“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately,
no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Oh, what tangled webs we weave! As a writer, one of the most enjoyable things about reading is the opportunity it offers to think about craft — specifically, how a writer creates a particular effect stylistically and why he or she makes certain plot decisions about providing or withholding information.
Pondering all this (while keeping Somerset’s caveat in mind!) is both fun and instructive, which is why I really enjoy being part of a reading group made of up of members of my writing group and on occasion, Alex. Tonight, over pizza, wine, and snacks, we tackled the 1998 Booker Prize winner Amsterdam by Ian McEwan.
We launched the evening by watching a short Web video of Ian talking about his writing regimen — he believes that showing up is important, he writes every day (generally from 500 to 800 words), and he spends a few hours every day reading, which he considers integral to his writing.
Next, one member offered some revealing snippets from a Paris Review interview with Ian, which gave us a glimpse into the genesis of Amsterdam: The novel actually arose from a running joke that Ian and a friend had. It led him to come up with a provocative story premise that he reverse engineered to create a plot and a set of characters to inhabit it. One of our group observed that Shakespeare often took the same approach with his comedies. Fascinating!
One of the benefits I’ve discovered of reading for craft is that it encourages you to read a book twice in rapid succession — the first time primarily for character and plot development, and the second time so you can zero in on style and technique. It’s amazing how much you can discover the second time around — and how satisfying it is to gain a deeper sense of what makes a book tick as well as where and why it falls short. Write on!