I've never taken any fiction classes so I'm teaching myself about the mechanics of writing fiction. It's fascinating. I'm learning so much.
So far I've learned: The last two books I've written are lost causes.
My MFA barely taught anything about the technical aspects of poetry. We workshopped our poems. I got comments about my poems from my peers who were as good or bad at writing poems as I was. Anything techie or form-related that I know about poems (and I'm certainly not an expert) I learned by reading handbooks and then parsing up poems on my own.
This makes me wonder: Do most MFAs in fiction learn the technical aspects of story telling? Plot, scenes, scene building, acts, climax, pacing, organization, etc. Or is the focus more on style?
I've asked some people about plot, and I've heard, "Oh just read novels. That's the best way to learn."
No. It's not. Not for me. Because it's not like I've never read a book of fiction before. I feel like I could read hundreds of books of fiction and come away not knowing anything more about plot than the knowledge I started with, i.e., stories have beginnings, middles, ends, the middle is the longest part, there's a high point near the end during which something big happens, somebody changes, then all the loose ends are tied up, The End.
I read hundreds of books of poems but before I read formal handbooks that broke certain things down, all I could say after reading a poem was: "That poem is about this. I really like this poem. I like how it sounds. I like what it means. I like how it makes me feel. I really don't like that poem. It's terrible sounding and it's boring too."
Not that these kinds of observations aren't useful. It's good to know what poems are about and to know whether you like the sound and meaning of them. But it doesn't help you understand how they're working, what structures are in place, what kinds of decisions the writer is making and why--if you're me. Maybe some people learn everything they need to know that way.
In the same way, I feel like in order to understand structures in novels, I need to know what I'm looking for and then REREAD the novel and slice it all up and look at each element closely and then look at how everything fits together.
I find handbooks handy. I find frameworks calming.
Sometimes I read a bunch of reviews of a movie before I watch it. Sometimes I read reviews or descriptions of a movie as I'm watching it. I feel like I can see what's going on better if I do that. It doesn't "ruin" the movie for me, knowing what's going to happen. Not to mention, I don't know what's going to happen (visually)--seeing that I've only read about what somebody else thought they saw. My husband is a visual artist and he finds this behavior completely baffling.
THE PRACTICE OF POETRY by Robin Behn
A POETRY HANDBOOK by Mary Oliver
RULES FOR THE DANCE by Mary Oliver
THE POET'S COMPANION by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
THE SOUNDS OF POETRY by Robert Pinsky
THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS by Dean Young
THE TRIGGERING TOWN by Richard Hugo
WISHES, LIES, AND DREAMS: TEACHING CHILDREN TO WRITE POETRY by Kenneth Koch
SOUND AND SENSE by Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp
WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg [I know I said I don't enjoy books about how to be a writer, but this was the first book I ever read related to writing poetry so I have a soft spot for it. Plus, I reread it about six months ago and thought it was a pretty fun read.]
WRITING THE LIFE POETIC by Sage Cohen [Ditto for this. It's my former classmate at NYU. Go Sage!]