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March 12, 2018

Book Notes - Michael Noll "The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction"

The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

In The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Michael Noll performs close readings on single pages from contemporary fiction and uses the text as a tool to teach writing.

Tim Horvath wrote of the book:

"....The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, in which reading and writing are rightly treated as inextricable, such that every sharp insight and lively provocation is rooted in the terra firma of great writing. Indeed, its primary text excerpts are impeccable, but it is also Noll’s own intuition, reading acumen, and willingness to push beyond the obvious that ultimately make these exercises so worthwhile, and the book a gem.:

In his own words, here is Michael Noll's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction:

The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction is a book about learning to read as a writer. This doesn’t mean the ability to identify good or bad passages in a book or even being able to explain why they work or do not. Instead, it means learning to solve the problems posed by your particular story or novel by borrowing and adapting sentence-level strategies used by authors you admire (and some that you might not). As a writing teacher, it means learning to give your students practical advice framed in the positive (try this and this) rather than the negative (Don’t begin a story with a buzzing alarm clock or dialogue, don’t describe characters by having them look in a mirror). The following are songs that demonstrate the growth we strive for as artists.

1. "Only the Lonely," by Roy Orbison
A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with the great Texas songwriter Joe Ely, who, like Orbison, had grown up in the big, open country of West Texas. Ely was amazed at the incongruence of Orbison’s childhood and the music he recorded, imagining Orbison driving around on those empty roads with such soaring operatic melodies in his head. I love this story, and not just because I grew up in rural Kansas, sitting in a wooden rocking chair, often holding one of my sleeping baby siblings, and listening to my parents’ Elton John and Linda Ronstadt records. As writers, we too often try to write what other people expect from us. As writing teachers, we encourage students to read and imitate the sort of work we love. Orbison found success with a sound that was distinctly his own, influenced by the music he loved.

2. "Free Fallin’," by Tom Petty
Shortly after Petty died, I read a story about how he’d come up with his biggest hit. He was goofing around with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne and played a riff that would become the opening of “Free Fallin’.” Lynne said, “That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many.” Petty took his friend’s advice, and the song was born. As writers, most of us fear critiques, but when we get them from people with a serious knowledge of craft, the revisions that result can transform our work.

3. "God Bless America," sang by Ray Charles, featuring Slash from Guns N’ Roses
In this weird meeting of musical greats, Ray Charles was leading the band through rehearsal and stopped because he didn’t like what Slash was playing. It turned out that the Guns N’ Rose guitarist couldn’t read music. So, Charles sang what he wanted, and Slash played it. In writing classes, we sometimes get hung up on taxonomy and terminology: third-person limited, free indirect discourse. Instead of trying to name and pin down something that slides through the stories we read and tell, it can be helpful to point to an actual page of text and say, “See that? Try doing that.”

4. "Feel Like Funkin’ It Up," by Rebirth Brass Band
About ten years ago, my wife introduced me to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the Austin City Limits music festival. They played in a small tent, and we danced so hard that we sweated through our clothes. The next year, we saw Rebirth, and even though both bands are from New Orleans and play the same style of music, Rebirth felt newer, cooler, fresher. They incorporated more call-and-response and dressed in a style that seemed as much hip-hop as New Orleans; they also appeared to be younger than the Dirty Dozen guys. To my mind, they had taken the brass band sound and updated it. Of course, both bands are nearly 40 years old, and guest musicians tend to bounce back and forth between them. It’s a reminder that slight changes to style, and bringing in different influences, can make old stories (or in this case, beats and melodies) seem brand new.

5. "Avant Gardener," by Courtney Barnett
The first time I heard this song, I was driving away from dropping my kids off at school, not really paying attention to the radio, and soon I had turned it up, thinking, “What is this?” Barnett manages to sound as if she’s barely trying, with deadpan delivery of mundane lyrics like “The yard is full of hard rubbish it’s a mess and / I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab / We should amend that.” She sneaks rhyme into her songs in such unexpected ways and manages to combine dry wit and real emotion. One of the axioms of writing workshops is that writers should kill their darlings: favorite lines that don’t necessarily support the larger work. The problem is that if you delete all the great lines from your work, what’s left? Sometimes it’s better to find ways to make those great lines fit. Barnett’s couplet in “I’m breathing but I'm wheezing / Feel like I'm emphysemin’” is clearly a crafted line, but she pulls it off by keeping her delivery low key and not pausing after the last word so that you can admire her wit.

