One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.
In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.
As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.
What I learned From Oscar Wilde: How to Write Witty
The defining trait of Wilde’s writing is his wit. While he certainly does other things well (Dorian Gray, for example shows how a great high concept can elevate an otherwise conventional story), if you ask the average reader about Wilde’s writing, the first thing they are likely to mention is his clever wit. For this reason, Wilde is one of the most quoted writers. His short, sentence-long witticisms often appear on posters, t-shirts, stickers, and memes. As a writer who has been accused of wit (see my stories here and here for examples) I am especially interested in dissecting Wilde’s technique.
In general, Wilde’s wit works depends on subverting the reader’s expectations by finding a cliched phrase or idea, then changing the second half of the of phrase in an unexpected or ironic way. It relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of a common phrase or societal convention, and the way the sentence is constructed syntactically to make the ironic turn.
Let’s look at a few examples:
“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”
“A gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.”
“A good friend will always stab you in the front.”
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
On a syntactical level, Wilde’s sentences set up an expectation in the reader’s mind. When he write, “I have the simplest of tastes,” he sets up the expectation of a second half that espouses frugality; “A Gentleman is one who never gives offense” seems like the kind of advice Polonius would give to Laertes, and one would expect more of the same type of banality; “A good friend will” is beginning of a cliché involving being stabbed in the back, etc.
The second half–or in some cases the end–of each line flips that expectation on its head. “The only way to get rid of temptation….is to yield to it. The end is completely unexpected. It not only subverts the conventional wisdom, but also reveals the emptiness of the common phrase and, therefore, it criticizes a societal norm, in this the repressive Victorian culture of Wilde’s time, as well. The other quotes work by the same principal: A good friend never would stab you in the back, they would stab you in the front! A gentleman never gives offence…saving for when he intends to.
Many famous witticism follow Wilde’s example. Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,” and Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore it’s too crowded” are both examples of this technique as well.
To write a witty quip like Wilde, I would start with a well-known cliché. Let’s take (because it’s the first one I thought of as I was writing this) “The grass is always greener on the other side of the yard.” Next I would find a dramatic context in which to use the cliché, preferably one which alludes to the meaning or message which the cliched phrase is trying to teach us.
Off the top of my head:
“Mr. Wilde,” I said, “Mr. Rubin seems to be jealous of your fame and success.”
“That is to be expected,” Wilde replied. “The grass is always greener on my side of the yard.”
Perhaps it’s not perfect, but I think it illustrates the point. The second character–Mr. Wilde–subverts the cliché by changing the second half of the phrase to something witty and unexpected. In an actual story, I’d choose a cliché that matched the dramatic situation, theme, or context of the larger story, but I this example is sufficient to illustrate the point.
I hope that you can use this technique in your own writing, and I encourage you to read widely and with a purpose so that you can continue to build your writers toolbox.
The figure looked around. Something had definitely changed. His world, constant spinning motion for as long as he could remember, had now become still. He sniffed the air suspiciously and noticed that it was dryer as well. On all sides there were boundaries where, once, there were infinite possibilities. He called out to his creator, Mr. Munch, but the glass was soundproof. He raised his hands to his face, grabbed his cheeks, and screamed silently, forever trapped inside his gilded frame.
Every year, on the week of his birthday, the comics world celebrates the legacy of Will Eisner. Eisner’s work in the comics field is legendary. From his groundbreaking work in The Spirit newspaper serial (including pioneering the splash title page), to inventing the graphic novel, to his contributions to comics education and analysis through titles like Comics And Sequential Art, to his pioneering of alternate publishing paths, there are few creators who have contributed more to the comics field than Eisner. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’d like to break down one of my favorite comics pages, which comes from his graphic novel, A Life Force (available in the seminal Contract With God trilogy).
Here is the page:
You might notice that his is not one of Eisner’s spectacular splash pages, rather it’s a regular storytelling page from the middle of the story, but it’s an incredible bit of visual storytelling where every element serves a purpose.
First, a bit of background: the story is about the human will to live even in the face of the poorest conditions. The human life lived in poverty is compared, through a series of vignettes to that of a cockroach. On this page, our protagonist Jacob, is on the ground, forlorn, in an alley underneath his tenement apartment on the fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx.
