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Could You Be the Great American Novelist?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you've strolled through a bookstore, maybe while avoiding work on your great American novel, and walked into the section on writing, you can be forgiven if you never go back to your laptop. The sheer number of tomes that offer advice on how to be the next Hemingway is enough to make you head back to your day job or at least waste a little bit more time in the coffee shop. But if you must pore over a book, writer and writing teacher Francine Prose suggests that a book about great writing may be less helpful than a book of great writing; that in fact the trick to writing is reading.

The novelist, critic, and essayist has a new book out called Reading Like a Writer, and joins us to answer the question that haunts every frustrated genius: can creative writing be taught?

Later in the hour, the real estate market is way, way up in Monopoly. But first, writers, if you can tear yourself away from your work, let us know what you're working on. We challenge our e-mailers to send us the first line of that new novel, and we'll tell you if it's the best of lines or the worst of lines.

The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Or if you're really procrastinating, give us a call with questions about the frustrations of fiction. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And you can send those queries by e-mail as well. Again, the address: talk@npr.org.

Francine Prose is the author of 14 novels. She's taught writing at Iowa, Harvard, Columbia. Her new book is called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in.

And we're having a little difficulty connecting with our bureau in New York. Should be just a moment, and we'll get that connection up. It's one of those connections that we usually have pretty reliably. Francine Prose, can you hear me? Not yet.

Ms. FRANCINE PROSE (Author, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them): Well.

CONAN: Ah, there we are. Francine Prose.

Ms. PROSE: Am I here?

CONAN: Yes, you're there.

Ms. PROSE: Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Hey, it's our pleasure. As somebody who teaches creative writing, you probably bristle a little bit when asked if - people ask if creative writing can be taught.

Ms. PROSE: Well, it's a sort of odd question to be asked. I mean it's like asking a used car salesman: Would anyone actually want to buy something with over 10,000 miles on it and why have you been trying to sell them for 20 years?

I do think that certain things can certainly be taught. You can teach students how to line edit their work, how to revise their work. I think when people ask that question, in the back of their minds they're thinking can you take someone with essentially no talent and put that person through a writing program and turn out a novelist at the other end.

I think the sad answer to that question is probably not, but I also think that writing has to be learnt. I mean it may not be teachable, but it certainly has to be learnt. Nobody just hops out of the cradle or graduates from nursery school and sits down and writes War and Peace.

So the question then is where are you going to learn to write and how are you going to learn to write. And what I have always believed and what I say in the book is the best place to learn to write is from great writers.

CONAN: Hmm. And you point out in your book that indeed great writers were always the classroom for the next generation.

Ms. PROSE: Well, it was certainly my classroom. I mean I don't in fact have an MFA. I often feel underqualified to teach in an MFA program, but I was a big reader when I was a kid and a reader - I've been a reader, a passionate reader, my whole life. And I feel like my education as a writer is ongoing. I mean when I have a problem in my work, by now I've read enough so that I know which particular writer I can go to for help with a certain difficulty I myself have been having.

CONAN: Hmm. I wonder - you mention in your book Harry Crews, the famous novelist, who described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled the pacing, tone, and point of view. Is that sort of thing useful, do you think?

Ms. PROSE: Oh, absolutely. And you can do it with great novels and not-so-great novels. I mean I've always thought one of the novels I would like to teach is The Godfather, because it's a remarkably well plotted novel. I mean it's certainly not a great novel, but Mario Puzo could set a scene and make a plot, develop a plot, and create characters, so all of those novels. And if you sit down and - I mean I use the expression reading carnivorously...


Ms. PROSE: ...and just look at what you can learn, what you can borrow, what you can steal, really, I think that's the way to learn how to write.

CONAN: Other people have encountered the same problems you're encountering and figured ways around them.

Ms. PROSE: Well, yeah, and I also think - I mean this sounds like a sort of slightly nutty thing to say - but I also think that certain books just kind of pop into your hands at the moment you need to write - to read them.


