Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Good Books About Writing

I'm done with the writing portion of Draft 3 now, and the novel stands at 332 pages and 105,000 words. Next step, reading it, then editing and polishing.

In the meantime, I've gone back to my favorite hobby: reading. Writers are usually tremendous readers, and one of the things we love to read is books about writing. I could stock a pretty good shelf for a bookstore with what's in my house, so I decided to put together a list of some of my favorites.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This was the first writing book I picked up after my undergraduate creative writing program resulted in my not writing for seven years. By now, most people are familiar with Goldberg's freewriting technique, but it's still worth going back to read her original book and its sequel, Wild Mind. The revelation of her books was that I learned to start turning off the editor that had so crippled my chances of writing anything and began to listen to my own writer voice again.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. With her incredible wit and spot on understanding of the convolutions writers get themselves into while they try to do anything but write, Lamott's classic should have a place on any writer's bookshelf. While most people talk about her chapter on "Shitty First Drafts," the ideas that had the most impact on me were her 1" picture frame and the "bird by bird" sense of how writing gets done. The 1" picture frame (and I've had one on my desk ever since I read this book almost two decades ago) is a reminder that this space is all you've got to fill, is all you CAN fill, each time you sit down to write no matter how big the finished project is going to be. The title of the book comes from a time her brother was trying to write a report on birds for school. He'd left the project until the very last minute and was faced with a monumental task that overwhelmed him. Lamott's father said the only way to tackle it was "bird by bird," one piece at a time.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Gardner was head of the creative writing department from which I received my undergraduate degree. Unfortunately, he died in a motorcycle accident the year before I got there. He was still an undeniable presence in the program my entire four years, and the university's bookstore dutifully carried all his books, fiction and nonfiction alike. I'll admit, I hated this book and On Becoming a Novelist when I read them as an undergrad. Gardner is elitist and sometimes condescending, but he sure knows his craft. As an adult, I came back to these books and found them full of amazing insight into what I was actually doing on the page. One of his favorite words is profluence, the forward momentum all stories (short, novella, and novel) have to have to keep the reader from walking away.

The Making of a Story by Alice la Plante. If you've read my blog long enough, you know Alice is one of my favorite people on this planet. I read this book the semester before I ended up in her class, before I knew she taught in my grad program. This book, or her other book on writing Method and Madness, are terrific nuts and bolts books on craft from the practical rather than theoretical point of view. They offer instruction, examples, and exercises to help you figure out what you need to do with your own work.

Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Bell introduces the idea of a modular structure for short stories rather than a linear one. While this is not a good book for beginner writers, he's got a lot of good information about writing and analyzes a number of other writers, breaking down their style to look at what they're really doing on the page.

The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Incredibly good book on revision. Bell uses The Great Gatsby and the back and forth of revision between Fitzgerald and his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins , as they turned this book into the amazing work that it is(if you know nothing about this amazing editor, follow the link. The man was responsible for almost all the great writers of Fitzgerald's generation). Along the way, Bell, who is an editor herself, offers great advice and insight into the revision process and what you should be looking for in different stages. One of the few books I've ever come across that focuses on revision.

Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Although this book is focused on writing poetry, it is an excellent exploration of the impulse that makes you lean forward, start thinking about writing, and using writing as a way to get to what it is your piece is really about. Excellent book. Excellently written, too.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. In my mind, this book is very closely aligned with John Gardner's books, but written with a bit less ego. Like Gardner, Butler talks about maintaining the continuous dream of the story, but, unlike Gardner, Butler speaks about it from the writer's view point. He proposes a very organic way of developing a story by dreaming your way into it, going as far as you can as you tell yourself the story, and filling out note cards for each step with as much information as you know at that time. When you're ready to write, you lay the note cards out and, if there's too big a jump from one state to another, you go back to your dream state and create the bridging scenes. Sound woo woo? It really isn't, and Butler does a far better job of explaining this than I do.

There are so many others books I've read and enjoyed over the years, but these are the ones that have added something valuable to my magic bag of tricks. The ones I go back to.

Let me know what writing books you find invaluable.