Let’s start with panel 1, which is part of a row of 3/4 of the page-length skinny vertical panels. Despite the length of this panel, the character, Jacob, is drawn small. There is a lot of white space between him and the top of the panel, and there are no word bubbles either, which emphasizes the size of the negative space. The size of the figure relative to the space highlights his smallness and enhances the central conceit of the story, the comparison of the human’s life with that of a bug.
This contrast is further emphasized in panel 2, which is identical in size and shape to the first panel. In this panel, the hand-lettered words call down to him from the sky, high above the alley where the protagonist finds himself. The figure of Jacob is a bit larger than it is in panel 1, though his attitude is slightly changed, as he now gazes up toward the sound of the words (more on this movement later), but the there is less negative space in the panel, both because of the size of the words, which are large for comics dialogue, and because of the lines in the background which extend further up the panel. The words seem to fill the panel, which contrasts it with the emptiness of the one which immediately precedes it.
In addition to being large, the words are unbounded by a speech bubble, further contrasting them with Jacob’s dialogue in the panels immediately preceding and following this one. It is also spoken by an off-panel character (the speaker is not visible in the panel). These physical characteristics of the lettering, along with the repetition of Jacob’s biblical name, give the dialogue a biblical feel and remind the reader of the themes of the search for meaning and humanity’s relationship with the God found throughout the Contract With God trilogy. Since we do not yet know the speaker, we are reminded of God calling down to a prophet. Even when we find out the speaker in the next panel, the idea of God speaking to a human remains in our minds, layered simultaneously with the revelation of the speaker’s true identity. This technique is unique to the sequential story medium (through there are similar techniques in other mediums like the Homeric simile), as it relies both on the distinction between the individual, static panels, and the sequential nature of the story.
In the third panel, the off-panel dialogue is gone, opening up the space of the top half of the panel again. In the bottom half of the panel, the figure of Jacob continues to grow. Not only is he drawn larger, but his pose has changed as well. In panel one, he is hunched over, leaning against a wall, almost lying down. In panel two, he looks upward as he hears the voice. In panel three, he has started to get up. His back is straighter than it is in other panel, and we see his face more clearly as well. This upward movement is further enhanced by the placement of the speech bubble, which identifies the off-panel voice as “Rifka.” His attitude has changed from downcast, to questioning, to at least a neutral pose. This positive shift, along with his growth in size and his rising from his prone position further hints at the divine voice theory. Perhaps there is something god-like in the voice? Perhaps there is revelation? Inspiration? Perhaps there is–or is going to be–a change.
But no. In the final panel of the top row, the dialogue beats Jakob down, both literally and figuratively. It is, in fact, his wife, yelling down from their tenement window at he good-for-nothing husband, exasperated at his antics, and ordering him to come upstairs for supper. The content of the dialogue is enhanced both by the amount of words and by the shape of the panel. The words can hardly fit in the skinny panel, and extend down much further than Rifka’s previous dialogue. The openness of the negative space is gone. The sky is crowded with the words, which beat down on Jakob.
This is also the first panel where both characters speak. Jacob’s words, still bounded by their traditional speech bubble, move upwards over his head, creating a visual conflict with Rifka’s words. From the relative size of the words, it is apparent who is winning. Indeed, despite his agreement to come upstairs for dinner, Eisner draws Jacob a bit smaller, and much more bent over than in the previous panel.
The bottom row of panels is markedly different from the first. There are three distinct actions, but unlike the top row, there are no panel dividers. This gives the sequence a continuous motion where we do not pause as long to consider each image, rather we see the action more continuously.
It is important to note, that though Jacob gets up, he is still bent over, hunched beneath the weight of his problems, bent and nearly broken by his life’s burdens. We never see his face in these panels, and the anonymity of these actions make them synecdochal for the human experience. The bent over poses, the short height of the panels, and the smallness of the door in the final panel recall the metaphor of the cockroach as well, as Jakob seemingly skitters down a narrow passage, back to a hole in the wall.
In addition to the panel-by-panel storytelling, there page as a whole is constructed brilliantly as well. The four tall, skinny panels on the the top row, recall the Dropsie Avenue tenements. Though there is no establishing shot of the neighborhood on this particular page (that happened earlier in the story), the tall thin shapes resemble high-rise apartments, and the fact that there are four of them squeezed into the top row remind the reader of the crowded, urban setting.
The long length of these panels also pushes down on Jacob, who is hunched beneath their massive weight in the bottom row. This reminds the reader of the environmental factors which contribute to his depression, and further highlight the effects of the setting, which is another key motif which runs through Eisner’s trilogy.
