Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Books About Writing

Now and again -- once, sometimes twice, per year! -- I'm asked if I know of any good books for beginning fiction writers. And the answer is yes, yes there are good books, a lot of good books for beginning fiction writers. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a book about fiction writing that hasn't given me, at the least, some food for thought. But I do have opinions about the best books -- the best I've read at least. Of course, opinions vary, as may your mileage. Anyway, in the interest of having a place to point future requests for recommendations, I present some books that have helped me.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Gardner's is the most comprehensive handbook for fictions writers I've read. Here you will find all of the nuts and bolts stuff you need to know to write fiction, presented with rigor -- and virtually no humor. If that sounds dry, well it is. I mean, there are diagrams. He examines meter and rhythm in prose. He makes up jargon. There are diagrams. But believe me, this is an area (writing manuals) that can use some rigor and where a dry manner actually sets a book apart from the pack. Let's just call it pithy. I've read and re-read sections of this and notice new, useful stuff each time. Now Gardner does spend a disproportionately great amount of space tilting at the windmill of post-modernism, raising the standard for his ideas of "moral fiction." The analysis is still relevant, and he gives a fair (I think) if biased take on it all. But the space given to it seems a little much at this late date. That is to say, you lost, J.G. Sorry. The greatest problem with this book, though, is that, for some writers, Gardner is a bit of a stern taskmaster, which is why I also recommend . . .

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
If Gardner is about the nuts and bolts of fiction, Lamott is about what it feels like to scrape your knuckles, in freezing temperatures, when the wrench slips. She commiserates and provides good coping strategies for when getting the work done is just too hard and scary. Shitty first drafts. Radio KFKD. Giving your enemies tiny penises. Lots of good stuff in here to talk you down from the ledge where Gardner has left you. In case I haven't been clear -- this book is not dry.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson
Because beginning fiction writers often write their first pages for writing workshops/classes, and because of the natural time constraints on said workshops/classes, most fiction writers start out writing short fiction. I actually think this is a little wonky, because I'm willing to bet the majority of fictioneers like to read and aspire to write novels. I bet a lot of folks in writing workshops have not really read very many contemporary short stories at all. And contemporary short stories and novels are very different beasts. Well, here is the best book I've read about contemporary short stories. Carlson tells the story of writing a short story; the finished story is included in the book. In demonstrating how the story is made, he also does a fairly good job of showing how it works.

Story by Robert McKee
McKee is the writing guru lampooned in the movie Adaptation, if you've seen it. His book is directed at writers of screenplays, but most of the information here is generally applicable to any long-ish, plotted story. Harder to apply to contemporary, literary short stories, but not all that hard to extract useful stuff for novels, or, probably, plotted short stories. The single best explanation I've read of what a story is and how it ticks. Or anyway, the one that makes sense to me. Contains some diagrams. Cringing reported in some patients as a result of impassioned stance on the primacy of storytelling.

I'm leaving out tons of books about writing that I love, but I do think the above are the best places to start. And I hope it goes without saying, these books are no substitute for writing a lot and reading a lot of the kind of thing you want to write.


  1. I like this list! It's very all inclusive of different styles of writing and styles you will write. Great post!

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  3. John Gardner's "On Becoming a Novelist" is very good. I love Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, published in the 40s. It's the basis of a lot of later books and worth looking at: very practical and eccentric, wonderful to read. Gardner wrote a later introduction for the book. I am also quite crazy about the quirky book by Henry Miller, called Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieonymous Bosch--filled with stories about life and writing and artists!

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  5. I read the Dorothea Brande book years ago and enjoyed it. I'm truly excited about that Miller book, though -- added it to my wish list.

    I concentrated on writing manuals in this post, but I could make another list of books that are not manuals, yet are somehow (in my mind) "writing books." It might include Roth's The Ghost Writer, McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, Chabon's Wonder Boys, Hemingway's Moveable Feast, Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Lectures on Literature. I could go on.


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  11. I see that you have shared a list of books. This is very nice, because I am also a fan of this genre. I will definitely choose one of them.

  12. I have read only '' Bird by Bird ''. I convince you that this book is very interesting and it is worth reading. I also choose one of the list.