Ms. PROSE: I mean you're having a problem with your work. I mean over the summer I've been working on a novel and - written from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl - and wondering about a child consciousness, an adult consciousness, which language to write it in. And a friend gave me a copy of a story by Leonard Michaels that's in theory written - narrated from the point of a view of a adolescent boy but actually is full of adult consciousness. And after I read it I thought, why did I ever think that was a problem?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: I mean it isn't - it wasn't a problem for Leonard Michaels and I can just stop worrying about that.

CONAN: Hmm. But those come to you somehow - you don't know the process by which you select that book?

Ms. PROSE: Well, it's almost enough to make a believer out of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: But it also happens when I'm teaching. I mean I love to teach literature classes. I'm teaching a - three literature classes right now actually. And every time I teach certain stories - I mean, for example, James Joyce's The Dead, which I talk about in the book as the perfect story to go to if, for example, you want to write a party scene, which party scenes are very difficult to write. There are all these characters. They're all talking at the same time. They're all in the same room. And you have a party scene, and you can't think how to do it. You go and you read James Joyce's The Dead, and there's the most brilliant example of the party scene that's ever been written, and I think you can get a little closer to being able to do it afterwards.

Every time I teach The Dead I learn something from it that I didn't know before, or I see something in it that I hadn't seen before.

CONAN: Well, some of us might find James Joyce a little intimidating and go instead to, well, EM Forster or even Strunk & White for some advice.

Ms. PROSE: Strunk & White is good. Strunk & White is good. I mean, you know, The Elements of Style, there's, as I mentioned in the book, there's that marvelous new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PROSE: ...that I gave as presents to everyone last year.

CONAN: Well, we want listeners to join the conversation. What - is that great American novel in you? What are your frustrations: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Kristen(ph). Kristen is joining us from - where's this, Veeland(ph) in Michigan?

KRISTEN (Caller): Zeeland in Michigan.

CONAN: Okay.

KRISTEN: It's near Holland, Michigan. It's a very Dutch area. I know a lot of writers, and I know a lot of them have about three chapters of a wonderful project that they manage to get through and then they get to that middle and they're stopped. They might know the end, but they can't get through the middle. And I was wondering if your guest had any advice for writers on, you know, muddling through the middle of a novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: Well, what I tell my students is the important thing is to trick yourself into finishing a first draft, to do whatever it takes. I mean I wrote one novel that way. And I just decided that if I read back I was going to be so discouraged at seeing how bad the manuscript was, what a terrible job I'd done, so I just kept going. And every day I'd do two pages. I wouldn't read back more than one paragraph of what I'd written the day before.

And by the - I got to the end of the novel, and I noticed, for example, that I'd forgotten what I'd called certain characters. Their names kept changing during the novel, but you can always fix that. I mean once you have that stack of pages, that finished draft sitting in front of you, it's much less frightening; and then you can write a second draft.

CONAN: Yeah, rewriting is a lot easier than writing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: Yeah.

KRISTEN: Okay, thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Kristen.

Ms. PROSE: Sure.


Ms. PROSE: I hope it helps

KRISTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: We have an e-mail challenge out there for the best of lines and the worst of lines. We're asking you to e-mail us with that first line from your novel that's been in the drawer all these years. You can send it to us if you'd like at talk@npr.org.

This from Bret Miller(ph) in West Jordan, Utah. Here's my line for a detective novel: Buddy Shepard(ph) wasn't the brightest crayon in the box, and on this particular evening he was going out of his way to prove it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: That's pretty good. I mean it sounds like a Raymond Chandler line, and Raymond Chandler was the greatest sentence writer.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PROSE: I mean I have a chapter on sentences in which I quote Raymond Chandler, and it was just hard not to quote Raymond Chandler all the way through the chapter.

CONAN: And he also wrote that essay on The Simple Art of Murder...