All-in-all, this page is a masterclass is sequential storytelling, a reminder of the power and possibilities of the comics form, and a strong example of Eisner’s skill both as an artist and writer. I encourage you all to check out or refamiliarize yourself with his work.
I know I will the next time I sit down to write a comics script.
The 20th anniversary of Fred Rogers death passed earlier this week. Aside from making me (and I’m sure a bunch of other people my age) feel both sad and old, it was, as these anniversaries often are, an opportunity to revisit the incredible influence Mister Rogers and his show had on my generation, and to remind ourselves how relevant and important his message remains today. I read so many tributes to his lessons about kindness, selflessness, self-affirmation, and acceptance of others, all of which are well-deserved. These are lessons which are, if anything, more important today given the current state of society, but one thing I did not see, which I would like to address here, is the way he encouraged us to be creative, to play, to make believe.
Every episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood included a trip to The Land of Make Believe, a portal-fantasy world accessed by his model trolley, where Rogers’ puppet characters interacted with the human actors to address the theme of that week’s series of episodes. The stories were fantastical, often featuring characters visiting from The Purple Planet or making use of a magical boomerang, and worked to reinforce the lessons Rogers taught in the real-world segments of the show.
The importance of make believe fit with Rogers belief in the importance of play. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
The inclusion of both the real-world and fantasy elements separated Mister Rogers Neighborhood from the other major educational programs of my childhood. Most programs were either entirely fantasy, like Sesame Street, where humans and Muppets existed in the same world, or entirely based on a non-fiction conceit, like Reading Rainbow.
Mister Rogers always emphasized the difference between what was real and what was pretend. It is was important to him that kids knew the difference. For example, he would only let Big Bird guest star in The Land of Make Believe segment because Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who created and performed Big Bird did not want to reveal that Big Bird was pretend on the non-fiction portion of the show. While one can debate Rogers and Spinney’s views on presenting fantasy to children, the dichotomy which Rogers drew between the real and pretend segments of the program reinforced the concept that The Land of Make Believe constituted play time.
Despite this dichotomy, Rogers would often take elements of the make-believe portion of the show into the real-world setting. In one episode, he creates a pet on a stick puppet and sings the same song to it that King Friday sang to his pet on a stick. He would also often engage on other forms of creativity, like drawing with crayons or playing with a toy truck.
As a creative child, I appreciated the emphasis on creativity and play. In a world which seemed to devalue it as I grew older, it was nice to see a respected adult make time for it each day. As an adult I appreciate it even more. The older we get, the less time there seems to be for active play. So much of our time gets taken over by work and responsibility, and play disappears from most of our lives. Adult leisure time consists largely of passive activities, like watching television and movies, listening to music, and reading, which though it requires a more active mental participation, still has a predetermined ending (and path to that ending) created by someone else. Even more nominally creative activities, such as wine and paint nights, often offer a step-by-step processes where the participants all end up with the same painting at the end of the night. Very few adults engage in real, unstructured, creative play.
Art is one way adults can engage in creativity and play. I’ve written about the way my writing functions as play in this space before. Kurt Vonnegut, who is a much greater authority on writing and art than I, also advocates for creativity–real creativity for creativity’s, not commercial success’ sake.
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake,” the famous American author wrote. “Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Many adults say they want to be creative, and yet say they do not have time for it. The answer, as is it so often, is to do what Fred Rogers would do: Make time for make believe. Acknowledge its importance, and schedule creative time as part of your day. Yes, the “real” part of your life is important, but so is your creative time.
The fantasy genre is not exactly known for brevity. Its shelves are populated by long book and longer series, full of magic, intrigue, and immersive worldbuilding. Many of the top authors in the field routinely release books which clock in at 1000+ pages, and these books only tell one small section of a larger story. George RR Martin’s still incomplete A Song of Ice and Fire series takes up more space on my shelf, for example, than all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books combined. Fans of the fantasy genre–myself included–love immersing ourselves in a long series, and it gives me great joy that at least one popular genre encourages reading longer works.
And yet, it is often difficult to get new readers into the fantasy genre precisely because of the thickness of the average fantasy novel. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to recommend a favorite book or series to an interested potential reader only to have them hesitate because they weren’t sure if they wanted to commit to 1000+ pages, much less many 1000+ page books (unless, or until HBO or Netflix picks up an adaptation). As a fan of the genre, and as a writer, I found this exceedingly frustrating, but, with time, I came to accept it as part of the reality of being a fantasy fan.
