crafted sentence.

Here, for example is his description of how sentences move a reader:

“…words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time.”

Fish is a keen advocate of literature, and once he defines his view of what sentences are, what they do, and how they do it, he moves into examples. He also looks closely at language construction. Just as carpenters love the smell of timber and the sound of a hammer on the head of nail, writers (those for whom language is part of the job—and the pleasure of writing) are prone to a fascination with the nuts and bolts of a sentence. Fish examines structure, syntax, grammar and usage, all in his clear, easy style. Words can be lumbering, maddeningly opaque things, a point Fish affirms: “Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere.”

I wholeheartedly agree with his advice for writers to “make language so transparent a medium that it disappears and interposes no obstacle or screen between the reader and the thing it points to.” Though it’s one thing to intend and another to achieve. I learned a lot from this book, and felt well-advised by Fish. As a curator of sentences, he has excellent taste. Here, he cites a line from Anthony Burgess’s novel Enderby Outside (1968):

 And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

As sentences go, I’d say that one definitely grabs.

—Lauren Alwan

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Over at The Millions, LitStack contributor Lauren Alwan looks at the use of colloquial titles in literary fiction. Her “brief history” includes an analysis of titles, including works by Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and Richard Ford. Here’s a preview:

There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message.

Read the article here.


Traveling Light: Unpacking a Story

So there I am, in a small hotel between the Costa Brava and Sitges, once again unpacking the bag I’ve carried through France and Spain. It’s been five weeks, and by now the contents are painfully familiar: five t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, and various smaller items, including an excellent pair of sandals purchased on […]


LitStack Recs: A Writer’s Notebook & Dangerous Women

A Writer’s Notebook by Somerset Maugham Like most writers, I keep a notebook. It’s small and transportable, since the point is to record in the moment—things seen in passing, or sentences that arise unexpectedly, the kind that must be put down before they vanish. I also like to keep track of words, ones  unexpectedly found […]


The Mid-Sentence Twist

Ron Carlson, in his book “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” advises the writer to “introduce a character by considering the least likely thing he or she may do. How can the character surprise us?” This element of surprise comes from the writer’s choice to write against the grain, to write counter to prevailing drift of […]