Ms. PROSE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...on how to write detective stories with that famous line: When in doubt, have a man burst through the door with a gun in his hand.

Ms. PROSE: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Ryan(ph). Ryan's with us from Oklahoma.

RYAN (Caller): Hi.


RYAN: Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RYAN: I'm a senior creative writing major at the University of Central Oklahoma, and I just wanted to say that I definitely agree with what you said earlier when you were about to begin the show about reading is the only way really to become the best writer that you can be. And that whenever I have any questions, instead of going to a how-to book that I had from a class, I always just turn to Catch-22 or East of Eden, which are some of my favorite - two of my favorite novels, and that always seems to help more. And that's what I try and direct anybody who asks me about my writing, how do I better myself.

CONAN: Do you think those are pretty good exemplars, Francine Prose?

Ms. PROSE: Yeah. Good for you. Absolutely. And, you know, as I said there are all kinds of writers. For me one of the fun things about writing the book was getting just a quote from all these different writers. I mean at the end of the book there's a list of books to read immediately, and I hadn't actually written a list. I mean I wrote the book, and then a young writer helped me just extract the list from the books I mentioned. And someone told me there were 117 books on the list, hugely varied.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PROSE: So I think if you start reading your way through the list, you'll get a lot closer to being able to write.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RYAN: And it really helps with diction as well, which helps to make your writing more mature. When you read more, you learn a lot more words and a lot better sentence structure and it helps to develop your own style.

CONAN: Hmm. When you go back, you said, Ryan, to these books over and over again, do you find new things in them?

RYAN: Yes. I mean the best thing that I found to do is to reread your favorite novels, because you're so entertained the first time you read it, you find something new each time you go and you're able to study it more in detail. And you do end up catching a lot of wonderful things, and sometimes it's things that you like, and sometimes it's things that kind of ruined it - ruin the book for you as well. But, yes, I always refer back to them and find new things and new ideas.

CONAN: And I wonder, as - to interview people who write books, I often read with a pen in my hand. I always read with a pen in my hand - underline things, write notes. Do you do that, too, Ryan?

RYAN: Yes, yes, I do. Writing notes is - I do horribly in class writing notes, but while I'm reading I do; I mark up my books like crazy.

CONAN: Francine Prose, do you too?

Ms. PROSE: As I get older, I take more and more notes.

CONAN: Huh. All right. Ryan, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

RYAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue talking about creative writing with Francine Prose, a novelist. Her works include A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

If you'd like to join us, our phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us e-mail: talk@npr.org. We're asking people to send us their first lines of their prospective novels. Here's one from Rhea(ph) in Saint Louis: Nothing galls an academic so much as a colleague's popular success.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about creative writing. Can you write that next great American novel? If you're stuck with it was a dark and stormy, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And we have an e-mail challenge going. Send us the best first line from your own novel. We'll help you decide whether it's genius or pulp fiction. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Our guest, Francine Prose. Her new book is called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Here's a responder to our e-mail challenge. Steve Holdgate(ph). Dear Fran, the first line of my intrigue romance is: No one writes songs about Paris in the winter. Should I stick with the rest of the book or simply try to publish the first line?

Ms. PROSE: I want to know what the second line is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: See, that's good. It was a good first line if you want to know what the second line is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Courtland(ph), Courtland with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

COURTLAND (Caller): Hello, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

COURTLAND: I have recently - I assure you that I will not be writing the first line to a great novel any time soon. I'm not an author at all, but I have found myself at the reins of a small literary magazine here in West Michigan. And I oftentimes have conversations with young writers and writers my own age at coffee shops or at bars, and they're always saying I just feel so discouraged. I don't really feel like my work is good enough.

And many of them aren't in college programs; they don't have anyone really there to advise them. Are there any words that I can give them to just say I appreciate your work, I think it's worth reading, and many other people do also? How do I encourage them to continue developing those stories?

