I've read a lot of books about writing over the years. Some are essential technical reading, like Strunk & White's The Elements of Style but others are a bit hit and miss. However, I can heartily recommend the book I've just finished: Reading Like a Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose.
The book is all about close reading and looking at the choices writers make regarding words, sentence structure, paragraphing, character details etc. It's great to read a book for writers that doesn't throw out rules but looks at what works and, quite often, what works goes against the received wisdom you'll find in a lot of writers' self-help books.
I learned a lot from Prose, more in fact than I learned about close reading while doing my English Literature degree. As far as I recollect, we didn't do much close reading on the course - having to get through 6 books a week prevented that. Instead, we were encouraged to look past the words to the socio-economic meaning, as if the beautiful rows of flowers were not as important as and the soil and the gardener. Authors created 'discourses' not 'narratives', apparently.
This concept was not one I'd been used to prior to University. I remember sitting wide-eyed throughout a lecture in which The Wizard of Oz was deconstructed by our gay lecturer in a way that would've finished off my straight-laced grandma who can take or leave all films except this one. A lot of people - my fella included - would say such interpretation is ridiculous but what I learned from my degree is that interpretation is not about what the reader/viewer takes out, it's about what they put in. And thus, post-depression, The Wizard of Oz can also be read as an allegory about economics. That said, I wish there'd been more close reading at University. But now I am trying to become a writer, I will be taking close reading more seriously and I am currently studying (rather than reading) The Poisonwood Bible and thanks to Prose's book, it's a doubly useful experience.
With an hour to kill a few weeks ago, I wandered over to the SF Library curious to see if any self-help books existed specifically for the short story writer. I typed "How to Write Short Stories" into their computerised catalogue and there it was - a book written by Ring W. Lardner in 1925 with that very title - so I ventured up to the antiquities section to view it.
It wasn't quite the instruction manual the title had implied: it was a collection of Ring's shorts with an introduction. But the introduction delighted me because it was hard to tell if he was being serious or sarcastic in his advice. Because of the age of the book, his stern face in his photo and my largely unfounded assumption that sarcasm is more common in modern comedy, I assumed his advice was given in all seriousness. That was my University training talking. However, if this assumption is correct, the following passage is absolutely hilarious:
"The first thing I generally always do is try and get hold of a catchy title, like for instance, 'Basil Hargrave's Vermifuge', or 'Fun at the Incinerating Plant.' Then I set down to a desk or flat table of any kind and lay out 3 or 4 sheets of paper with as many different colored pencils and look at them cock-eyed for a few moments before making a selection.
How to begin - or, as we professionals would say, "how to commence"- is the next question. It must be admitted that the method of approach ("L'approachement") differs even among first class fictionists. For example, Blasco Ibanez usually starts his stories with a Spanish word, Jack Dempsey with an "I" and Charley Peterson with a couple of simple declarative sentences about his leading character, such as "Hazel Gooftree had just gone mah jong. She felt faint."
Personally it has been my observation that the reading public prefers short dialogue to any other kind of writing and I always aim to open my tale with two or three lines of conversation between characters - or, as I shall call them, my puppets - who are to play important roles. I have often found that something one of these characters says, words I have perhaps unconsciously put into his or her mouth, directs my plot into channels deeper than I had planned and changes, for the better, the entire sense of my story."
On close reading, however, we can see sarky-pants Ring is, in all likelihood, having a laugh - although whether that's with us or at us is still not entirely clear. While remaining humourous, close reading makes the piece far less amusing than our original interpretation. So there. Perhaps close reading isn't such a good idea after all...