The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading—carefully, deliberately and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose (Blue Angel; A Changed Man) masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing, which will warm the cold, jaded hearts of even the most frustrated, unappreciated and unpublished writers. (Publisher's Weekly)
Chapter One: Close Reading
Prose addresses the question of whether writing can be taught. She suggests that although writing workshops can be helpful, the best way to learn to write is to read. By reading closely, Prose studied word choice and sentence construction, which helped her solve difficult obstacles in her own writing.
Chapter Two: Words
Prose encourages the reader to slow down and read every word. She reminds the reader that words are the "raw material out of which literature is crafted." She challenges the reader to pause often and ask, "What is the writer trying to convey with this word?"
Chapter Three: Sentences
Prose asserts that "the well made sentence transcends time and genre." She believes the writer who is concerned with what constitutes a well-constructed sentence is on the right path. Prose mentions the importance of mastering grammar and also the use of long sentences, short sentences, and rhythm in prose.
Chapter Four: Paragraphs
Prose insists that paragraph structure is just as important as sentence construction. She states that the writer who reads widely will discover there are no general rules for building a well-constructed paragraph, but "only individual examples to help point [the writer] in a direction in which [the writer] might want to go."
Chapter Five: Narration
When determining point-of-view, Prose says audience is an important factor. She gives examples from literature of first-person and third person, and even the rare second person perspective.
Chapter Six: Character
Using examples from the works of Heinrich von Kleist and Jane Austen, Prose discusses how writers can develop characterization. She mentions that Kleist, in his "The Marquise of O—" ignores physical description of the characters, but instead "tells us just as much as we need to know about his characters, then releases them into the narrative that doesn't stop spinning until the last sentence . . ." Excerpts from other pieces of literature are used to show how action, dialogue and even physical description can help develop characterization.
Chapter Seven: Dialogue
Prose begins this chapter by dispelling the advice that writers should clean up dialogue so that it sounds less caustic than actual speech. She believes this popular idea can be taken too far and that dialogue should reveal not only the surface but the many motivations and emotions of the characters underneath the words.
Chapter Eight: Details
Using examples from literature, Prose explains how one or two important details can leave a more memorable impression on the reader than a barrage of description.
Chapter Nine: Gestures
Prose argues that gestures performed by fictional characters should not be "physical clichés" but illuminations that move the narrative.
Chapter Ten: Learning from Chekhov
As a fan of Chekhov, Prose demonstrates how his texts successfully break the "rules" of fiction writing, even contradicting a lesson she had given her own students. According to Prose, Chekhov teaches the writer to write without judgement and warned against being the "judge of one's characters and their conversations but rather the unbiased observer."
Chapter Eleven: Reading for Courage
Prose discusses the fears writers may have: revealing too much of themselves in their writing; resisting the pressures that writers must write a certain way; determining whether or not the act of writing is worth it when one considers the state of the world. She concludes her book by stating that the writer may fear creating "weeds" instead of "roses." Continuing the metaphor, she says reading is a way for the writer to see how other gardeners grow their roses.
Chapter summaries by Libby Flores, Program Manager for Emerging Voices and The Mark.