Ms. PROSE: Well, I don't know if this will help, but you're certainly free to draw on my experience. I know a lot of writers, a lot of friends are writers, and I've observed the better the writer, the worse the doubt.


Ms. PROSE: So the fact that they're worried may actually be a good sign, and every writer I know - I mean there's a wonderful phrase of William Burroughs, and he talks about the temptation to take your work and tear it up into tiny little pieces and throw it in somebody else's wastepaper basket.


Ms. PROSE: And everyone I know has had that temptation. It's recurrent. It happens in the course of every story and every novel, sooner or later. So I wouldn't take that as a bad sign. And again, whatever you can do to trick yourself out of all the worry and paralysis that that doubt causes, do it.

COURTLAND: Hmm. Thank you very much.

Ms. PROSE: Oh, sure.

CONAN: And good luck, Courtland. I, in fact, do plan to write the great first line from an American novel. Unfortunately, it's Call me Ishmael.

Ms. PROSE: I was thinking the same one.

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Russ on the line. Russ is calling us from Noble in Oklahoma.

RUSS (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, no problem.

RUSS: I am an aspiring writer myself. I am - I have written a lot of short stories in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and my problem is this. I've got a few really good ideas for novel-length works, but I mean I'm finding the transition from writing short stories to writing something longer just increasably(ph) difficult. With a short story, you know, it's something short enough you can just pound it out, you know, at a sitting or two. But I'm finding that a novel takes much more organization, and I'm just lost.


RUSS: I was wondering if your guest had any thoughts about that.

Ms. PROSE: Well, I suppose my question would be why you think you have to write a novel? I mean there are many great writers - Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg who are - Chekhov - who are short story writers and never have written novels. And it may be that that's your genre, and then just be happy with it and celebrate it.

RUSS: Well, I've got a couple of really good ideas, though, that really - I don't know, the short story, you know, as such really doesn't give room to do what I really want to do.


Ms. PROSE: Well, you know, write one line and then write another and then another. I mean I know many writers who use outlines and who know what's going to happen. I myself am not that kind of writer. I start writing and I just keep going. So try it that way, I mean, and don't worry too much. You know, it's like driving with really bad headlights. You know, you can see about six inches in front of your car, and you just try and keep going.

CONAN: Yeah. Samuel Fuller, who was a novelist as well as movie director, used to write up these big storyboards, not necessarily with ideas, but he would have this different - the sequence of scenes in different colors: red for a romantic scene, blue for an action sequence - and try to vary his pace that way. It worked for him. Do you think that might work for other people, Francine Prose?

Ms. PROSE: Well, everybody has such a different way of working. I remember when the writer/novelist Leslie Marmon Silko was working on her marvelous novel, The Almanac of the Dead, and she would get these little bits of scenes and little sort of visions and little images. And she would refer to them as transmissions, and she would just write them down. They were disconnected. When she had 1,500 pages of transmissions, she started writing the novel.

CONAN: Hmm. Russ, good luck.

RUSS: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Here's another entrant in our best first line e-mail challenge. Ted Sheffler(ph) - I hope I'm getting that right - in Layton, Utah. No matter how many times I shot the blonde in the bed next to me, she simply wouldn't die.

Ms. PROSE: Maybe the...

CONAN: Getting a lot of detective stories today.

Ms. PROSE: Maybe the blonde was Rasputin.

CONAN: It could be. See, that's - you're - that's the next place to take the line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Peggy. Peggy's with us from Portland, Oregon.

PEGGY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Peggy, you're on the air.

PEGGY: Oh, hi. I'm working on a novel that's set in East Africa in 1913. And I'm curious - I'm writing it in the first person, and I keep struggling with first person versus third person. And I'm curious if you have any advice or if you can recommend any books, especially historical fiction, that have been successfully written in the first person, or maybe some potential pitfalls of either voice.

