Sunday, 21 June 2009

Guest Review: Ron Carlson Writes a Story

I'd not come across this book before Caleb J Ross submitted his review, and it's a real treasure: I strongly recommend it. If you have your own favourite book about writing or publishing do please consider sending me a review, and I'll put it up here as soon as my schedule allows.

Instead of waxing on aspects of craft or grammar as so many instructional writing books do, Ron Carlson’s (author of the collections At the Jim Bridger and A Kind of Flying among many others) Ron Carlson Writes a Story opts for a focus on the process of organically discovering a narrative. Using his story, “The Governor’s Ball,” as the book’s foundation, Carlson takes the reader on his journey from word one to THE END, emphasizing the discovery above the planned technical route that many of us may be used to.

Carlson champions this organic process of discovery, rooted by what he calls a “collision,” which is an idea, event, anything that strikes his attention in a memorable way. This is the seed of a story, pre-outline, pre-pen to paper. In the case of “The Governor’s Ball,” this collision is between the actual event of Mr. Carlson losing a mattress from the back of his truck during a move, and an actual governor’s ball that the author and his wife attended years ago. Now, with this seed, or collision, where does he go?

Carlson dismisses detailed outlines and otherwise structure in favor of the story’s already present inventory. As he says, “I’m constantly looking for things that are going to help me find the next sentence, survive the story”. Simply put, he promotes using every word laid down as an inventory of possibilities for following words, until reaching the end of the story. Seems logical, and it is. But so often forgotten.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story is not a typical Writer’s Digest, prepackaged how-to. This is something useful, something with the potential to truly influence a writer’s storytelling abilities, but beware of control, As Ron Carlson says, “Writing is exploration, it isn’t neat”.

Caleb J Ross has published fiction and non-fiction all over, most recently in Flint Hills Review, Vestal Review, and online in Dogmatika, No Record Press, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Cherry Bleeds. He is the co-editor of Colored Chalk and a co-editor for the Guild of Outsider Writers. He loves ACID cigars.


Paul Lamb said...

Thanks for this review. I've just ordered a copy of this book from my local library.

I don't smoke many cigars, but when I do I prefer the Uppmann variety.

Kathryn Magendie said...

I rarely read "how to write" books any more, but that book does sound interesting (it's not that I feel as if I don't have anything to learn - it's just hard to find books that do not say the same thing over and over - so perhaps this is a book for me to read!)

I love the uncovering, the digging/exploring, and then finding-discovering. Sounds as if he likes to do things that way as well.

I'll have to check it out!

Sam said...

I recently read 'Story' by Robert McKee. It focuses on screen writing but is equally relevant to novels. It is not a formula but a framework. I don't like to be constrained but when I reviewed my manuscript and outline so far, I realised just what was wrong with the sections that I felt unsure of. As a result I now have a direction which means when I sit down to write I can focus on the language and characters.

Anonymous said...

A commenter on my blog recently pointed me towards Paul Mandelbaum's 12 Short Stories and Their Making, which does exactly what it says on the tin: Each of 12 stories is followed by an interview with its author about how it was written. Fascinating stuff.

emmadarwin said...

Meant to say, I agree that 'how to write' books have their limitations, because if they're trying to be at all concretely useful, it's next to impossible for them not to stray into prescriptiveness and become a This Is How To Write A Book, at least as read by the meeker and less confident kind of aspiring writer. Only of course it's never that simple, and there's no rule about how to write a book which zillions of brilliant writers don't break.

Whereas 'how to read' books (Francine Prose, David Lodge, James Wood, John Mullan) and 'how I do it' books (Carlson, Mandelbaum, the Paris Review Archive, may its shadow never grow less) are offering an individual writers ideas and possibilites, in the spirit of 'this suits me, it might suit you.' It's easier, therefore, I think, for us to cherry pick, and feel free to ignore what doesn't suit us.

Laryn Kragt Bakker said...

I've used my own version of "writing as exploration" -- see my recent post here: How to write a novel when you have no plot (hint: use bumper stickers).