Wednesday, August 8, 2007

POV, age level, and other gems

Reading a writers' craft book authored by a literary author, as compared to a 'nuts-and-bolts' author, can be a gratifying experience. Particularly where the author guides the reader through examples taken from classical literature—whether short stories or novels—or from contemporary literature that may yet await a judgment of time. Francine Prose's book "Reading Like a Writer" is interesting enough to read straight through in daily sessions, though it might be better to take it slow and intersperse such craft reading with a good fiction book. Give the subconscious a little more time to dwell on the writing strategies visited. A good interview of Prose by Andrea Dupree appears in the Writer's Chronicle, Sept. 2007, and touches on many of the topics included in her crafts book.

One of the topics Prose discusses that was of interest to me in my YA fiction writing deals with the voice and Point-of-View of a young person. At times, some authors use a wiser, more mature narrative voice than a first-person YA protagonist might be thought to use. Prose says "I've been writing a novel from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl, and I was tormented by the question of adult consciousness versus child consciousness, adult language versus child language—you know, that stupid statement: I don't think a fourteen year old would say that." Nonetheless, Prose goes on to discuss a story by Leonard Michaels where a seemingly adult consciousness works for a kid at times. "And when I read the Lenny Michaels story, I found things in the story that clearly come from the pre-adolescent kid, and things that clearly come from the adult looking back... It's first person, but sometimes it's a first-person twelve-year-old, and sometimes it's the first person forty-year-old, and it really works…" It's somehow freeing to read that, but of course if one is an unknown writer it could be a risky business.

Along that line, Dupree says to Prose, "In 'Reading Like a Writer,' you encourage people to disregard the typical rules that are trotted out in writing classes. At the same time, do you feel that writers who are transgressive in their writing have as good a shot of breaking in as others who are more conventionally polished?" Prose allows that it may set a higher hurdle to overcome in selling the book, but, "I don't think there's any choice. If somebody is talented, they're not going to be able to write for what they think the market wants." Sounds right, or ought to be right.

Another kernel that Prose tosses out, "…the better the writer is, the greater the degree of self-doubt. I've had students who really think they're Tolstoy, and they're not the best students I've ever had. Whereas my friends, whose work I respect enormously, whose work I feel lucky to read, are tormented by self-doubt."

There's a certain thrill in reading a good crafts book. One usually concludes that, armed with such insights, the next book is going to be written better than the last. Give Prose's book a try.
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