Ms. PROSE: Historical fiction in the first person - I mean my mind is now going blank. I mean there are great first-person writers. You know, I mean I would often look at the most unlikely choices. I mean, read Beckett, for example, who was a great first-person writer; or Proust wrote marvelously in the first person. I mean it doesn't have to be historical fiction, but just look at sort of how that voice develops and how a person constructs that kind of narrative. And often the writers you learn from are the ones you're least likely to think you're going to get anything from.

PEGGY: Mm-hmm. That's interesting.

CONAN: Hmm. What's the action in the novel, Peggy?

PEGGY: It's a rebellion that takes place against the British, and it's simultaneous with sort of a rebellion within a marriage. It's written from the point of a view of a young woman who's married.

CONAN: Good luck with it.

PEGGY: What's that?

CONAN: Good luck with it.

PEGGY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, bye-bye.

PEGGY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Lisa(ph) on the line. Lisa's calling from Portland, Oregon.

LISA (Caller): Hi.


LISA: My question is where's the key to the clubhouse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: Oh, which one?

LISA: The magic clubhouse that, once you're published, you get into as an author. But until you're published, they hide it. I've been told by several published authors that my writing is publishable quality, and so where I'm at is I need editing then that is at that level.

Now when I wanted to learn to weave, it was no problem to go out and find a master weaver to teach me. I wanted to learn to spin, same thing. But with writing, finding someone who has that level of expertise to work with - unless I'm, you know, able to pay thousands of dollars, which, until I get published and wind up on Oprah with a best seller, I don't have - it just seems almost impossible to find. And I realize that a lot of times people find out you're a writer, they walk and they say, oh, I have this book. And you really get some direct - I've had friends do that to me. And you find nice ways to not say that this is just awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LISA: So I understand there's that problem. But for someone like me who really, you know, that's what I need probably to push me over the final hurdle; it's very frustrating.


Ms. PROSE: Well, you know, the thing about editing your work is that once - I mean you don't really need someone to edit an entire novel. Once someone shows you how to do a page or two, what line editing is like, how you change a sentence, how you revise, how you cut extra words, how you get rid of what you don't need, you can take those lessons and apply it to the rest of the book.

So it might be intimidating, for example, to ask your best friend to edit your novel. But it might be worthwhile to take a weekend writing workshop or a week-long summer workshop and get a teacher and just say show me with 10 pages, show me what to do with the first 10 pages. And I think after that you can take those lessons and apply it to the novel and it'll be much, much better.

It's - I think that you also asked a two-part question, and that is about publishing. And that, boy, I wish I had more advice for you. But, you know, when I first started publishing in pre-history - it was 1973, and it was a whole different world. I mean publishers weren't owned by corporations, and editors could make decisions on their own and marketing wasn't such an issue.

So it really is a brave or something new world of publishing. And I no longer know what to tell young writers about how to get into that world.

LISA (CALLER): Well, I've done the workshops when I can. And I just went to our local Pacific Northwest - I live in the Pacific Northwest - we had a conference here, and I've had some really good friends who've taught me a lot about line editing. It just - sometimes it just seems like the publishing world is so incestuous.

Unless you know somebody who knows somebody who's willing to speak up for you, you really don't have a chance of getting the foot in the door. So it's probably just a matter of - what is it, Seuss was turned down 24 times, and so I'll keep plugging away.

Ms. PROSE: Oh yeah. I think William Kennedy's first novel was turned down many, many times and it finally got published. I mean you can only take heart and keep writing. I mean there's just nothing to do but just keep writing and keep that faith, however you can do it, to just keep on going.

LISA: Well, thank you. And I have to say...

Ms. PROSE: Oh sure. Good luck.

LISA: ...I loved Hunter and Gatherers.

Ms. PROSE: Oh, thank you.

LISA: It was such a fun book to read to see those sacred cows taken on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: Thanks so much.

LISA: Thank you very much.

Ms. PROSE: Sure.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lisa.

LISA: Mm-hmm. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Mary in Arkansas. My nine-year-old wrote the following just for fun while on our computer.

