Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Q & A 152

Aside from your own books, which books do you recommend every novelist should own? Stephen King's ON WRITING, of course, and Strunk and White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE. But is there more? (I have more, I just want to know what you'd list out.) What about Chicago Manual of Style?

Aside from my own books? That's like asking me, "Where should I live, aside from planet Earth?"

Here's where all those writing books come from:

Publisher: What are you working on now?

Author: Nothing.

Publisher: Creative juices aren't flowing, eh? While you're waiting for your muse to return, why don't you dash off a book about how you write?

Author: How I write? I sit there and write. What more is there to say?

Publisher: That'll do. I'll have one of my junior editors expand it into a book. I think we've got a winner here.

Books on writing are nonfiction. What does someone who writes nonfiction know about writing novels? And what does a novelist know about writing a nonfiction book? Would you buy your favorite automobile mechanic's book about how refrigerators work? And how the hell do refrigerators work?

Picasso didn't become a star by reading Cezanne's On Painting. Would you trust a book called Become a French Horn Virtuoso in Ten Easy Steps? I can't even put together a prefabricated Danish bookcase following ten easy steps.

Of course you need to get your spelling and Grammar and usage down, but that's stuff that can be looked up when needed. Read good books, read the best books in the genre you write in, and trust osmosis. Think up good stories. Write a lot.

That said, I do recommend you pick up a copy of How I Got Published. We need you at the next book chat.


BuffySquirrel said...

*hugs EE*

Brenda Bradshaw said...

"Need" is such a strong word. I'm trying to remember if I already own that book or not. I'm currently residing between two houses, thus my extended absences while I get Life Figured Out, and my crap is scattered. If I don't have it, I'll see if I can get it before the chat. Hell, I still have to go and add comments to the Crusie chat and I live for Crusie, so that says something right there. Not sure what, but *something*.

You're not the first one to tell me to trust that everything I've learned has sunk in already and to trust myself, but eh, you know how my thoughts work. No need to elaborate, although I do love a good, "As you know, Bob..."

Define "need". Is it a mirc issue?

Whirlochre said...

*Tries to hug EE but finds squirrel attached. Joins in anyway.*

Brenda Bradshaw said...

Oh, and by the way, ON WRITING is, hands down, the best book for a writer I could ever suggest simply because he did the one thing no one ever had: He gave me permission to do it. I need to find my very old blog post I wrote after reading it. I hit me to the core. Not everything that helps a writer to write has to be about character or conflict or style. Sometimes having someone say "If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly".

Depressing part is, I went back and found my blog post about it, just to realize I wrote it in 2005. Here it is 2008, and I still haven't given myself permission to do what I know I'm supposed to be doing.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, I'm one of those people who can learn about anything if I have good instructions, preferably in writing. I taught myself how to make cabinets and lay tile, etc.

Teaching myself grammar, however, seems to be a lost cause. The problem with most how to write books is they contradict each other, which only confuses me.

Even so, I have a few I like and have learned from.

"That said, I do recommend you pick up a copy of How I Got Published. We need you at the next book chat."

So I need to read it also?

*Gently peels the squirrel off and hugs EE."

Wes said...

As usual, EE, you hit the nail on the head. I bought the usual books when I started this project and found them woefully lacking. The technical writing was feeble, and insight into creativity and artist expression was nonexistent. (I find myself wanting to use expletives in this post, my feelings are so strong.) The possible exception is Donald Maass' book on the breakout novel, even though he rejected my query. What worked for me (and there is room to debate whether I've learned anything or not) was reading good works in my genre. For me it was A.B. Guthrie, Jr.'s novels. He won a Pulitzer for THE WAY WEST, an Oscar nomination for SHANE, yet his best novel is his first, THE BIG SKY. Each time I read it I gain more than reading a how-to book.

Wes said...

PS: Guthrie's novels are still in print and selling well 60+ years after he wrote them.

Moth said...

I didn't like On Writing all that much. Too much of his personal crud and not enough on writing. Of course, I'm not really a King fan so that prolly had something to do with it.

Some people recommend the First Five Pages but that one seemed so out of date to me as to be nearly worthless. Also the author makes several really STUPID suggestions that made me entirely doubt his credibility.

I liked Donald Maas' book "Writing the Breakout Novel". I've read a bunch of writing books lately (I can get em free at the library so why not) and his had the most useful bits.

I'm in the middle of "Self-editing for the Fiction Writer" and so far it's got some good advice. Also, for mechanics you can check out Jo Bourne's blog. she had a very useful little mini-workshop with a bunch of technical topics and tips that I found really useful.

ChrisEldin said...

{hugs WO hugging Buffy hugging EE}

This cracked me up, but also validated much of how I work.

Robin S. said...

I'll just pile on the hugging pile at first, but be forewarned - I'll definitely be doing some peeling off of all you huggers.

I have a few writing books - the two I like are the Stephen King book and a Betsy Lerner book - both good.

