Friday, February 19, 2010

A Crafty Book

I’m a sucker for books on writing. I can’t pass through a bookstore without tracking them down, usually in the reference section, sometimes in the art section and occasionally mixed in among the books on gardening and origami. I enjoy skimming through the titles, opening up to random pages to see what kind of sage advice jumps out at me. But while I like to look at these books, I seldom buy any. It’s not that I’m a cheap bastard—my bank account shows that’s not the case—or that I think that they’re poorly written—they’re not—it’s simply that most of the books on writing appear to be written for people who have never written.

The books on writing that I’ve run across fall into/across a few broad categories. These include (but are not limited to) the basic primers (‘If verbs are the engines that drive our sentences, than adjectives are the windows that show us what’s racing by’), the how-tos that explain the obvious (‘You need to create characters that feel like real people’), the memoir-cum-writing book (‘I used the pain from my breakup, channeling it into my characters, finding solace and revenge as my heroine pushed the car off the cliff onto her worthless, cheating, lying ex-boyfriend who happened to share the same name as my ex-boyfriend.’), and the mystical-BS books (’Only by finding your inner travel-buddy-writer-coach—what the ancient OOloçoloþs called their wazizits—will you allow your true storyteller-self to cross the void.’).

I seldom find a book that offers practical advice for the published author/active writer looking to hone his/her craft so that he/she doesn’t end up writing sentences that sound like this one.

Over the years I have found a few I love – The Lie That Tells the Truth by John Dufresne, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi and The Adventurer by Paul Zweig*. This week I add a new book to that list, The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House.

Tin House is a literary magazine, filled with the kind of literary fiction that some (many? most?) casual readers find a tad too literary for their tastes. The book’s contributors—people whose names I apparently should know—have written all sorts of award winning novels and poems and non-fiction pieces. I doubt I would have bumped into any of them at Bouchercon, but after reading their essays, I would like to buy them each a beer.

These are essays aimed at other writers, with all the basics assumed and all (most) of the mystic touchy-feely crap pared away. Like any collection, there are a few not-so-brilliant entries, but even these are worth a read. After reading the essays (some twice), I can’t cite any specific advice that I can sum up in a bullet point—and that’s a good thing. Anything that can be that easily stated is so obvious to be worthless. Instead, I came away with a clearer sense of what works and why, what’s essential and what’s baggage, what I’ve been doing right and what I need to try to do next. And I came away inspired to be a better, more thoughtful writer.

So, fellow writers, what books on writing are on your shelf?

*Good luck finding this one – it was last published in 1974. It’s a deeper explanation of the role of the hero’s journey in fiction, predating Frey’s own damn good book, The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth


Dana King said...

You're right; most books on how to write are geared for people who are just starting out.

Two I've stuck with are SELF-EDITING FOR WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King (no relation) and ON WRITING, by Stephen King (alas, also no relation).

Rick Blechta said...

You are going to be SO missed around here, Charles. Great post.

In a bit of serendipity, I'm currently working on a non-fiction book, tentatively titled You Too Can Make Hundreds of Dollars Writing Crime Fiction; Let a master at the craft sort show you how. Every single writer on the planet should read this book and give multiple copies to all their writer-friends.

Act now and you'll receive ABSOLUTELY FREE a set of Ginzu steak knives! That's right. You'll get a set of 6 knives that everyone is talking about for every 10 copies of Rick Blechta's fabulous book on writing you order.

But wait, there's more!

Order 50 copies of Blechta's book and he'll add you to the cast of characters in his next novel*. Wow! Show your friends, show your parents, show the parents of your friends. Everyone will be so impressed.

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Vicki Delany said...

I also love On Writing by Stephen King, but haven't read that again since I've been published. Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass is very good.

Charles Benoit said...

How could I forget - Happy 1 year anniversary to Rip Haywire. Just about the best thing that happens every day.

Donis Casey said...

As I'm sure I've repeated dozens of times, Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art" is my very favorite book for writers. I also like Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing (number 6 - "never use 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose.")

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