The Duck's Wish. Long ago in the 1800s there was a duck. Not a normal duck. You see, he had one feather that stuck up straight, and if anybody touched it then they were granted a wish. But he didn't know it until one morning. Now this is where our story begins.

Well, being his mother, I thought this was great. Do you have any suggestions on how to encourage this new hobby of his without frustrating him?

Ms. PROSE: The kid's going somewhere. I mean is this kid's name Hans Christian Andersen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: I mean, you know, read to the kid. All the things you do to make a reader. Read to the kid, encourage the kid. It's how writers are made. Somebody said gee, that's an interesting story. I want to hear what happens next.

CONAN: Let's talk with Steven(ph). Steven in - what is this - Netarts - is that right?


CONAN: Netarts in Oregon. Go ahead, please.

STEVEN: Yes. I have been told that I am a very talented writer, but I do not feel I am a very skilled writer. I'm wondering if you could speak to what might be the differences between somebody who is talented as a writer, and some examples of someone like that, as opposed to somebody who may be very well skilled but not have the talent to put out the creative material.

Ms. PROSE: Well, I think talent, I mean as I think of it, is kind of another word for a gift really. So people have different kinds of gifts: a gift for storytelling, a gift for creating character, a gift for observation, a gift for constructing a sentence. And then the craft part, the productivity part is learning how to take those various gifts and put them all together and create something that people want to read.

I mean that's the mysterious part, and that's the difficult part. But again, you know, read and read and find a writer who you really love. And take that writer's work apart and see how did that writer, who has gifts maybe similar to your own gifts, how did that writer use those gifts to create a masterpiece.

STEVEN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: When you say talent - in other words, you have passion, a lot of things to say, Steven, but aren't necessarily - feel great about the sentences you write?

STEVEN: Well, I have written numerous articles for trade journals and magazines of that nature and I have to work very hard to get them readable, and so I spend I lot of time doing it. But the end product is such that I get a lot of response back from my readers saying how much they enjoyed my work and they would like for me to do more.


STEVEN: You know, one of my favorite writers is Tom Robbins. And very, very eclectic and very, very hard to even take apart.

Ms. PROSE: Yeah, he may not be the easiest person to go to for instruction by example. I mean I would, you know, I don't know exactly where I'd start. But take, you know, a great - look at a Chekhov story. Just look at a Chekhov story. They're so seemingly simple. He just tells a story, he gets into somebody's head, and it makes you realize what a story is and maybe start there.


CONAN: Steven, thanks very much. Good luck.

STEVEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about creative writing with Francine Prose. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And it's interesting, you talked about in your book an exercise that you did in school where you were asked to go through - what was it - King Lear and one other play to look for all of the references to blindness and eyes.

Ms. PROSE: Yeah, King Lear and Oedipus Rex.

CONAN: Yes, of course, obviously.

Ms. PROSE: It really taught me how to read. I guess I was a sophomore or junior in high school and I loved reading, but I just didn't kind of get it. And when we were assigned to do that I really got the knack and saw the importance of reading word by word, line by line, paying attention to every single word that was on the page. And that really, to me, is the trick of reading like a writer, and the way that I read and the way I would think that people who want to be writers should be reading.

CONAN: One of the things you said was that as soon as you started looking for eyes, they popped up on every page.

Ms. PROSE: Oh yeah, they were all - you know, vision and blindness and metaphors for eyes and similes for eyes and verbs that had something to do with sight. It was extraordinary. You know, I was a very kind of good little student, so I had my good old ballpoint pen and I circled all the words, and my pages were just masses of these little circles.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Leonard. Leonard with us from Kansas City.

LEONARD (CALLER): Yes. I recently bought your book, Ms. Prose...

Ms. PROSE: I'm glad to hear it.

LEONARD: ...and thought it was very useful. I'm a narrative non-fiction writer and looking for something to read that tends towards the more literary side of it rather than the journalistic side.