Recently, however, I’ve read a number of fantasy novellas. During my reread of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, I came across “The Finder” in the collection, Tales of Earthsea. While the story, which focuses on the founding of the School at Roke, is part of the Earthsea cycle, it, in my mind, stands on its own as well. Like many of the stories here, knowing the larger story of the Earthsea cycle enhances the reader’s experience, but it is not necessary to enjoy the novella on its own. “The Finder” is one of my favorite fantasy stories. It focusses on smaller characters and tells a personal, coming of age story tinged with magic and filled with wonder. Clocking in at exactly 100 pages, it is an excellent introduction to Le Guin and her most famous fantasy world.
Fine, you might say. That’s Ursula Le Guin. Even her novels are short. She can do in 200 pages what might take Patrick Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson a thousand. Fair point, but there are wordier writers who wrote fantasy novellas as well.
The version of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin which is included in The Unfinished Tales clocks in at a mere 92 pages. I recently reread The Unfinished Tales before watching The Rings of Power (since it includes a lot of second-age stories), and I was reminded of how much I like it. Without spoiling the story, it’s a classic love tragedy that reminds me a bit of Romeo and Juliet with a Dragon. While the Tolkien estate has released a longer, “complete” version, which is just over 300 pages, the 90ish-page version reads like a complete story to me. Much like the Le Guin story, this story occurs many years prior to The Lord of the Rings, and, as such, it stands on its own and one does not need to have read the more famous trilogy to “get” this one.
Similarly, George RR Martin, who, if anything, is more wordy than Tolkien, wrote a series of novellas about a hedge knight named Dunk and his Squire, Egg. While these stories have been criticized by fans, that criticism stems more from their frustration that Martin has written them instead if finishing his main series rather than from any criticism of the actual stories. The novellas themselves are fun, and would make a perfect introduction to Martin’s world for somebody who might be reluctant to commit to reading the thousands of pages of the main series.
This year, I will be seeking out more fantasy novellas, both as a means of introducing new readers to my favorite genre and as quick visits to worlds I love.
In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
Stories, we are all taught at a young age, have a beginning, a middle, and and end. This fact–for it rarely stated as anything but a fact, goes back at least to Aristotle, who explained the basic plot structure, or, as he called it, protasis, epitasis, and catharsis, using the metaphor of string. In the first act, the protasis, the various plot strands are introduced, in the second act, or epitasis, the strands are wound around each other so that they tighten into a rope–the plot thickens–until can’t be wound tighter, and then in the the third act, the catharsis, the strands are cut at the climax of the action, and fall away.
Modern critics have taken Aristotle’s ideas and adjusted them to focus on character instead of plot, but, the general idea remains the same.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning-poet-and-screenwriter David Mamet, one of the most successful and influential contemporary writers, also advocates for the three act structure in his book Three Uses of the Knife. The title of the book comes from this Leadbelly quote, which is one of the cleanest representations of the three-act plot: “You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.”
In fact, nearly every writing class, from kindergarten through the graduate level, as well as nearly every independent course or article for writers, advocates for a three act structure. You might think it was the only way to structure a story.
There are many successful stories which do not follow the three act structure. Shakespeare’s plays have five acts. Many successful modern plays (Waiting for Godot and the Elephant Man immediately come to mind) have only two. The Glass Menagerie has seven scenes which are not divided into acts. Star Trek (The original series) is a four act show, as is Eugene Oneill’s The Ice Man Cometh. Kishōtenketsu, a traditional Japanese story structure also has four acts.
It’s worth noting, additionally, that the ancient Greek plays and epics which Aristotle analyzed in the poetics were not conceived as three act stories either. The plays were told in a series of scenes and choruses, and the epics were largely episodic, and if anything, tend more toward a circular or two act structure than three.
I’m going to start off by saying there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a fine way to tell a story. It’s just not the only way to tell a story. The examples above prove there are others.
I do not object to the existence of the three act structure when it is appropriate. What I object to is the reductive nature of writing instruction and criticism which tries to shoehorn every successful story into this framework. Tennessee Williams could have made The Glass Menagerie a three-act play if he wanted to. He wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Three Act Play, for example. If he didn’t include acts, there must have been a reason. Similarly, I cannot tell you how many lessons I’ve seen where a teacher tries to teach a Shakespeare play like a three act play.
