I teach writing at the university level—BA, MA, and PhD. What this means is that in addition to my students having to write creatively they also have to write academically, usually in the form of an analysis of their creative work. This requires them to see what other people—other writers and critics—have written about literature, about how it works, and apply that to their own work.
While literary theory is the backbone of literature classes, theory isn’t so important for writing classes because we approach literature from a different perspective: as a craft and skill to practice. For example, what’s important for me—for us—is not so much what the author meant by her use of a warbling vireo as a motif but how that motif works in the story: the mechanics of that little singing bird popping up here and there; how the author plays with the sound of the name and what that does for a reader more than if it was just called a little bird; and, finally, how it might contribute to a theme that the author is working with.
When studying literature, students are faced with a lot of choice. There are unlimited books and journal articles of literary analysis, but what about approaching the craft of writing? There are plenty of books that promise to help people write better; some, such as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, are rather good because of the trust readers have for that particular author. You can also find books that are sort of in between, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and John Mullan’s How Novels Work, which don’t mention theory but rather explore how novels work from a reader’s perspective and work to get readers thinking about structure and other writerly elements.
But the books that I wish there were more of are like what I had to write for my PhD: an analysis of the novel I wrote, of what I did and why. This is different from annotated editions of books, in which an editor has gone back and added footnotes to explain historical context of a reference or how a certain scene links to an event in the author’s life. You don’t find what I’m talking about very often out in the world. Sometimes authors will answer specific questions about their work in interviews but overall it’s rather rare.
One example—one that I used and that I recommend to my students even if they haven’t read the novel that inspired it in the first place—is Umberto Eco’s Postscript to The Name of the Rose. It’s a tiny thing, just over 80 pages, and translated from the Italian. In it, Eco touches on choices both big and small. For example, he explains why he chose November as the time of year in which to set his novel (because that’s when pigs are butchered), a nice world-building detail, and he explains why he included “long didactic passages” (to mirror the pacing of life in a 14th-century abbey).
Eco, however, is a bit ‘academic’ in places. What I mean by that is that he doesn’t always get down to the nitty-gritty on a sentence or even word level in a scene to explain his choices and how they work. For that level of self-analysis, follow Diana Gabaldon, author of the epic Outlander series, as she goes line-by-line in a small scene and describes the tiny details, such as word choice and historical research, and how these details affect and are affected by other elements such as rhythm and character motivation.
Its resources like these that give writers and non-writers alike an inside look at the nuts and bolts of the job. As a [insert job here] you likely read about said job, to keep up to scratch or learn new developments in the field. Writers like to, want to, need to do the same. Consider how you would explain your own writing to a newer writer, or even a more advanced one. Thinking about our writing choices and having to vocalise those choices to someone else strengthens our understanding of our own craft and enables us to look at our own work from a perspective of purpose. So perhaps one thing we can do to help build a collection of this sort of resource is to create them ourselves. From blog posts to more formal outlets, explain the nitty-gritty: give an inside look into your writing choices, explain how the elements fit together, the changes you made and why. The benefits to newer writers are innumerable, but even more important is the benefit of better understanding ourselves as writers.
Tiffani Angus works in Cambridge and lives in Bury St Edmunds with her partner. Her historical-fantasy novel Threading the Labyrinth (Unsung Stories Press), a sort of grown-up Children of Greene Knowe, will be published autumn 2019, and she has published short stories in a variety of genres. When she’s not busy teaching she can be found geeking out in gardens that other people have created. She can be found at http://www.tiffani-angus.com/ or as @tiffaniangus on Twitter.