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'The Making of a Story': Reconciling inspiration with technique

Palo Alto writer and creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University and Stanford Alice LaPlante introduced her new book to an overflow crowd at Kepler's in Menlo Park Aug. 16.

Commenting on the unusually large turnout, a woman in front of me said that no one reads anymore. "That's because nowadays everyone wants to be a writer," I said, unable to resist the wisecrack. But perhaps I wasn't far off the mark. "The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Writing Fiction and Nonfiction" (W.W. Norton, 2007) is a 650-page how-to guide for students of writing. The title is likely to change to "Method and Madness" in future print runs.

Answering her own question about whether the creative writing programs proliferating across the country have churned out better writers, LaPlante said "yes and no." Because great writing results when writers can reconcile wild inspiration with sound technique. The trick is to teach the nuts and bolts of writing without killing off the madness that gives rise to moving and enduring stories. Creativity in its raw form is a messy thing. Craft is what gives it discernible shape.

On the topic of what defines good writing, LaPlante quoted E.M. Forster, who in "Aspects of the Novel" said that its major characteristic is that it be "surprising and convincing." She added that good writing resists paraphrase and avoids sentimentality. As an example, she read a Shakespeare sonnet that begins:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;

The sonnet describes hair like black wires and reeking breath, yet finishes:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied by false compare.

Good writing that surprises and convinces is the antidote to the clichés and conceits programmed into us by constant repetition via mass media. Madison Avenue's version of love is far less real and complex than Shakespeare's, yet which version leaps to mind when we conjure up the images that go with love? Try it right now. Do you see hair like black wires or a De Beers commercial? How about families? I'll wager you visualized a Kodak moment first, not "Angela's Ashes."

LaPlante stresses that writers must report the news from the world they inhabit in a voice as distinctive as a fingerprint - not the world window-dressed for public consumption, but the weird and paradoxical world beneath that. Expanding on stock advice to writers about writing what they know, she quoted Eudora Welty, who said that writers should write about what they don't know about what they know.

In detailed chapters filled with examples and quotes, LaPlante shows writers how to go about creating the kind of unique world that will draw readers in and invite them to linger and hear the news. Each chapter ends with exercises as well as essays and short stories that illustrate its main points.

After answering questions and signing books, LaPlante invited attendees to the nearby British Bankers Club to celebrate the book's release over glasses of wine.

'The Making of a Story' is available for purchase at www.keplers.com.

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