What can we learn from our favorite authors? A writing workshop

It’s the standard piece of advice for would-be writers: write a lot and read a lot.  That’s all fine and good, until you come up against a roadblock in your writing and decide to pick up a book by your favorite author.  “Oh woe is me!” cries the would-be writer.  “I will never be as witty/productive/imaginative/___ as X!”

Writing a lot won’t get you anywhere if you’re not practicing good writing techniques.  Contrariwise, reading a lot won’t make a difference in your writing if you can’t figure out why you like what you read (aka what works).  This exercise will be to single out your favorite writers and isolate what makes their writing work for you.

Without further ado, I give you (in no particular order) my top four favorite writers:
Frances Burney (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, etc)
Lauren Groff (Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds)
Ernest Hemingway (Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc)
George Gordon, Lord Byron (She Walks in Beauty, Don Juan, etc)

What can we determine from this list?  What techniques do these writers use that could be incorporated into my (our?) writing?

After having read all four of Burney’s novels, I am working my way through the Penguin edition of her journals and letters.  Burney is the ur-Jane Austen.  She has an ear for dialogue and characterization.  Even in her journal entries (written to “nobody”) she takes particular care to transcribe conversations and describe personalities and relationships.

Lauren Groff is (I think) one of the best writers of my generation.  Every time I think about her work, I get all tingly.  Her short stories are amazing because they’re just that: a short story.  She has a knack for plots that slowly unfold through time.  They give the impression of poignant urgency.

Ernest Hemingway is Ernest Hemingway.  I love his clipped, masculine style, say what you will.  He has the ability to paint landscapes and portraits with restrained language.  You don’t need adjectives to write well.

The only poet on this list, Lord Byron, is also the funniest (Burney is clever too, but not in a laugh-out-loud way).  His rhymes are facile, but not because they are cheap.  He has an ear for language that makes reading a 500 page poem an adventure, not a chore.  But even with the satirical edge of his work, he can be R/romantic with the best of them.

Dialogue, mood, editing, humor.  And above all, love.  Elements that to me make a great story. 

I’m not suggesting that the next step is to slavishly copy these techniques/styles.  Once these particular elements are traced out, you can take a step back and analyse your own prose.  Have I sufficiently captured the personalities of my characters using dialogue?  Is my plot strong enough to carry this story?  Have I gotten rid of superfluous words?

The last one is going to be nearly impossible to figure out nor is it particularly necessary.  Forced humor is never funny.  Rather, my goal is to maintain a sense of humor; that is, to not take myself too seriously.

What about you?  What can you learn from your favorite authors?


2 thoughts on “What can we learn from our favorite authors? A writing workshop

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I love Ernest Hemingway, especially A Moveable Feast because he wrote about writing in cafes, which I love to do. I learned a lot from writers like Steve Almond, David Sedaris, Dave Barry, and Jen Lancaster. What they all have in common is their sense of humor; they write about the world and can laugh at it.

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