I’m reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem right now. By reading, I mean I’m devouring every sentence and every word. I love her style.

On a similar note, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading for language and style vs. reading for story and character. I think there’s value to both. My mind defaults to reading for story and character more so than language and, unless the writing really catches my attention (as Didion’s does), I usually have to remind myself to look closer at the language in the prose I read.

One of the teachers in grad school suggested that we hand write passages or entire stories that we liked to get a sense for the style of the piece. It was not enough to simply read it, he said. He encouraged us to get a feel for the cadence of writing the story. In a notebook somewhere I have entire handwritten copies of “How to Talk To a Hunter,” “Lust,” and “Sonny’s Blues.” It may sound like busy work. I recall one of my classmates rolling his eyes and arguing that he barely had enough time to write his own stories, let alone someone else’s. But I had enough time. And I’d argue that I became a better writer for it because it made me pay very close attention to language in a way that I didn’t when I was reading.

I came across a great quote by Julie Kramer that may speak to this: “If authors have to write half a million words before they get published, I’d venture that they have to read ten million.” The next time you read something really outstanding, try pulling out your notebook and copying a paragraph or two. If you’re really ambitious spend some time re-writing your favorite story. See if it doesn’t draw your attention to the finer details of the prose.

Writing Exercise: Lies

I’m back from spending an awesome weekend at a tiny Texas bed and breakfast. The women of my family have made this an annual trip and I can’t tell you how good it is to get away from everything for a weekend.

But it’s back to work now and time for my first weekly writing exercise. Over the weekend I read Antonya Nelson’s “Or Else” from the New Yorker. Amazing story. I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to read it again.

After reading, I was reminded of a character from David Benioff’s The 25th Hour who claims to be the true author of a very famous poem. In his story, he had authored the work, but it was stolen by a colleague who then got all the credit and fame for it. This turns out to be a lie, but one that is humored by the character that actually knows him.

There are tons or writing exercises about lies out there, so I’m going to start out with something fairly general. Write a scene in which a character tells an elaborate lie about his/her life. 1000 words.