Moreover, for most of history, the three act structure was a critical tool, not a creative one. Aristotle–who has been proven wrong (through still historically important) in most fields said Sophocles plays were composed of three parts. There is nothing to indicate that Sophocles felt the same as he was composing them.
Modern analysis, which attempts to reduce Joseph Campbell’s hero journey (itself a critical rather than compositional tool) to a three act structure, is an interesting crutch, but are likely more accurate as a description of how modern stories synthesize the hero’s journey with the three act structure, with the older, epic form. It may be useful for some writers–and work for some stories–but they should not be considered one-size-fits-all prescriptions, and there are other types of circular narrative (see Alan Moore’s writing and writing about writing for examples).
Experimenting with different structures can help us get out of our ruts and solve common compositional problems. When I teach, I often suggest my struggling students try a simpler structure to begin with. A two act structure is a powerful structure with a long history. It allows the writer to set up parallels and juxtapose moments by placing their characters in similar situations before and after a central event or turning point. Many writers have the most trouble with the second act. Why not get rid of it, and just focus on two? Other students may have difficulty with the beginning or the end. Why not follow Shakespeare’s example (he is generally considered the greatest writer of all time for a reason) and try to plot your story across five acts to resolve those issues.
More generally, however, all of these divisions are tools rather than rules. Even if we focus exclusively on the hero’s journey narrative, there are all sorts of ways to divide the story structurally. We can, of course, divide it, into the classic three act structure around the crossing of the threshold, the journey, and the return to the familiar world; but we can also divide it into four acts, up until the character crosses the threshold, from the crossing to the underworld/belly of the beast. the heavy price, the return, changed, to the familiar world (this divides the circle into quadrants); or even into just two acts: descent and return. The pie, being a circle, can be sliced in infinite ways. The writer should choose whichever form works for them, and leave the critics to their own analyses.
On top of that, Star Trek, The Eastern forms like the Kishōtenketsu , Shakespeare, the great Russian novelists, and the post modernists who consciously reject classical forms, show the myriad of other forms a story can take.
Again, there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a great structure, and many successful stories use it. As writers, however, it is important to recognize that there are other ways to write a good story. Limit yourself at your own peril.
If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know that I often draw inspiration from various museum exhibitions I patronize throughout the year, (And if you’ve not been following for a while, I bid you welcome.) Writers can learn a lot from other creative professions, and I am particularly drawn to the way painters approach their artistic practice. I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from famous painters (including this post about Matisse and dealing with impossibility of perfection), and Miro’s description of his creative process in I Work Like a Gardener matches my own. It is no surprise, then, that upon visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cubism and The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, I found something I could relate to my writing practice. While the show, which showed the influence of Trompe l’oeil on the cubists, featured many exquisite paintings by the great cubists Picasso, Braque, and Gris, it was a picture of marble texture from a French painting manual which caused me to consider my own writing practice.
Consider the following picture:
It is a full-page example of how to paint textured marble from a French painting manual contemporary with the time Georges Braques was learning to paint. A classically-trained French artist was expected to be able to replicate the look of various materials so that they looked realistic. There are similar examples in the manual which show the materials and techniques needed to paint wood, paper, stone, etc, realistically. The French painter was expected to be able to replicate these materials in their work to such an extent that viewer would not be able to tell the difference between the imitation and the original.
According to the exhibition, the goal was to emulate Parrhasius, who according to Pliny the Elder, entered into a competition with Zeuxis to see who could paint the most realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that a bird flew up to it (thinking they were real grapes). Parrhasius’ painting appeared to be behind a curtain, and Zeuxis requested that the curtain be drawn so that he could see the painting, except the curtain was actually what Parrhasius had painted. Zeuxis admitted defeat and said that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius’ painting was so realistic that he had deceived another artist.
While this level of skill might seem mythical, the trompe l’oeil painters got pretty close. Consider this painting of two chipped, plaster reliefs by Jean Etienne Liotard from the exhibition:
Braque, being trained in the tradition, was expected to achieve a similar level of skill.
While the cubists did not paint realistic, representational art, they were classically trained. One can see the skill they had for imitating materials and textures, especially, in the works presented in this exhibition. The challenge presented by the gallery cards early in the exhibit was to try to figure out which elements of each paining were painted, and which were collaged. It was often nearly impossible to tell.
