Thursday, December 13, 2007

Recommendations: Books on Writing

Whose Christmas list would be complete without some great writing guides? So tell Santa you've got one more addenda and send him the titles of some more great books (and avoid the others). This is not to exclude the non-Christians and non-Commercial-Holiday-Gift-Buyers-who-don't-go-to-church ... come on, I know you've got a gift card floating around your house somewhere.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. The best guide to writing for new writers I can imagine. Lamott does it with humor, does it with pluck and spunk. She also serves as a calming presence. Just the story of where the title bird by bird comes from is calming. Lamott also depicts herself as so fabulously neurotic that she will make you feel sane by comparison. All around, she leaves you with a good feeling about yourself as a writing and a bag of tools to use to get you to the next level. It's been out for 12 years now so your local library probably has a copy too.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner. A Goliath among writing guides, The Art of Fiction is a must ... eventually. DO NOT be fooled by the subtitle, the book is not for teenagers or even the fledgling writer. As a teenager I would have found Gardner's writing deadly boring, but even if I had been able to make it through his writing style I am glad I did not. Gardner presents a great many thoughts that are destructive, harsh and even cruel about certain types of writing. And the fledgling writer, or even a more established writer that is unsure of himself is apt to find this book crushing of their spirit and drive to continue. Recommended prerequisites for reading The Art of Fiction: (1) a firm sense of self as a writer, and (2) the ability to admit that the author can be an ass and yet still have some good advice buried under pomp. Gardner really does come across as a jerk, particularly in the first chapter, but if you realize that you don't have to take his attacks personally and that you don't have to agree with his value system, then he's the kind of jerk you can get along with. Side note: he also uses terms that are not employed in modern workshopping such as "yarn" to refer to a specific type of writing. I, however, cannot tell the difference between a "yarn" and a "tall tale," bravo for you if you can.

From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler, edited by Janet Burroway. This book came from a series of lectures Robert Olen Butler gave. He had been urged to write a guide on writing but refused. Instead, he agreed to have someone transcribe these amazing lectures that he gives to groups of writers. The result is less preachy than some other guides and much more organic. Both qualities lead to a pleasant read. Break this one out to gain some insight about yourself as a writer. It is, however, a little more ethereal than practical; more of an experience than a how-to manual.

The Lie that Tells a Truth, by John Dufresne. This was assigned for my senior thesis seminar. My professor loved it. But there were a couple of us that struggled with it. We in fact found it so distracting and disconcerting that we were excused from doing any further assigned readings in it. What I do know is that Dufresne's approach is to immediately give you writing exercises and then talk about it. This is directly contrary to Gardner who labors on and on about writing, casually mentioning exercises he might assign his students before actually giving them to you in the appendix. However, Dufrense doesn't just explain the exercises, he tries to hold your hand through them. I'm not a hand holder. I don't appreciate it. Unless you're my boyfriend, and even then there's limits.

I know I have read Triggering Town, but for the life of me can't remember a single thing the man said. I believe that description leaves little room for interpretation.

I fully intend to read Writing Down the Bones in the near future as I have heard many good things about it but have never cracked it open myself.

Something of an oddity on a list like this: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It's an oddity perhaps because it's geared toward genre writers and using the text as a tool to turn out salable narratives. However I've been using it for years as a means to thinking about "what comes next" for my characters. It's Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces (which is great if you want a soc./cultural read) but made specifically for writers ... with pictures. Yes, pictures.

And lastly, I recommend Words Fail Me, Patricia O'Connor. This isn't a book on fiction writing, it is a guide to practical, coherent, grammatically correct writing. It is Strunk and White's Elements of Style for those of us who think the Strunk and White version is dull and boring and would much rather use that slim little volume to even out a wobbly table leg than read the Elements of Style cover to cover. Words Fail Me is highly recommended if you have a teenager/college student who needs some help. The examples are good and the prose is always readable and often hilarious.

Highly Recommended