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Dear Francine Prose,

Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer

Thank you for Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I like to think that after writing ten books, two of which have won awards, and teaching writing myself for about forty years, I already do read like a writer. But I bought your book when it first came out to see what a highly respected novelist and writing teacher has to say and how she says it. With a book of my own in progress, I didn’t read yours until this past week after I finally completed a first draft of my next mystery. Now it’s time to edit that draft, and you offer excellent advice on how to do that.
You encourage your readers to read the works of many other writers and learn from their examples which you generously provide. You also advise us on how to read and edit our own work. That has always been hard for me. Let me confess. I’m one of those writers who, at first, believes that each word, sentence, image, paragraph, and chapter I put on paper is just right. That’s why I wrote it. When I read a passage aloud to my patient husband or my forbearing writing group, I’m usually awestruck by the freshness of my descriptions, the tempo of my sentences, the aptness of my word choice, and the credibility of my dialogue. My eyes fill with tears and my voice catches over my characters’ problems. You get the idea. I don’t read my own work especially analytically. Instead I read it as if I were a brand new mom gaping at that slimy, screaming lump of flesh and seeing perfection.
I should clarify by adding that for me writing is rewriting and my inner editor is active as I compose. And when pressed by my agent or an editor or my writing group, I’ve been known to line edit, cut, and modify characters. But Reading Like a Writer has revived my weary inner editor and revealed additional possibilities. I was especially taken by your suggestion that we avoid having our characters’ gestures be trite. Rather we should observe and find some gestures that actually reveal character and aren’t especially familiar. Another issue you discuss is one that has come up often in my writing group: the likeability of the protagonist. When one of us creates a main character who is less than endearing, let alone who is despicable, there’s pushback. But you cite extremely fine authors who have put some nasty folks on the pages of their work, and so you remind us that the “rules” that are said to define good writing don’t always do that.
I’m intrigued by the clear organization of your book, each chapter focusing on a different way we can improve our writing. I savored reading it from beginning to end, but have marked places to return to for help with specific changes. It’s daunting to approach altering something we’ve struggled to produce and hard to know where to start. I used to suggest that my students, most of whom juggled families, jobs, and classes, put off rewriting sentences and paragraphs they might eventually eliminate entirely, along with a character or a scene. Instead I suggested that they first make sure they’re satisfied with their characters and their stories and then make stylistic changes. For many of them revising was a new concept, a luxury or a burden they hadn’t bargained on. Maybe I was wrong to try to streamline this crucial process for them.Courage
In Reading Like a Writer you don’t mention working with a writing group. As a midlife doctoral student at NYU, I found myself in a dissertation support group and that was my first writing group. We were, I think, quite helpful to one another, especially with regard to “courage,” a matter you take up in Chapter 11. “…most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page.” You suggest that the reader turn to literature for “courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”
As you can tell by this blog, I find literature inspiring, but I also find a writing group invaluable. Perhaps that’s because I’m an

Writing Group

Writing Group

extroverted sort and need flesh and blood colleagues to accompany me as I make up worlds and people them with equally imaginary characters. Or perhaps it’s because of my aforementioned difficulty in finding fault with my own output. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky to have especially gifted responders in my groups.
Reading Like a Writer has made me eager to explore your fiction, and I will. But I must deny myself that pleasure until I tackle that first draft. Thanks to your clear and sensible work, I’m better equipped to do that now than I was before I read it.
Sincerely,
Jane Isenberg

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