Ms. PROSE: What kind of narrative non-fiction do you write or are you interested in writing?

LEONARD: Well, I've done some journalism. I'm finishing up the second draft of a history of a contemporary political movement for FSG.

CONAN: Isn't one of the oddities of narrative non-fiction is that yourself -you're writing about yourself as a character?

LEONARD: Well, no I'm not in the book.


LEONARD: I'm not in the book. But what I've found is that in this world of how-to books and writer's advice and so forth, and in Kansas City we don't have writer's workshops like you do in the East or the West Coast, but in all these things the discussion is entirely about fiction. Yet non-fiction is - well, it dominates the market and there's a lot of non-fiction being written, almost all of it journalism, and publishers want something literary I think.

Ms. PROSE: Well, I would - there are all sorts of places to go. I mean I would - have you ever read Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon? Do you know that book? It's a book about Yugoslavia, about the former Yugoslavia. It's nominally a travel book, but really it's a book about the culture.

LEONARD: Well, say that again.

Ms. PROSE: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.


Ms. PROSE: And it's so beautifully written. And the thing really that I learned from it came from her descriptions. Her descriptions are marvelous. I mean she'll go into a church and you'll see that church, or she'll meet someone and you'll see that person. And she's just an example of how to write just great sentences. I mean that's really all you need. I mean it happens quite often; I'll see a non-fiction book and think that's beautifully written.

LEONARD: Is there anything else that you think is on the literary side of non-fiction?

Ms. PROSE: Well, my new favorite book is a book called A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke. It's a memoir about his mother, and I would read that as well.

CONAN: Good luck, Leonard.

LEONARD: Thank you.

CONAN: More on this after a break. You're listening to NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.

The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee has defied President Bush to approve a bill he opposes on the treatment of terror war detainees. In a 15-9 vote the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a bill they said would provide suspects more legal rights than the president wanted and resisted his attempt to more narrowly define the Geneva Conventions' standards for humane treatment of prisoners.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says that President Bush's proposed rules to try terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay would backfire on American troops abroad. The retired general also says the world is beginning to question the moral basis for the U.S. war on terror.

And a scientist claims he has a way to save the Earth from global warming, for a while at least. The idea is to inject clouds of material into the stratosphere, creating a thin haze and deflecting some of the sun's rays away from the Earth, at least temporarily.

Details on those stories coming up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Tomorrow it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here to talk about a new study about life expectancy in the U.S. And the Mars rovers are still roving nearly three years into what was supposed to be a three-month mission. Plus, healthier school lunches. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

In a few minutes, land your laptop on Times Square and you can buy it for just $4 million. It's the new Monopoly here and now. But first, the finer points of fiction.

We continue with our guest Francine Prose, the author of 14 novels, who teaches writing - has taught writing at Harvard, Iowa, and Columbia. Her new book is called Reading Like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.

And we've been asking the prospective novelists among you to send us your first lines for your novels. Here's one from Kat Ricker(ph). As soon as we pulled that mermaid up, I knew I was in for it.

Ms. PROSE: Perhaps the mermaid in that story should be introduced to the blonde in the other story and...

CONAN: Could be. The blonde may be dying because she's a mermaid.

Ms. PROSE: That's right.

CONAN: That's it. Anyway, she says the book is Something Familiar and available for pre-order on Amazon.com. So she wrote apparently a second line and a few more after that as well.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Carl(ph). Carl's with us from Flagstaff, Arizona.

CARL (CALLER): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CARL: I had a comment. You had said earlier that you thought writing was the hard part but that rewriting is easy. And I actually find it to be just the opposite. I manage to bang through 60-70,000 words with the help of the National Novel Writing Month contest, and since then it's kind of languished on the shelf. I've had a hard time going back.

I find myself caught up in altering every other preposition before I go any further. And it just becomes very hard to go back and rewrite it. Any thoughts about that?

