A thought on studying writers…

Just thinking about this today, after my mother pointed it out. I’ve always been told (by other writers) that the best way to learn how to write is by studying your favorite authors. I’ve tried to do this in the past, but I always seem to get too caught up in the stories to pay much attention to the writing itself. However, my mother brought out an interesting suggestion to help me with this problem: read the author’s works back to back. Normally, I mix and match my reading–I’ll pick up a little Wharton here, a little Butler there, a dash of Heinlein, a smidge of Asimov, a touch of Dostoyevsky (if any of the enormous works by Dostoyevsky can be considered just “a touch”). I supplement this with a lot of short fiction–a large chunk of it from the slush pile which can be either really good or really bad, a few from magazines when they catch my fancy and I have enough to purchase them, and many from collections and anthologies I’ve gathered over the years. 

But what my mother suggested intrigues me, because I so rarely read several works by one author in succession. I have a hard time even reading one book in a series after another (unless I’m *really* floored–John Christopher, Orson Scott Card, I’m looking at you two!). Even with Harry Potter, which I came to late, I separated with large stretches of other fiction. The reason I’ve always done this is because  usually the foundations, the tactics, the tricks and slight-of-hand that so delight me in one story become clear and plain by the second and third. I recognize what the author is doing, and I start to see the books for what they truly are: something someone has painstakingly pieced together using the same tools as I’ve been given. Some authors are more transparent than others, of course, but usually reading a single author in succession reveals a great deal about how they approach a story, structure their plot, choose a theme, and develop characters. It shows their strengths, but usually it also reveals their weaknesses (any of which I’d be thrilled to share with them).

So I think I’m going to try reading in succession a little more often. I’ve been doing that a little this month already: after just finishing a collection of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories (*love*), I went back and started rereading Ethan Frome. Funny note about that last one: the copy I have is from when I read the book for school in 9th grade, and therefore contains all of my notes. It’s a fascinating self-study to see how much I’ve learned and grown since  I first read the book. I understand so much more of what she was trying to do.

It’s interesting that although I didn’t like the book very much the first time I read it, years later I still remembered it so clearly that it actually pulled me back and got me into her other fiction. Her descriptions of New England never fail to blow me away, both with the cold, painful mood of them, and the familiarity they strike with me. Just the other day, reading “All Souls'”, she describes her main character waking up in her empty house. It’s snowed overnight, and inside it’s cold and silent. Not just quiet, but silent, like the whole world is muffled. I remember turning to Andy and saying “Wow. I know exactly what she’s talking about. It’s happened to me, too!” It’s always struck me as strange how she could write such cold, bitterly sad stories and yet somehow evoke the warm-coziness of New England. Maybe that’s just me, though; I suppose there are plenty of others who find those miserably delicious descriptions all too familiar, and altogether too cold.

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