Over the years, I’ve gotten rid of several bookcases worth of books. Despite those purges, I still have three shelves full of books about writing craft.
I think I keep most for the sake of nostalgia, but some — especially style guides and books about grammar — are things I return to now and then. The last book about actual craft I read was The Art of Time in Fiction, and that was probably five years ago. (I don’t consider Dreyer’s English and Semicolon books on craft as much as books about grammar and history.)
But that’s changed this week with the release of George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. (And will continue at least into next week because I’ve also pre-ordered Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World.)
I Should Probably Wait…
I should probably wait until I’m done with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain before writing this, but this is not a review of the book. (Perhaps after finishing it and Salesses’ upcoming release I’ll review them together.)
I feel I will likely have more to say the deeper into Saunders’s book I get, but already, it has me thinking about things I don’t normally think about when it comes to writing (at least actively).
The What Act Structure?
I don’t think about writing when I do it; that is, I don’t consider acts, beats, rising and falling actions, and many other things writers are supposed to think about when plying the craft.
When I write, I sit down and…just do it.
I work until the shape of a story feels right to me. And because I grew up in a house full of books, none of which were off limits, I suppose story structure has always been a thing I recognize without issue, whether reading or writing.
I say this because I once plugged a novel into one of the many popular writing templates out there (Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid), just to see how on or off my last novel was according to a thing like that. And it conformed pretty well to the points made in Coyne’s guide. But there’s a difference, I believe, in knowing what a story feels like and writing it vs. starting with something like the story grid. When someone writes to a pre-determined template, it’s almost always painfully obvious.
Maybe they hit all the points they are supposed to hit, but you can always tell who hasn’t spent time challenging themselves by reading deeply and understanding that stories are about so much more than structure.
Back to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain…
In George Saunders’s latest, he attempts to take a writing workshop he’s taught for years and put it in book form. The gist: he takes a handful of short stories by older Russian authors and breaks down what works and what doesn’t.
It might sound boring if you’re not into late 19th century/early 20th century Russian writers, but it isn’t. (Although it’s my hope the release of Matthew Salesses book next week, with a focus on more diverse writers, tempers the stout canon of old, dead Russians.)
Where so many books about structure focus on hitting predetermined points — at least with the first story broken down in the book — Saunders focuses more on how stories have infinite possibilities before we begin, but ultimately become a reduction to something very specific and full of feeling.
Instead of, “Determine your three acts and these points within each, and then do these things by these page numbers,” Saunders shows how most authors haven’t written like that until recently, when how-to books began promising to make people not invested in literature writers. [That’s my point about the how-to books — not one Saunders makes.]
Artistic Focus and Plot
Saunders sums up one of the main focuses in his life like this:
The focus of my artistic life has been trying to learn to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish.
It seems like such a simple thing, right? All you have to do is write something emotional that keeps people turning pages. So why not focus mostly on plot — that’s what gets people turning pages, right?
Plot is a word Saunders does not like much. He proposes changing it to “meaningful actions,” and I like that. And sure, one can argue that a structured plot creates meaningful actions — and maybe for some they do — but what Saunders gets at is much deeper than plotted points on a story grid. All those big “plot” points and subtle expectations come through not just reading for fun, but stopping and considering what you’ve read along the way.
To write well, one must read well.
I went through a phase in my 20s where I insisted that was unnecessary; after all, I was selling stories and writing more than reading. But what my little punk-ass hadn’t considered is I had a fortunate head start with the way my family read.
Story structure was a thing I always felt…and still do. But it’s not because I have some inherent gift — it’s because I read everything I could get my hands on, whether it was something targeted to my age and crass, like Crazy Magazine or struggling through the contemporary literature my older sister, mother, and step father read…because I wanted to be more like them and share their tastes.
As much as A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is about writing, it is also about reading well. It’s a good complement to Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction — another book that praises the finer points of deeper reading no matter what book is resting in your lap or on your e-reader’s screen.
More to Come?
This may be all I have to say about George Saunders’s latest book…or maybe additional sections will have me thinking about other aspects of writing (and reading).
But I already feel confident saying that if you are a big fan of how-to books that hype hitting pre-determined points in a plot, the challenge of finding something more subtle and emotional makes A Swim in a Pond in the Rain a worthy read.