Friday, April 01, 2005

Recommended Reading on Writing

In the course of another discussion, Patricia Wrede gave ZZTop her recommended reading list for those who want to read books about writing:

"...if you're going to read how-to-write books at all, you read *at least* five or six of them, never just one or two. Because they disagree, sometimes vehemently, on the hows and whys and even whats of writing. This will either confuse you so much that you will ignore them, which is fine, or else lead you to the conclusion that there isn't one way that works for everyone, which is, of course, true."

"Care to recommend 5 or 6? So far I've read Jack Bickham's (I forget the title), and Evan Marshall's "Marshall Plan for Novel Writing". Both published by Writer's Digest. Oh, and I have Stephen King's "On Writing".

"I purely *hate* Bickham's how-to-write books (he has two), but there are some writers who find him useful. See disclaimer at end of post on learning something from anybody...

"The how-to books I like best, in no particular order and with the Stephen King book left off because you already read it, are:

"MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT, by Linda Seger. This one's about screenwriting, not novels, but it's one of the clearest treatments of the basic three-act and four-act structures I can think of. That's pretty much all it talks about, though, so if you already understand that and you don't have time to read how-to-write books for fun, you can skip it. Her second book, MAKING A GOOD WRITER GREAT, is a bit more diffuse and not, I think, quite as useful for novelists.

"The best general how-to-write book I think I've ever read is Lars Eighner's THE ELEMENTS OF AROUSAL, aka LAVENDER BLUE, which is, if you take it literally, a how-to-write-gay-men's-pornography book. His examples are all **extremely** explicit, and if this is going to bother you, you should probably look at some other how-to-write book; but they are also quite memorable. I defy anybody to mix up passive voice with the past progressive after reading his examples... He also talks about structure at the sentence and paragraph level, which I haven't seen anywhere else ever. The book is OOP, but it's available online.

"Anne LaMott's BIRD BY BIRD is what I think of as the general how-to-write book from the literary viewpoint; one of my friends pointed out that it's actually about half autobiography, given how often she explains things by telling stories about what she does and how. She has a whole lot of very good things to say, though (there's a whole chapter titled "Shitty First Drafts" that is a great comfort to practically every writer I know), and it's very entertaining. If I'm limited in the number of books I'm recommending, I start with Lars's, and follow up with this one and the following one as a sort of matched set of bookends to the process.

"TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT by Lawrence Block is the other end of the writing spectrum from Anne LaMott -- this is an unabashed genre writer talking writing basics from his perspective. Essentially, it's a collection of some of his columns from Writer's Digest magazine; there are other collections, but I like to recommend this one because of the title.

"Josip Novakovich's FICTION WRITER'S WORKSHOP is a textbook, but very readable. I found him a bit off-putting on first read, but he grew on me(though not enough for me to have bought his later books in hardcover). This has one of the best sections on POV of anything I've read; it's the only source I've seen that covers stuff like plural viewpoints and mixed viewpoints. I don't like his exercises at all, though.

"In fact, the only "exercises" I ever *have* liked, or learned anything from doing, are the ones in Ursula le Guin's STEERING THE CRAFT. Each chapter has a bit where she talks about some writing topic, like adjectives or viewpoint or punctuation or background, and then provides a couple of exercises. Most of them are things you would not end up doing in the course of writing a bunch of stories or books (i.e., they aren't things you are going to get practice on by just writing a whole lot of stuff). Which is part of why I really like them; I always feel as if I can really learn something new by doing whatever she's suggesting.

WRITER'S MIND: CRAFTING FICTION by Richard Cohen is a good, solid, basic, overall how-to-write book. He's clear and entertaining, and to a large extent anti-prescriptive (that is, he reminds you a number of times throughout that whatever he's telling you is *one* way, but not the *only* way). He is another quite literary writer, so the opening and closing sections (the stuff on "why we write" at the start and the advice about when to go to grad school and how to get published at the end) are pretty much loopy from a genre writer's viewpoint. But the actual stuff about *writing* and the writing process is just fine. He suggests exercises, which, you guessed it, I don't like. But they're no worse than most of 'em.

I'm pretty sure that all of the above are currently, or at least recently, available, though I didn't go check Amazon to find out. Those are my short list of recommended how-to-write books. Some other good ones that really belong with those ones above but that I nearly always end up having to trim because most people don't *want* a list of more than ten books are:

IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland. Not really a book about technique; more about the emotional aspects, getting ideas, finding time to work, and so on. I fell in love with it and bought it when I read the table of contents in the bookstore and found "X. Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It For Their Writing." My kind of pilosophy. Originally published in 1938, but reissued in trade paperback by Graywolf Press in 1987.

CREATING SHORT FICTION by Damon Knight. One of the classics by one of the greatest teachers in the SF field, and most of what he says is just as useful for novelists. He uses a lot of diagrams to show what he's talking about, and they're really clear, so it's especially good for people who need to visualize things like circles and boxes and intersecting lines instead of always just reading paragraph after paragraph of explanation. This one
keeps getting reissued.

ONE CONTINUOUS MISTAKE by Gail Sher is more Zen Buddist philosophy as applied to the writing process than anything else, and if you are utterly unfamiliar with Zen, it'll probably be a tough slog. But it comes at the whole writing process from a *totally* different angle from anything except Ray Bradbury's ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING (which is also good). And if you are, like a couple of my friends, naturally coming from the same angle, these two books will be a revelation and a relief, because they'll be talking your language at last (at least, that's what those friends tell me. I dunno; I don't think like that.) So these go on the list for those sorts of folks.

There are lots of others that are OK, and quite a few that are good on one topic but that I think should come with warning labels as regards other topics. But you can learn something from just about anybody, as long as you don't swallow their advice whole and unexamined -- even if what you learn is "Boy, other writers do *really weird* things."