Breaking news: I love books.
OK, that’s not such a surprise. But here’s something you didn’t know: at last count I had about 100 volumes about writers and writing.
Obviously, they are not all favourites. Frankly, a fair number of books on writing are pretty elementary. They offer advice on how to keep a journal, how to write a book – these usually have cartoons and headers that include lots of exclamation points: “Make your Characters Suffer.” Exclamation Point.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with these sort of books and they can be a lot of fun to read if the author’s style is breezy. You even learn things. Sometimes.
But I’ve been writing for a while now and I like my books on writing to have more muscle. Think Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and not as Remington Steele.
So here are my favourites and why I like them.
BOOKS FOR THOSE WHO SEEK INSPIRATION:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King http://www.stephenking.com/library/nonfiction/on_writing:_a_memoir_of_the_craft.html
Listen, any book that tells you that the road to hell is paved with adverbs has my vote. Stevie also says,
“Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.”
“Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
And then there’s this one… this one I will put on a sampler and hang on my wall:
“To write is human, to edit is divine.”
I wouldn’t want you to mistake this book for a collection of slogans. Rather, it’s a funny, insightful tale of one man’s struggle to learn his craft. It’s a struggle I can identify with and I bet you will too. There’s advice here. Gently, so you don’t even realise you’re learning anything, the Maine man slips in the rules of grammar and the importance of discipline to reading as a writer. Mr King has a lot to say and, coming from a writer as extraordinarily successful as he, you know you can learn from him. Just open your ears and pay attention.
Zen and the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius within You by Ray Bradbury http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Writing-Releasing-Creative/dp/0553296345
This was one of the first books on writing I ever bought and it still makes me weep, ache, laugh and think. It is another great book by a great author that is far more than the sum of its parts. The late, much-missed Mr Bradbury imparts advice as potent as King’s but is perhaps a tad more lyrical. For instance,
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
Wow. Or how about,
“We have our Arts so we don’t die of Truth.”
Keep this book for whenever you’re feeling too much the prosaic in the world around you. Bradbury knows the secrets of starlight and he’s willing to share.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Annie Lamont http://www.amazon.com/Bird-Some-Instructions-Writing-Life/dp/0385480016
To be honest, it took me a couple of reads to warm to this book. Everyone said it was fabulous so, of course, I decided it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.
Except it does.
Once I gave it a chance, I realised it’s funny, full of wisdom, and a perfect weapon against self-doubt and muddy motivation.
“To be a good writer you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care,”
Lamont tells us. Yes, it seems obvious, but we writers are amazingly good at missing the obvious sometimes. This book is full of obvious things that no one seems to know. Or perhaps they know but they have forgotten. “If a man is asleep, wake him,”* says the proverb. You’ll never find a gentler awakening than this book.
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland http://books.google.ie/books?id=hQB-5IxA9lcC&q=no+more+fear+in+art&dq=no+more+fear+in+art&hl=en&sa=X&ei=F60VU-LiDcGN7Qa1x4GoDA&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA
This isn’t a book about writing but rather a guide for anyone who seeks to produce art of any sort – painting, music, and, yes, writing.
“To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have.”
The authors explore the way art is made, why it sometimes isn’t made, and the challenges faced by everyone who works in a creative field.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Down-Bones-Freeing-Writer/dp/1590302613/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393934226&sr=1-1&keywords=writing+down+the+bones+by+natalie+goldberg
Another classic, this one on writing as a spiritual endeavour. Don’t worry, it’s not as dippy as it sounds. Ms Goldberg strips writing down to its essentials. It’s not for everyone, but people who love it really love it.
BOOKS FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO KNOW HOW
There are dozens, if not hundreds of these. There are funny ones, ponderous ones, and ones that are completely daft. Still, you’ll learn something from each of them. Even if it’s how to avoid the, uh, let’s call them less-than-helpful types in the future.
Everyone has their own favourites, so I shall keep my list short:
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman http://www.amazon.com/The-First-Five-Pages-Rejection/dp/068485743X
This is very much a nuts-and-bolts guide. In it, New York literary agent Lukeman addresses things like manuscript mechanics, style, narration, tone, focus and the other basics of fiction. While it is, in my opinion, a bit basic, it’s a great refresher for those times when you get stuck or need a reminder about how to approach some aspect of novel writing.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Edition/dp/0060545690
Writing is re-writing, they say, but can be quite daunting, even for people who have been writing a long time. We all have blind spot and while having your best friend read your manuscript is the ideal starting place, there are limits to what even the most insightful, wise and helpful bestie can do. It’s frustrating to be told, “I didn’t like this character / chapter / paragraph” if Bestie can’t tell you why. Even more frustrating is they can’t tell you how to fix something that’s not working.