Take for example, this painting by Picasso.
In order to achieve this level of skill, an artist would have to spend hours painting entire canvases of textured material, like the one presented above. Its inclusion in this show not withstanding, no one is hanging a picture which imitates a slab of marble on their wall. But, to achieve the requisite skill and become a master artist, painters like Braques and Picasso would have to spend hours in the studio working on pieces that were not intended for exhibition or sale, whose only purpose was to help them hone their own skill. Only by spending hours practicing, could he become the artist they wanted to be.
So, what does this have to do with writing? As I’ve written about before, writing advice tends to focus on product rather than skills: How many words are you going to write each day; how much time are you going to spend writing; how many books/stories/poems are you going to finish/publish/submit this year. These types of goals are important, but they neglect a key component of improving as an artist: intentional practice. While the current theory of writing instruction, from K-12 to the post-graduate level is that writing makes you a better writer is likely true to some extent, it neglects skill development as an important part of a writers’ development. What little skill-based advice there is tends toward over-simplified, trite advice like avoiding alliteration oreliminating adverbs. While I’ve criticized these one-size fits all approaches to writing advice in the past, they are symptomatic of a the larger issue. Skill-based advice and instruction gets boiled down to this type of shallow nonsense because most writers do not take the time to authentically and intentionally work on aspects of their craft as writers for fear of falling off the hamster wheel of productivity.
When was the last time you worked on your metaphors? By this, I mean not trying to come up with a perfect metaphor for a story your working on, but just sitting down and writing a series of metaphors (or similes, or personifications, etc) to get better at the actual skill. When was the last time you wrote dialogue that was unconnected to a character you were already writing? I bet it’s been a long time.
Years ago, I did an exercise from The Creative Writers Notebook where I had to come up with as many portmanteau as possible. Portmanteau is not a device I use often in my writing, but that was all the more reason to do the exercise and to expand my tool box as a writer. It’s been too long since I’ve done those kind of exercises regularly.
Meanwhile, artists post pictures of their figure work, or their progress drawing a particularly difficult body part like hands. Intentional practice and skill development, is a part of their tradition, and it is not, to the same extent a part of ours.
If we look toward non-creative fields, we would see the same thing. A boxer works on the speed bag to improve hand speed, but they do not come into the ring spinning his hands the way they hit the bag; a basketball player works on dribbling drills to improve ball-handling, but the intricate patters they practice are made to improve coordination rather than be practical, in-game moves; a musician practices scales, but does not play those scales straight through in performance. As writers, we should understand that, much like these other pursuits, practicing the component skills of our craft is an essential component of growing in our art.
January is almost over, so I’d better post this before it’s too late! I’ve long wanted to do a “Best Books I’ve Read” post, but in past years, I’ve hesitated because, since my reading taste is so varied, it makes it difficult to compare books to one another. Still, as an avid reader, I want to recommend my favorites, especially since many of the books I enjoyed last year are less well-known than those you might find on other, similar lists.
Overall, I read 65 books last year, which was more than I read in 2021, though I read slightly fewer pages. Many of those books were 19th central novels, as I was doing researching for a major writing project. Related to the same project, I also reread all of the original Sherlock Holmes series, and, because of the Netflix adaptation, I reread the entire Sandman comics series as well. Many of the Holmes and Gaiman books would have made the list if this was the first time I was reading them, but I decided not to include them below. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed each of these chunks of my reading list, it meant that I didn’t get to read as many contemporary books or books about writing craft/the creative life as I usually do. I intend to read more of these in the coming year, as well as to read more diverse authors, more poetry, and more non-fiction in the coming year.
I’ve divided the best books I’ve read into categories below to help you find what you’re most interested in reading.
Best Book I Read Last Year Overall: Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson
This lesser-known Stevenson book is a collection of short fables, which while they play off of traditional fables and fairy tales, are subversive in their intent. These stories, which vary in length, criticize people who blindly follow societal and religious conventions, flipping the traditional purpose of the instructive fairytale on its head. They are also read really modern for a book written so long ago, with some stories, like “The Person’s of the Tale” where characters from Treasure Island debate morality during a “break” between two chapters, bordering on the post-modern. The stories, as you might imagine from a master like Stevenson, are beautifully written, and I found the anti-groupthink message particularly relevant given the current social and political climate. There is also, an excellent podcast, Evening Under Lamplight, where Robert Louis Abrahamson reads and discusses each of the fables. He covers Stevenson in season 3, and if you are a fan of audiobooks, this may be the best way to consume Stevenson’s Fables.
