Big Changes Are Coming to Read to Write Stories in 2018

2 Jan

I’ve been posting writing exercises and author interviews at this blog for five years, for a total of around 150 interviews and almost 200 exercises. It all started when the journal American Short Fiction asked me to teach a few creative writing workshops, and I doled out some standard workshop advice, most of it phrased in the negative (“Don’t do this, don’t do that”) and someone finally asked the million-dollar question, “What should we do?” I didn’t have a great answer (or any answer), so I brought in some short stories that I admired and asked the students to read passages from them closely so that we could figure out how celebrated authors had handled the same issues that we were facing. From those close readings, I developed writing exercises for my students. When the classes came to an end, I wanted to keep creating exercises based on published work, and so I told my wife, “I’m going to start a blog,” and she said, “What is this, 1994?” (She was also the one who suggested I interview authors about their craft, one of the first being George Saunders, who graciously took time from being a genius to answer some of my questions.) Now, five years later, the blog has led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

The book contains all-new exercises based on one-page excerpts from 40 writers that I admire, including Alexander Chee, Gillian Flynn, Roxane Gay, William Gibson, Kiese Laymon, Laila Lalami, George Saunders, Benjamin Sáenz, Jim Shepard, Zadie Smith, and Jesmyn Ward but also writers who challenged me. Quite frankly, I didn’t get Ben Marcus when I read his work in graduate school. I also struggled at first with Marlon James’ deep dives into his characters’ voices in A Brief History of Seven Killings. I don’t read romance and read very little women’s fiction (which I’ve learned is a defined genre), but I kept seeing Jennifer Weiner’s byline on essays arguing for the respectability of those genres and thought I’d check out her work. I was jealous of Karen Russell because she found success so early. I put off reading Teju Cole for years because I thought his novel premise sounded pompous. Like so many MFA graduates (and non-MFA writers and readers), I thought I knew what I liked. Then I actually read the books I had been avoiding or had put down early and found that they were brilliant. I think about A Brief History of Seven Killings almost every time I sit down to write.

This is easy praise, of course. Marlon James has won so much acclaim that one day someone will rent one of his old apartments and find a shoebox of awards stored behind the furnace vent. Here is, perhaps, more surprising praise, for literary writers, at least: Jennifer Weiner is a hell of a writer. In her novel, Who Do You Love, she wrote a scene that was eerily similar to a scene that I had written in a failed novel, and her scene was so much better than mine, so sharply defined and hard-hitting, that I had one of those moments all writers encounter: I thought, “Why do I even do this?”

The reason I created this blog—the real reason—was because those exercises I created for my students made me a better writer. I was teaching myself, but not just about craft. All writers continually hone their craft. Anne Lamott once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that you publish a book and feel elated, and then the next day you realize you’ve got to do it all over again. Nobody ever perfects craft. I learned that through this blog. But I also learned to read positively.

As a MFA student, I tore apart published books in order to see their faults and the seams where they didn’t quite hold together. This is natural. In workshop, you spend three hours explaining why the stories at hand don’t work; of course that mindset will bleed into your leisure reading. But the inability to enjoy new fiction is also a function of jealously. You want so badly to be recognized as a writer and so you get frustrated when people you view as your peers get tapped on the shoulder while you labor in obscurity. It makes you bitter. This, too, is natural. Some very successful, quite famous authors have made spectacularly poor shows of restraining their jealously. It makes for juicy Facebook news, but jealously also makes you a bad writer. If you can’t read your contemporaries and get excited, what sort of art will you create? Maybe you’re a seer, a remarkable genius who will invent a voice and form that revolutionizes literature. Or maybe you’ll just write the same half-baked stories over and over until you give up because journal editors and agents just don’t get it.

The thing I have learned through five years of creating exercises for this blog is to read with the expectation that the story, novel, essay, or memoir I’m about to begin will be amazing. That I will be reading in bed and shake my wife until she stops reading her own book so that I can tell her about the thing I just read. When you read positively, you don’t worry about poorly-crafted sentences or creaking plot mechanisms. Every story has its faults. Lord knows the Internet was designed for the sole purpose of explaining in great detail why the plot of The Last Jedi doesn’t hold together. (For the record, I felt like cheering when Luke brushed off his shoulders.) If you read exclusively for the faults, you only learn what not to do. You never answer the question that really matters: What should you do?

This isn’t to say that you should read without taste or aesthetic. As a former reader for two literary journals, I can tell you with 100% certainty that writing can be bad. Even published books can be bad. Generally speaking, though, you can assume that published books have achieved a basic mastery of craft, plus a little more. They’ve done something to make an agent and/or editor say, “Hey, I like this.” That isn’t easy. If you want to get jaded, sit in front of a slush pile.

The challenge as a writer is to keep jealousy and bitterness at bay. To read the way that K-12 children read, with a hunger and sense of awe. I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ brown, stained, worn living room chair, reading the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the Ring, my mom hollering that lunch was ready, my five siblings thundering into the kitchen, and me (a kid who once ate so much candy at a church Christmas party that I threw up on the way home) hollering back, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Nobody but a writer gives a damn about craft. But only the craft of creating gripping characters, worlds, and stories can keep a hungry reader in the chair at meal time.

The best writing instruction, whether it’s in a MFA program or ad hoc, is focused on the strategies that  make readers put off eating and sleeping. If you read with that idea in mind, you don’t care about genre or style. You don’t only read the authors who speak to your own experience. You read anyone that you can learn from. The best thing about reading positively is the giddiness that you feel when you hit upon a sentence or scene you can imitate or steal.

Shameless plug: Pre-order the book by clicking here.

I was once at a reading by Junot Diaz, and someone asked how he felt about the proliferation of MFA programs, and he answered that everyone who wants to do it should write a book. Not all of those books will get published. So what? Publication and publicity are the least fun parts of creating a book. The most enjoyable part is writing. I hope that The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction will help you hone the skills that bring your enthusiasm for your own story to the page.

To that end, you’ll see some changes at this website. The front page has changed, giving information about the book. The blog is still there, under the blog tab. I’ll be giving some previews of the book over the next two months before its publication date: February 28. I’ll also be posting some new exercises by authors I love. If you love the blog, buy the book. (Shameless plug, I know). Tell your friends.

Thank you for reading these exercises for the past five years. Thank you for the kind notes you’ve sent, for the likes and retweets and shares. Good luck with your writing. I hope you all write books that will keep your readers turning the pages even as food sits on the table.

3 Responses to “Big Changes Are Coming to Read to Write Stories in 2018”

  1. Barbie Beaton January 2, 2018 at 8:02 p01 #

    I’ve loved this blog as a do-it-yourself student of writing. Though I write memoir, the exercises are still effective, and fun. Congratulations on the book, and much success in future endeavors.


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