Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How Is It Made: Taking Writing Apart

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Remember those cartoons where the guy (it's usually a guy) takes the car engine apart to see out how it works? Well, that approach can work for writing, too. Of course, just like that guy, you may end up with parts you don't need. But unlike that guy, you could end up better off without those parts. The key is to study the author's work and ask probing questions to get at how the writing is made.

Last summer I attended the Solstice Summer Writers Conference at Pine Manor College outside Boston. One of the workshop leaders was A. Manette Ansay, author of Oprah's Book Club selection Vinegar Hill and the recent Good Things I Wish You. One of Ansay's pieces of advice, which should become a tool in every writer's toolkit, is to study the writing of an author you like or one you don't and look at the story as a whole, then a chapter, scene, paragraph and sentence. See what the author does with:

  • Dialogue
  • Flashback
  • Metaphor
  • Motif
  • Narrative
  • Point of view
  • Punctuation, including sentence, paragraph and chapter breaks
  • Scene
  • Simile
  • Theme
  • Word order
  • Wordplay
Tip: Consider why the author made one particular choice instead of another. Do a little research to find an interview with the author explaining his or her decisions on the particular work. It will give you an idea of how to apply the same principles to your work.

Resources: For more on A. Manette Ansay's perspective, see "A. Manette Ansay on Writing."

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