Ms. PROSE: Well, you know, it's all a lot of work basically. I mean it really -so much of writing is hard work. I like that part. I like the part when you're taking out a comma and putting a comma back in and thinking should that be a semicolon or a colon. And I think, you know, if you're thinking about those prepositions or if you're at the level of wondering which preposition to use it's a good sign. It's a good sign that you're on the right track. And I would just keep going with it as long as you can stand it. And then when you feel that it's all kind of turning to gibberish, it might be a sign that you're done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARL: Maybe that's a good tip. I always wondered how you knew it was done, like how a painter knows when a painting is finished when the last dot of paint goes on. It's hard to know when the last period has been put in, I suppose.

CONAN: We have another second draft question. This from e-mailer Jerry Bloomer(ph).

After writing a first draft, should the second be written from scratch or should it be an edit of the first. At a recent workshop with an author here in Hot Springs, we were told to rewrite the second draft from scratch. In my writing I use the original text and edit from it.

Ms. PROSE: I've done it both ways. I mean the thing about writing and the reason why it's so hard to teach and so hard to talk about is that every book is different and every story is different. And now I've written all these novels, and each time I do it I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel. And I keep thinking why haven't I learned one single thing from all these books I've written?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PROSE: So I can only tell you to try and see, you know, the way each book needs to be written, and to be open to what the book itself is kind of telling you in a way that needs to be done and try and do it that way.

CONAN: Is what you're saying is that after writing 14 novels, it's still, you know, you're still plagued by those doubts about can I do this at all when you start?

Ms. PROSE: Well you know - start? It's all the way through. Recently I gave - I finished a draft of a novel, and I gave it to my husband to read, and about two weeks later I said to him oh, you know, it's just complete garbage. I should really tear it up into little pieces, and he said oh, so you've reached that stage again? And I said again? And he said yeah, every novel you write you say that, but you know it's like having children, really. You really do forget how much it hurt the last time, and that's why you do it again.

CONAN: Carl, we hope you can forget those labor pains.

CARL (Caller): Thanks so much for the encouragement.

Ms. PROSE: Sure.

CONAN: Let's go to Joseph(ph), Joseph with us from Lawrence, Kentucky.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi. My question is I have a favorite genre and everything that I write in, but how do I keep myself from plagiarizing my favorite authors' ideas?

Ms. PROSE: Well, it depends. I mean, someone told me that the law on plagiarism is 300 consecutive words, so unless you've - which is to make sure that the writer had the book open and was copying out. But you know, if you find yourself writing, you know, a novel in which at the end of the novel, a woman throws herself under a train, you might have to think gee, I hope no one thinks about Anna Karenina when they're reading this, and so forth and so on. I mean, I would just - again, trust yourself and start writing and assume that because there's nobody else really like you, no one else is going to write the novel you're going to write. No one has written the novel you're going to write. And part of the pleasure of writing, in a way it tells you who you are because you do create a product that no one else could have done.

CONAN: You do write in the book about knowing writers who, when they are writing a book, don't read other writers because they're afraid of stealing ideas or getting lost or maybe even intimidated.

Ms. PROSE: Yeah, and that always mystifies me. I mean, you know, people say oh, I'm so afraid to read when I'm writing. I'm so terrified that I might sound like Dostoevsky, and I always think you wish you sounded like Dostoevsky. In your dreams.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Joseph, good luck.

JOSEPH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye, bye.

And we'll have one last opening line from a prospective novel, this one sent by Joe(ph) from Stockton, California. If I'd known breaking my toe getting out of bed would be the highlight of my day, I probably would've used nicer language to describe the feeling.

Ms. PROSE: Excellent.

CONAN: That could be a comment about writing, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Francine Prose, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Ms. PROSE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And Francine Prose, a novelist, but the author most recently of a book called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. And when we come back we're going to be talking about an updated version of Monopoly where Park Place and Boardwalk have been replaced by Fenway Park and Times Square. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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