Browne and King to the rescue. They cover things I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as putting beats into your prose, or avoiding repetition. The book includes some helpful exercises and on-point cartoons. Me likey.
The “Write Great Fiction” series from Writers’ Digest are hugely helpful. If you know where your weakness lies, what could be better than to read an entire book just on that topic? After all, if you’re poor at drawing great characters, you may not need to read about plot, and vice versa. Titles in this series include:
Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint
Description and Setting
Plot and Structure
Revision and Self-Editing
Check the Writers’ Digest website for more information: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/write-great-fiction
BOOKS FOR THE READER IN YOU:
The Dyer’s Hand by W.H. Auden http://www.amazon.com/The-Dyers-Hand-Other-Essays/dp/0679724842
The New York Review of Books says of The Dyer’s Hand, “He has no program. He is not selling anything.” http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1963/feb/01/audens-prose/
True. This is a book of literary criticism for those who couldn’t give a toss about new historicism or Marxism. It’s a love-song to great literature by a man who approached love and literature with equal joy. How can you resist a man who describes himself as “A sulky fifty-six”?
How Novels Work by John Mullan http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Novels-Work-John-Mullan/dp/0199281785
Ostensibly a guide for readers on how writers accomplish certain effects, this book serves as a manual for anyone who wants to write good fiction. His chapter headings include beginnings, narration, style and other aspects of technique. Mullan takes a literary approach to the subject which won’t be for everyone, but if you aspire to write literature you’ll be fascinated by his observations.
Where was Rebecca Shot? Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction by John Sutherland http://www.amazon.com/Where-Was-Rebecca-Shot-Curiosities/dp/0297841467/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393932247&sr=1-1&keywords=where+was+rebecca+shot
I love Sutherland’s books. They are the literary equivalent to the movie blooper reel. He finds continuity errors and other curiosities in great works of literature. The titles give you an idea of the sort of thing he examines. Of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca he identifies four puzzles: What is the second Mrs de Winter’s name and what is her background; whose body did Maxim de Winter identify falsely as Rebecca’s; in his last encounter with Rebecca, why was Maxim armed; and what happened to Mrs Danvers after the fire?
This is heady stuff, well for me, anyway. Given the number of books Prof. Sutherland has published on this topic, I get the sense I’m not alone. Enjoy.
Books that Reveal the Masters
These are the sort of books I keep on my bedside table right beside my notepad and pen. These contain not germs, but entire incubators of wisdom about every aspect of the writing life.
Writers on Writing from the New York Times, by John Darton (ed.) http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Writing-Collected-Essays-Times/dp/0805070850
Darton drew up a list of authors to pose questions about their work and process. The questions serve only as a starting point, however. In less time than it takes to say Joyce Carol Oates, the interviewees are off on a train of thought. There’s Ed McBain talking about being paid 2 or 3 cents per word. Alice Hoffman on writing while dealing with cancer. Jamaica Kincaid tackling that too-familiar topic of why do I write. The essays here are short but that doesn’t diminish their wit, wisdom or insight.
The interviews can also be found on the internet here: . http://www.nytimes.com/books/specials/writers.html
Writers at Work: the Paris Review Series http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Work-Paris-Review-Interviews/dp/0140045406/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393941254&sr=1-2&keywords=paris+review+series
If Darton’s collection of essays are an appetiser, the Paris Review collections are soup, fish, entrée and desert courses. I love these books and in general I prefer them to the NY Times series. For one thing, they are in interview format, rather than a collection of essays. Secondly, the range of authors is vast and goes back decades. Volume 1, for instance, includes interviews with Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, TS Eliot, Rebecca West and Billy Wilder. You’ll also find manuscript sheets with sections crossed out, words changed, notes in the margins… What is it about seeing the raw work of a great author before it’s been sanitised by the editorial and publishing process? If such things fascinate you as they do me, get thee to a bookshop and pick up one of these volumes. Like The Beatles, there are four fabulous ones to choose from. Or you could be greedy like me and get the lot.
Finally, briefly, a list of the essentials for your bookcase (yes, I still prefer books with pages and a proper book-smell. Just deal, OK.):
Tools of the Trade: Grammar, Dictionaries, Publishing
Compact Oxford Dictionary (or, if you have a house and a budget big enough you could get the full, unabridged set…)
Compact Oxford Thesaurus
Oxford English Etymology
Fowler’s Modern English Usage
Elements of Style
Writers and Artists Yearbook
*There is a saying, I think it’s Persian, that says,
If a man doesn’t know, and doesn’t know he doesn’t know, he is a fool. Shun him.
If a man doesn’t know, and knows he doesn’t know, he can be taught. Teach him.
If a man knows and doesn’t know that he knows, he is asleep. Wake him.
If a man knows and knows that he knows, he is a prophet. Follow him.
NEXT WEEK: Helpful Websites for writers