So when I sat down to my first day of this Fiction Writing Workshop that I'm taking, you might imagine my pleasure when I saw Edward P. Jones and Tobias Wolff on the syllabus. Brilliant authors, I think. Plenty to write about.
Until the professor started explaining why exactly these literary giants were on our reading list. You see, he doesn't want us to analyze for meaning--he wants us to analyze how these two authors use writing techniques to craft such amazing fiction. How do they bring about character? Setting? What can we learn about story structure, the usage of backflashes, etc?
When I sat down to write my first "book story analysis" on Jones's short "Young Lions," I felt like beating my head against the keyboard. How could I look at this great fiction on a nuts-and-bolts level? It went against everything I'd been trained to do.
I struggled through the assignment and got an okay grade on it, but it wasn't until the next story, Tobias Wolff's "Smorgasbord," that I finally started to understand how to go about the assignment. It wasn't that I didn't understand--it was that I was already doing it, but masking it in my thoughts as pure content analysis.
So I wrote myself a note: first sentence, first paragraph, setting/place, description, ending. These are some of the topics that we tend to emphasize during workshop, so I figured I might as well use them to structure my analysis. I won't say that it exactly flowed out of me, but it was scads easier than the first, and it helped me realize a few things.
- All fiction contains metaphor, symbolism, analogy. But especially symbolism.
- Use your setting not only to give the reader a center, but also to strengthen characterization.
- The details that you choose to describe speak volumes about your characters (the narrators, anyway)
As I've matured as a writer, I've become more conscious of these elements, but the symbolism one still escapes me sometimes, or at least at the levels I'd like it to be resounding.
So here's a thought: read your manuscript like an English major. Make notes as if you were going to write a paper about it.
- How many topics can you find?
- How often do certain elements reappear? Symbols/metaphors/images, etc.
- Do the characters have any sort of connection to something bigger, like a theme?
You might be writing a pop-culture driven YA urban fantasy, but I think this exercise will benefit no matter what your genre. It's all about resonance, threading, and adding as many levels to your writing as possible. Trust me, while your average reader might not be looking for meaning, there will be those readers out there who can't help but search it out, and when they find it in (insert your genre/book here), it's going to stick with them.