While I am pleased to add Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer" to my how-to-write-good canon, I think I'd like her to do it over, not as a replacement, more as a corollary. Keep the title and most of the content; change the subtitle to "A PRACTICAL Guide for NEW Writers Aspiring to Make a Living in a Dysfunctional Industry". Ms. Prose has been at this game for so long and been successful for nearly as long that she has forgotten what it's like to be an FNG (effing new guy) to professional writing. She certainly hasn't experienced anything like being unknown and unpublished in the last 10 years where the barriers to entry have become even more entrenched than they ever were before.
So what to put in the new improved version? Besides an index, start with losing the references that were written before, say, 1960. It's obvious Ms. Prose loves the classics. So do I. Those writers were giants in their day. But it would be career suicide to try to write like them today, especially the overfed prose of the British writers. Today's writers have XBox, reality shows, and cellphone-texting standing by ready to steal the reader with the flick of a switch. Today's writers need to grab the reader quickly and not let go. That can't be done with 181-word sentences. This is the age of the short attention span. It is no accident that Harold Bloom has little regard for J.K. Rowling. Neither is it an accident that all the world is reading Rowling's work.
How to account for this phenomenon? Though Ms. Prose and I are nearly the same age, she has spent her life in literature while I spent mine first as an Army officer and later as an engineer. I've only been at this reading/writing game for about five years. Before you scoff, engineering and writing are more alike than they are different. Each is governed by a set of laws--grammar for writing, formulas for engineering. But beyond that there is a great deal of room for artistry, creativity, or, as we say in engineering, elegance. Were this not so, all bridges would either look alike or fall down.
Growing up in the world of words I can easily see how Ms. Prose fell in love with Words, Sentences and Paragraphs. She's become a virtuoso, rather like one of those violinists who delight in playing things that are hard to play whether or not they are nice to listen to. As for myself, I'm a Signal-to-Noise-Ratio kinda guy. In any given sentence, some words contribute to signal (meaning), while others contribute to noise. As I read Ms. Prose's windier sample passages, I observed two things: first I had to read them several times to grok their meaning--I had to grope for the subject-verb-object and was tempted to highlight them after I found them. Second, I never did settle into the rhythm of the words that she insisted was there. After five years, I can write a pretty good sentence, clever even. However, I suspect Ms. Prose and I go about it in very different ways and have very different outcomes. I think I'll pick up a copy of "Blue Angel" to see if I'm right.
Some other observations:
--Her chapters started out with decreasing granularity--words, sentences, paragraphs. I would have liked her to extend that progression to scenes and chapters as well. I suspect the sheer bulk prohibited that in this edition.
--A chapter I would have liked to have seen would have been one on openers. Every sentence has a mission--to get you to read the next sentence. Any sentence that fails in that mission leaves a long string of unrequited sentences. Hence, the nearer the failure occurs to the beginning of the book, the greater the damage. She did comment on a few people's openers, but I believe separate billing for openers would have been justified.
--I got a chuckle out of her closing section, Books to Be Read Immediately. She just got done convincing me to read more slowly, one word at a time. BTW--engineers do that by nature. Now she presents me with a single-spaced list of books that goes on for five pages. I had been wondering what I was going to do for the next twenty years--now I know.
--She commented that the joy of writing for her and many other writers comes from crafting sentences. I will admit that is one of the more fun parts of writing, but that is not why I write. I write to tell stories. Sentences--no matter how finely crafted--are only a means to that end. Beyond telling stories, I have the hidden agenda of changing people's attitudes--something you can only do with good fiction. I like to say that if you intend to inform the already convinced, write non-fiction. But if you would change people's attitudes, you must write fiction. Examples: Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (led to the Civil War), or Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (led to the civil rights movement). You can write essay after essay on why it's wrong to be a racist but you will not change one racist mind. They do not respond to facts and logic. But let them live in a racist world, let them walk a mile in racist shoes, as you can only do in fiction--ah, now you may find a chink in their armor. Though racism is not my target, changing people's attitudes is why I write.
--Ejner Fulsang, author of "A Knavish Piece of Work", Aarhus Publishing, 2006