As a wannabe author, I often hear from former-wannabe authors that reading is just as important as writing. And I believe them. Certainly, I would not have been driven to writing if I hadn’t been a reader first. I’ve come to a point where I can read a book and see the craftsmanship that went into it, to read as a writer does.
Most of my learning, I’ve figured out, is unconscious. My writing gets better as I read more, and I am often at a loss to explain why. I don’t find myself trying to replicate the professional-looking form and composition of people I read, but when I look back at my footprints on the page, I can see where I’ve put into practice some techniques that I picked up along the way.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, has a technique I wish I could imitate.
Now, to begin, let me say that this book is not what I expected. You know the phrase, “I didn’t ask for your life story,” and that comes to mind when I think about The Name of the Wind. It is an epic fantasy, yes, but at its heart it is a Dickens-style fictional biography. It is a long and ponderous story that starts, literally, at the beginning of the protagonist’s life. It’s not the kind of book I usually read in my leisure time. But it is also not a typical “literary fantasy” story in which the fantasy part is only a backdrop or scenery. You could not rewrite The Name of the Windas a purely literary novel. This book surprised me. It was, as far as I can tell, something new.
I took my time reading it. Other epic fantasies I have gobbled down over a couple of days, but the strange newness of this book had me pulling at it slowly, like thread from a spinning wheel. As with trying anything new, I was afraid I might do it wrong, so I would close the book at times and let myself think about what I had read. It took a week and a half to read it this way, and I have to say it was not a bad approach to reading this kind of story. It allowed for greater saturation.
But that is not the lesson I learned from the book (“read more slowly” is a lesson I won’t ever truly learn). What struck me most about The Name of the Wind was how everything was built. As a budding writer, I have been warned a great deal about using description. One authority says, “show, don’t tell,” and another says, “avoid large blocks of description.” It’s difficult to pin down what people mean. But I need to make sense of it or else eternally wonder if I’m doing it wrong. Reading The Name of the Wind has given me a better understanding of the answer.
Others have told me that Patrick Rothfuss’s use of description in this book is great, or amazing, or flawless. I have to disagree. I don’t think one can comment on the descriptions found in the book, for there aren’t any. The book has many places, and people, and objects, but Mr. Rothfuss doesn’t describe any of them. He builds them.
I don’t know that I can explain it more than that, but when the narrative examines a person, place, or thing, it doesn’t paint a picture of them, or write a sonnet about them, or try to make a photograph with words. The object is not showered with adjectives, or talked about at great length to catch every detail. Instead, it’s almost like the author simply cares enough about the object that it becomes something real, and it takes him remarkably few words to do that.
Of course, saying it like that makes it sound like some ineffable holy mystery. I know I hate it when people give me advice in the form of a zen koan or sell me something from the Harold Hill system of music teaching. The book’s technique can be explained in technical terms—it uses a minimalist approach, it reveals aspects of a person or place in installments over several chapters, it reveals physical details through action and dialogue, etc. But I cannot escape the idea that the truth of it—the real trick—is when the author leads the reader up to the person or object he is defining and says, “This thing is important to me. Here, touch it.” I believe that is going to become a big part of my writing in the future, though I will say right now that I cannot do it the same way Patrick Rothfuss does it. I don’t think anyone can Xerox his particular style.
So that is what I learned from this book. I don’t plan on doing a post like this for every book I read, but I think this one deserves particular attention.