6. "Fruits of My Labor," by Lucinda Williams
The novelist John Gardner is famous for his barn exercise: Describe a barn, he told students, from the POV of a man who has just learned that his son has died; you’re not allowed to write what happened or any words that name his emotion. It’s a terrific exercise for teaching “Show, Don’t Tell” and how to imbue emotion into the texture of a scene. Williams does the same thing in this song. It’s about a failed relationship, and she makes lines like “Tangerines and persimmons / And sugarcane / Grapes and honeydew melon / Enough fit for a queen” sound like the most passionate words you’ve ever heard in your life. Because she builds the song’s emotion out of everyday materials, she’s able to pull off the killer last lines: “Baby, sweet baby if it's all the same / Take the glory any day over the fame.” We’re all reaching for the big, weighty lines, but you can’t get there through a direct route.

7. Any song by Phish
My wife has seen Phish play more times than I can count (though she can definitely count them). One year, she dragged me to a show by Phish member Trey Anastasio. The experience didn’t make me like Phish any better, but it did give me an appreciation for what an astounding guitarist Anstasio is and for how much music he’s able to draw out of a single riff. If you don’t approach the artists (including authors) whom you don’t like with an open mind, you’ll miss out on learning something. Even if you can’t stand it, other people can, and it’s important to learn what appeals to them. You’ll likely be able to adapt those traits to your own ends.

8. “Blue” by Joni Mitchell
The only Joni Mitchell song I knew for a very long time was “Big Yellow Taxi,” and mostly the Counting Crows version, which seemed to me, when it was released, like a bad performance of a bad song. But one day I heard another Mitchell song on the radio, “Blue,” and I was transfixed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Zadie Smith wrote an entire essay about her own Joni Mitchell conversion. She writes how she didn’t get the singer until she found herself humming a song while visiting Tintern Abbey. (Yes, I know, it’s the most New Yorker revelation possible; it’s also a great essay.) Our tastes can change, as the essay illustrates, but I think this applies to our own writing as well. It’s why stories and novels sometimes need to sit in drawers, gathering dust, before they’re ready to find their finished form. We grow into our work, and as we grow, we not only apply our refined craft but also experience our craft as it appears on the page in new ways.

9. "My Hometown," by Charlie Robison
My own hometown knows the story in this song well: a small-town kid who goes to college on a football scholarship, fails out, and ends up back home and happy about it. The song is an anthem to small town life, but it’s a lot different than, say, Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive,” a catchy but stupid caricature of both rural and city life. The narrator of Robison’s song has no illusions about himself: “Well, I played ball every single fall, / I could run just like the wind. / Went to college like they asked me too / But they didn't ask my friends. / Don't think I seen a single classroom, / But I drank a lot of beer. / My buddies still love to listen to me when I talk about that year.” He’s both bragging and resigned, and it’s that complexity that makes him so lifelike and compelling. Good fiction does the same thing, digging into the incongruities within a character, conflicting traits that the character struggles to hold together. Often, this is where the story’s plot comes from.

10. "We the People," by A Tribe Called Quest
Since I grew up in rural Kansas and outside the range of a single hip hop station, I missed pretty much all of the best years of A Tribe Called Quest. But I did catch this album, which samples Elton John and whose biggest hit is unapologetically political. One line goes, “Gentrify here, now it's not a shit hole”—proof, unfortunately, that great art can be prophetic. That line is quickly followed up with the refrain, “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays / Boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” When I was starting out as a writer, my classes were often told that politics would kill a novel. Of course, no one’s waiting for the “Vote for Bernie” novel, but it’s impossible to dig into a character and remain apolitical. In “We the People,” A Tribe Called Quest is describing things that exist (gentrification) and responding to it in ways that make sense. Great characters have attitude and are intrinsically tied to place; taken together, that’s the recipe for a political point of view.

Michael Noll and The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction links:

the author's website

Austin American-Statesman essay by the author
Pleiades essay by author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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