Some days, the most fun I have is reading an article or blog post on good writing and then read a sample of the writer’s work and it’s awful. It’s even more fun when the writer is a professional.
I was scanning through my Goodreads “To Read” list and clicked on The Half-Known World: on Writing Fiction, by Robert Boswell. I couldn’t remember why I’d added it to my list, so a reread of the description and reviews was in order. That led me to Amazon and the first chapter. And sending away for the paperback.
But I don’t buy books on writing, at least not very often, so coming right after a discussion of how-to books, this was — what? — revenge of the spirit of writing? Someone, somewhere must be laughing, but that’s okay. Just from the short excerpt, I know Boswell is my kind of writer. And the writing he talks about mostly, is literary fiction. I was going to copy a paste a couple of paragraphs, but Amazon doesn’t allow that, so if you’re interested, here’s the link: The Half-Known World .
He says two important things that make me eager to read the book. First, he talks about narrative as a form of contemplation that helps him write his way into the book, ignoring the machinery in favor of working from a kind of half-knowledge.
The second thing he says — or does — is knock down the idea that’s so often passed off as a necessity, the list of questions that you ask yourself about your characters. Here, he brings in a comparison with sitcoms, where you know every character, and pretty much what’s going to happen within the framework of any plot. That’s what the list of character questions is for. And what that does is keep you from discovering anything. You already know it all, so there’s no room for surprise. And if you think that the color of his hair, what he likes to eat, how old he was when he lost his virginity, etc., is all you need to know about your character, then he’s never going to be more than an inch deep.
Amy Rose Davis just posted an odds and ends list that started with this: “I don’t trust the writing of authors who say they just write a story straight through, proof it once or twice, and publish it. I know what everyone says about judging a book and blah blah blah, but these are my confessions. I don’t trust the writing, and I probably won’t take a chance on it.”
My immediate response was that I agreed because the chances are that such a book is either written to a formula, planned out to within an inch of its life so that it allowed no surprises — or is one of those messes that comes out of being led purely by inspiration and an overdeveloped sense of one’s own genius. Are there writers who can defy those limitations? I don’t doubt it, but they’re probably few and far between.