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At last, a real How to Write book...

I've been reading Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer and it's immediately joined my short list of the 'How to Write books' worth bothering with: the ones that don't tell you how to write.

Pam Johnson recommended it to me; Pam's a novelist and poet who also teaches on the Creative Writing MA at Goldsmiths. We met to talk blogging but when Pam says a book really tackles the core issues of what good writers do, I listen.

The next day I dropped in on one of my local indie bookshops and there it was on the shelf. I escaped, for a change, with only four more books than I'd meant to buy, and have scarcely been able to put Reading Like a Writer down since.

There are good How to Write books out there; it's when they start propounding formulae that my heart sinks: plot shaped like a W, anyone? 'Take out any sentence that uses was because it's passive', could only be said by someone alarmingly ignorant of grammar and of how good writing works, but it crops up frighteningly often. And always, even if what they say is neither silly nor ignorant, there's an undertow of 'If you do it like this you'll be published,' as if it were that simple.

So, what does Prose do that makes Reading Like a Writer so different?

Well, it does no harm that she writes beautifully herself. But mainly she shows us how great writers - Chekov, Gallant, Henry Green, George Eliot, Kafka, Austen, Márquez - put together the nuts and bolts that we all struggle with. Her chapters are called 'Sentences', 'Paragraphs', 'Gesture' and 'Dialogue', and the like, and in each she illuminates how the actual words chosen by these masters, and the order they're put it, create the spell - delightful or terrifying - that is why we read, and why we write. She shows that the craft in choosing words to make art is a kind of practical magic that can keep you, the reader, on the edge of your seat or make you cower into it. And because she's such a perceptive reader she lets you in, just a little, on the Craft. By implication, by example, by osmosis she teaches us how to practice the magic.

It's the kind of close reading which has become less fashionable in the study of English Literature, but close reading is absolutely crucial for a writer. As Prose says, creative writing is close writing. We have to chose the words, one by one, in which to say what we want to say. Thinking that indivdual words and sentences don't matter, as has been the tendency in literary studies in the last few decades, and that the broad brush, the cultural sweep, the bigger picture are more important, isn't an option. It may be an option for a literary critic, anxious to redress cultural and gender imbalances or wanting ammunition in the grand battles of Theory. But it simply can't be an option for writers, any more than thinking that the quality of the bricks you build a house with and how you lay them doesn't matter.

The last benefit of Reading Like a Writer is that it's full of wonderful writing. Some I knew but much is new to me. Even the shortest excerpts re-fuelled me, as great writing does. I'm in the last - I hope - stages of revising my new novel. Prose's book is sending me back to The Beast, as I find myself calling it at bad moments, with a sharper eye and a tougher spirit. But it's also reminding me why I do this thing called writing.

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