Friday, December 10, 2004


From time to time beginning writers ask me what books I recommend. Here are a few suggestions. I tend to think most writing books are full of crap--a lot of posturing or just plain old bad advice. But the following books have been helpful to me at various times in my career. Some of them, like David Madden's Revising Fiction, I go back to again and again.

Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight is a classic text for beginning writers. It's useful because it actually shows you diagrams of certain story paradigms. A lot of beginning writers have difficulty with form, with creating a mental picture of a story as an organic structure. Knight's approach allows a writer to understand the basic structures as the skeleton off of which the other elements of a story hang (organs, blood, flesh, skin, etc.). This question of form and structure is one that the writer needs to feel intrinsically, and not divorced from content/characters/style, but in the beginning it can be useful to think of form and structure separate from other story elements. It can also result in cookie cutter fiction, as the student begins, out of laziness or a misunderstanding of fiction, to use these diagrammed story structures as the basis, the reason, for the fiction.
(Possibly Nonsensical Rambling Adjacent Thoughts Appended to Questionable Metaphor: At base, a swallow is a structure that cuts through the sky, but we don't see a structure when we look at a swallow, unless we're some cyborg Terminator with enhanced vision. Instead, we see a bird darting through the sky. Writers need to see their stories in that organic way, rather than as piecemeal parts, or the bird falls out of the sky, skeleton divorced from feathers divorced from flesh. In other words, you or I can take a bird's skeleton and append to it feathers and flesh, but when we throw it up into the sky, it'll just plummet and fall apart. It takes a holistic magician to make a swallow, or a story.)

The Passionate, Accurate Story by Carol Bly is a discussion of the imagination and its intersection with fiction (it’s not at all as new-agey as it sounds—very practical and useful). There’s some fascinating stuff in the Bly book about the imagination and lack thereof, and how it’s difficult for a writer to overcome a stunted imagination, and how that tends to happen—things like, you’re a kid, you come home from playing outside, your parents ask you about the new family that just moved in next door, and you say "It’s a family of bears"—and you go off on a riff about that. If your parents go with it and encourage that kind of creativity, you learn that a sense of play in creativity is a good thing, and it’s nurtured in you. Whereas parents that say, “Be sensible—tell us the truth” wind up making their kids suppress their natural creativity. She also discusses the idea of social and political issues being important to include in fiction because they are part of our daily lives. She discusses this not with the intention of making fiction didactic, but to make the case that these elements should be intrinsically and in subtle ways woven into fiction because to exclude them is to be false to the reality of our world, and thus false in our fiction.
(Parenthetical Recommendation: Carol Bly writes amazing short stories. Seek out her story collections. She does wonderful things with shifting points of view. She does wonderful things with characterization.)

Revising Fiction by David Madden is wonderful because it shows early and later drafts by famous writers trying to solve specific problems in their fiction. It also divides these possible problems encountered by fiction writers into sophisticated and plausible categories. This is a sometimes complex book. It can seem daunting to a beginning writer. This is a good thing. When I was a kid, I would sometimes have the at-sea sensation of reading a book and finding it to be written in a strange language that I only half understood. Lord of the Rings was one of those books. I read it when I was too young to completely understand it. Each time I re-read it, it became a different book, as a result, as each time my understanding of it improved and changed. Revising Fiction is a little bit like that. The first time you read it, you may only get something out of 20 or 30 percent of the book. The next time, you will get more out of it. Then, when you go back even later, you will find yourself understanding almost all of it, but in a different way than you understood it before. Revising Fiction, then, becomes a good barometer of your progress as a writer, in terms of absorbing technique. My point being, it is good to read above your current level of ability when it comes to books on writing. And it is okay to be unable to internalize everything you read about the art of writing. Some of it will stick on a subconscious level regardless.
(Minor Aside: Jerome Stern has a similar book about the creation of fiction, but his categories are simplistic and divorced from the reality of how writers write. Which is to say in his book, a chapter on the lungs of a story is followed by a chapter on the toes of a story. It's a jumble of story parts and comments therein. Counter-intuitive. Much better to be mystified by what you read than to be disengaged from the reality of writing when you read.)

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner is indispensable simply because of Gardner's practical advice to beginning writers--avoiding common pitfalls, whether on a sentence level or the story level. He speaks with uncommon wisdom and clarity from experience.
(An Ancillary Recommendation: Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway is a good overall, meat-and-potatoes/nuts-and-bolts approach to writing fiction. It systematically covers all of the basics, with examples and common sense. If I have less to say about this book, it is only because it didn't speak as personally to me as the others mentioned above.)

And, then, to prepare you for the slings and arrows of the writing life after you begin submitting your fiction, you should definitely pick up Bruce Holland Rogers' Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer. Without posturing and with a minimum of bullshit, Rogers provides insight into and salve for the wounds that a writing life can create. When to give yourself a break. What to do about reactions to bad or indifferent reviews. Ways to find a path to tranquility despite setbacks. My only beef with the book is what I feel are some rationalizations for doing hack work. Otherwise, this is a great book.
(Last Aside, Which Cannot be Proven with Empirical Evidence: What do I mean about rationalizations for doing hack work? That Rogers' justifications for taking on work-for-hire or writing in someone else's universe flirt with the claim that it can be just as creative as doing your own work. I'm not saying you can't learn something from such work. But I do think you should enter into it with the clear, unclouded vision that you're doing it for the money. There's nothing dishonorable about that. There's nothing dishonorable about writing porn to pay the rent, for that matter. It is, however, dishonorable to create rationalizations or justifications for doing such work. I also feel that doing such work changes or transforms, in subtle ways, the work you do for yourself. For the worse? Not necessarily. But changed it will be, if you are any kind of organic/empathic writer, just as you are changed by the work you do for yourself.)