Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Writing by Example

Suppose you've never changed the headlight on a car, but you want to try it. You come across these instructions:

Undo the bolt at the top of the air filter box, lift the top open and remove the filter from the engine compartment. Then, undo the fasteners holding the air dam in place and remove it from the filter box (driver's side bulb replacement only.)
From https://www.ifixit.com/Answers/View/30368/2006+Front+headlight+assembly

Huh? You might, reading that, take your car straight to a local garage and ask them to just do the job at any damn price. Or you'd run to the Internet and search for a YouTube video to show you what and where, for starters, an air filter box is.

If you are like me, you need a clear example to follow when doing or DIY project or even when trying something more abstract, like writing fiction. There are a lot of fiction writing instruction books out there, and while most of them give you examples to follow, the examples are usually only individual sentences or paragraphs. The focus of most writing instruction is on dispensing advice and wisdom: how to schedule your writing time, or how many words a day to write, or what types of stories to start with, or what editors are looking for, or what basic plots nearly all stories fall into. Some of these books are interesting or even inspiring reads, but few are really useful when it comes time to actually transfer the stuff in your brain to words on a page. What you need is someone, preferably a seasoned pro, to actually show you how it's done. You need the equivalent of a YouTube how-to video for the writing process.

That's what The Anatomy of Curiosity brings you. Each of three accomplished professional writers walk you through how she drafted and revised a work of fiction. The pieces are Maggie Stiefvater's "Ladylike" (for some of my fanboy raving about Stiefvater's latest novels, click here, here or here) about a teenager hired to read poetry to an elderly monster, Tessa Gratton's "Desert Canticle" about a world in which sorcerers create and plant magical IEDs, and Brenna Yovanoff's "Drowning Variations" about drowning and writing and love. The three writers intersperse their work with comments on their individual writing processes.

The story's themselves are well worth the cover price. All three women write with confident, distinct voices on the more literary end of the SFF genre. If you're an aspiring writer, though, having the author's commentary on their process peppered through the writing is invaluable for two reasons. For one, it gives you insight into three different individual writers' approaches to creating fiction. They each begin with a different focus--Maggie (they address themselves and each other by first names, so I will too) begins with character, Tessa begins with world-building and Brenna begins with idea--and from their follow distinct paths when developing and revising their stories. But they also all three work together as their own critique group, and the comments reflect how they help each other. While not all writers work with critique groups as formally as these three, no one works alone and it's helpful to see how outside readers can keep a writer honest and nudge him in the right direction.

Most valuable, though, is seeing how hard these writers, experienced as they are, struggle with getting their work exactly right, how they confront their own--and each others--doubts about their abilities, face bad habits head on, and keep persisting. Each writer's process is deeply personal and informed by her past and her obsessions. It's intense, actually, to spend so much time inside an artist's head, but it's worth it. These are not jaded writers. They care deeply about the work they're doing.

No, you can't really learn to write the way you can learn to change a car headlight. Watching a YouTube video, or a proxy for one, won't get you too far on its own. Writing well--as Maggie, Tessa and Brenna emphasize--takes, more than anything, long hours of hard work. Reading The Anatomy of Curiosity, though, gives you not one but three strong examples to follow and the sense that, as you strive to hammer your ideas into something gripping and moving, you're in good company.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is available in October. It can be pre-ordered here. This review is based on a time-limited eBook galley provided by the publisher.

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