I picked this one up on whim from a free giveaway table, in the snow, outside of a baseball card shop in Cooperstown. The store was about to close for the season, and was giving stuff away. This book includes a selection of both Japanese and American Haiku about baseball, including Jack Kerouac’s first haiku (super cool) and haiku by many historical Japanese masters. The poetry is excellent, but what really sets the book apart is Van Den Heuvel’s introduction which is, by far, the best introduction to haiku I’ve read. I learned so much both about the technical craft aspects of writing haiku and about the history of haiku in each country from his essay, and the information and analysis he provided enhanced my enjoyment of the poetry that followed.
Best Novel I Read This Year For The First Time: Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot
I read this book as part of my above-mentioned research. I was searching for a compelling female character from the second half of the 19th Century who survived until the end of her book (harder than it sounds, btw), and this book features two of them (no spoilers). Though I went into it for research purposes, I ended up really enjoying this book. It’s a big book, which we might expect from Elliot, and unlike her other books, it is set close to the time period in which she wrote. It reminded me of a Jane Austen book, but one which featured a double plot with a twist, similar to a Charles Dickens novel. If that’s your type of thing, you should check it out. It is also one of only two “classic” British books with a fair and sympathetic depiction of Jewish people, which I appreciated as a person of Jewish descent (the other being Ivanhoe). More so than other book in the canon, it gets the Jewish parts rights. The research into Jewish history and culture is impressive and accurate, which only added to my enjoyment.
Best Independent/Small Press Book: Dark Black, by Sam Weller
The first thing you will notice about this book is how beautifully it’s put together. Each of the gothic horror short stories is accompanied by a hauntingly exquisite black and white illustration. Beyond the presentation, the stories work. They are deceptively sparse, but linger long after they’ve been read. Weller is Ray Bradbury’s biographer, and clearly, he learned something from the great master’s early, gothic work.
While this book is part of the Black Hammer universe, Barbalien is basically a self-contained story which you can read without having read the rest of the Black Hammer books. It is an original take on a superhero comic, and deals with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It deals with weighty issues like persecution against the gay community without being preachy, and somehow tells an entertaining story while dealing with a big, dark societal issues. The art is retro as well, right down to the number of panels on each page, which fits the story well. I always try to read at least one book from the New York Public Library’s Best Books of the previous year. (I started 2023 with the ambitiously original My Volcano, by John Elizabeth Stintzi), and Barbalien was a worthy selection on the 2021 list.
I’ve been going to the American Museum of Natural History essentially since I was born. I know the museum like the back of my hand, and still enjoy going there. I picked up this book in the gift shop the first time I took my kids back to museum after the pandemic. It is essentially a narrative history of the museum’s founding and early history, and it not only taught me about the museum’s past, but made the experience of going to the museum after I read even more enjoyable. The sections about dinosaurs and gems are particularly good, but I also enjoyed the smaller anecdotes, such as the story of the chimpanzee whose stuffed body sits near the third floor bathroom outside of where one of the current temporary exhibition galleries lets out. That monkey used to run around the museum offices and ride its tricycle through the city!
The books which help my writing most aren’t always books about writing. A couple of years back, it was a book of interviews with the painter Joan Miro. This year it’s an exhibition catalog.
I often purchase the exhibition catalog when I particularly enjoy a show at a museum. Often, these books, while they are good reminders of the show, are, ultimately, disappointing, as something is lost in terms of scale and texture when the art is translated from the wall to the printed page. This is not an issue in this book, however, as the Bodleian traveling Tolkien exhibition this book is based on consists of largely of Tolkien’s manuscripts, letters, and ephemera. Tolkein’s watercolors and drawings also translate well to this format because they are generally on a smaller scale and do not rely on texture and brushstrokes as much as, say, a Van Gogh or a Jackson Pollack. Thus, this was one of the best exhibition guides I’ve read.
The reason it is on this list, however, is because of the scholarly and biographical articles which are included in this volume. Tolkien is my favorite writer, and the reason started writing myself, but I still learned a lot about his life and about his group The Inklings while reading this book. Moreover, there were articles which directly affected the way I approach my craft. These articles explored Tolkien’s use of language. I wrote about one of them here.
Well, that’s my list. What were some of your favorite books you read last year? Let me know in the comments.