Many years ago, perhaps a few decades now, I found that reading some pages of Fowler’s Modern English Usage would provide a boost to literary activity much as doing twenty-five jumping jacks and/or stomach crunches might get my heart rate up. Alas, Fowler’s became increasingly out of date and the many worthy new editions did not have the same combination of snap and gravitas to do the trick.
I am happy to report that I have found a substitute; it is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. Prose is herself a writer of fiction and though I must confess I do not agree with all her suggestions for books “to be read immediately,” I am pleased to find that I heartily concur with her recommendation of many. These books and others provide illustrations for the wise advice that she has for writers. There is much humor also in this book.
On sentences, for instance, she tells the story of a young author who has lunch with a “super-agent.” They discuss the writer’s ambitions and, when the writer confesses that he is not interested in genres so much as he is in writing beautiful sentences, the agent pauses for a longish time. “Never,” he finally says, “tell this to any publisher.”
Prose also advises that writers occasionally read their work out loud, a practice common among the gentry before mass entertainment trashed the amateur efforts of guests at country homes to entertain themselves, to become aware of the cadence, the rhythm of one’s sentences.
The catholicity of her taste and sources is indicated by her choice of examples. For paragraphs, she selects, among others, Isaac Babel and Rex Stout. "A new paragraph is a wonderful thing," said Babel. "It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect." Prose adds that paragraphs are very much like breaths; they are the natural places/times to inhale or exhale.
From Rex Stout, via Nero Wolfe, comes this observation: "Paragraphing--the decision whether to take short hops or long ones, and whether to hop in the middle of a thought or action or to finish it first--that comes from instinct, from the depths of personality." Thus paragraphing is as peculiar to an individual writer as his or her fingerprint. Some authors are loath to make paragraph breaks, most famously Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Autumn of the Patriarch is written in a single paragraph.
Finally, for this was never intended to be a condensation of all that Prose has to teach a writer, the source that brought Babel's thoughts on paragraphs to us also found him with a high stack of handwritten pages on his desk; was the master of the short story finally going to write a novel? Not at all. The stack represented revisions of his latest short story, all twenty-two of them.