Saturday, November 27, 2010

How to Write Like a Victorian

What can the first how-to book for fiction still tell us? That's the question Slate asks.

From the piece...

Cody's call for carefully detailed characters and settings remains timeless. New writers adopt an inadvertent shorthand, forgetting that the reader cannot see what is in their head. It's a plight How To Write Fiction compares to emptying out a quart bottle of molasses and finding that it only yields a pint. The rest is still stuck inside the container: "The young writer imagines he has a good story, but when he has a written it out the story is not half so good as he fancied, and he wonders what is the matter. The truth is, half of it still remains in his mind."

If Cody's advice from 1895 is familiar, it's probably because writers have changed much less than writing itself. Aspiring authors are still told to beware of their pet lines—their darlings—and most still don't listen. Ruthlessness with one's own copy remains the mark of a professional, because you have to stab yourself in the back. And the stricture to "write what you know"? It's still the universally misunderstood abridgement of Write what you know—so go out and know something. The writer who doesn't will only have one or two books in them. Writers in for the long haul don't have a great story—they have a dozen—and because they believe in their own ability to create more, they'll toss them aside whenever they're not wanted or needed.

It's here that How To Write Fiction is most haunting. Memoirs now bear authors the same peril that coming-of-age novels once did: namely, a self-centeredness that leaves them with nothing else to write. Cody leans on a fence to observe these one-trick ponies: "There are a great many writers who start out in the magazines with a few brilliant and interesting short stories. There are a few printed on the strength of their first reputation, which are not so good ... and the reader hears their names no more until one or two of their first stories are reprinted in some collection, and he wonders what has become of the authors."

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