But I agree with EE and Stephen King - 'write a lot' and 'read a lot (of books worth reading)' are the best ways to learn.

It IS nice, however, to have a few writing books to rely on when you're feeling down and need permission to treat what you're doing with your writing as important enough to be, in fact, doing.

Especially when some people in your life look upon your writing as an annoying pasttime that takes away from time doing what they think you oughtta be doing.

wendy said...

When I decided to write a novel I also decided to buy one book. I picked up King's. Then I did what it said. 4 months later I had the first draft of my first novel.

Two years later I have two novels finished and am starting a third. I'm not published, but if I don't quit I believe I will be one day.

Biggest thing I learned from King was to sit my butt in my chair every day and write a predetermined amount of words (mine is 1000 when I'm writing)that, alone, was worth the price of admission.

This is fun. I like hearing about everyone's paths to our joint insanity.

Evil Editor said...

It will be interesting to see, when we read How I Got Published, how many successful authors credit How-to-Write-Well books for their success.

Brenda Bradshaw said...

Robin: Exactly!

I didn't find Maass's Breakout helpful, and First Five Pages were so boring I pondered slitting the skin around my ankles and rolling it slowly up to my knees for entertainment to get through it. I never did finish it, much to my flesh's joy.

I do know of authors who credit books like Volger's Journey, and McKee's Story, even those are for screen writing. And I know some who swear by Deb Dixon's GMC.

But mostly, what Robin said.

Robin S. said...

I do think you can take the how-to-write-books book thing too far.

I really learned what is and isn't good writing by READING what is and isn't good writing, and by having been immersed in English Lit from a young age, and from having been, and continuing to be, a constant reader.

And I do think that reading too much 'on writing' kinda keeps one from actually...writing.

But, having something to read on the subject of writing does provide a needed-sometimes validation, and a touchstone effect. Kind of like being around here does - despite the thumbs down stuff you toss out. Or down. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

"How NOT to Write a Novel" by Mittelmark and Newman. Hilarious, truly. Plus a daily dose of Jhumpa Lahiri to remind one that vivid prose is precise, tight, and stunningly lacking in pretense.

Moth said...

brenda: OMG! Me too. The First Five Pages was agonizing. And trust me it never really got better. I read it a couple months ago and it's all faded away by now. I think by the end I was liberally skimming.

I think Robin's right that there's definitely a saturation point for how-to books. I throw in a LOT of other reading material to pad out the occasional how-to book.

I just don't get the King thing...maybe because a lot of the stuff people cite as particularly resonating with are things I was already doing (insert butt in seat, permission to write, etc.) and stuff I'd already learned from other sources. Also, there was just really too much graphic, disgusting stuff about his drug addiction and his car accident for my taste.

Although even I will admit there were gems "To write said is divine."

Anonymous said...

Reading Evil's blog everyday (ok, several times a day) and participating in the weekly writing exercises have done much to motivate me, and clue me into the wacky world of publishing.

*pretends to join the group hug, but then does something naughty to EE when the rest of the minions aren't looking*



Robin S. said...

Hey, you all. Sounds like the 'everything in moderation' tag works well here, huh?

Also - anon 4:06, you sure sound familiar. I'm just sayin'. Yeah.

ril said...

Generally agree. I would, though, like to put a shout out for "The Art of Fiction" by David Lodge.

talpianna said...

I also recommend King's Danse Macabre and Secret Windows. The former is a discussion of SF and horror; the latter is a collection of a few short stories and a bunch of essays, interviews, prefaces, and lectures. They are about reading fiction, not writing it, and thus perhaps more helpful than books on writing.

*Goes off in a corner with the squirrel to make nasty remarks about the EE-huggers.*

benwah said...

What the hell's with all the hugging? Takes the shine off the evil part of the evil editor.

Most writing books aren't that helpful except for procrastination masquerading as work.

As everyone's ably pointed out, the best advice seems to be reading, more reading, and sitting in the writing chair until your ass goes numb and you've accumulated sufficient papercuts from your manuscript pages that you dare not squeeze lemons for fear of shrieking.

With all that being said, I'll offer a few comments, since that's what we all do 'round here:

The first part of John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" offers reasonably useful technical advice. (Narrative distance, etc) But the rest drowns in its own sense of gravitas.

George Higgins "On writing" offers some great examples, especially when it comes to dialogue. Plus there are a few great stories tucked in there. He makes the point that "Well of COURSE you're writing for publication. Why else would you do it?" Hands down my favorite writing book.

King's book is not bad. Points of since there's a damn-near pastorale illustration on the cover instead of something with dripping fangs.

McKee's "Story" made me want to take a drill to my temple. Then I thought better of it, and decided the august Prof. McKee deserves the pointy end of the bit for taking 300 pages to make the point that plot = conflict.

And one of the reasons I like this blog is that I don't think I've seen anyone claim that prior to putting pen to paper, every self respecting author must read Aristotle's "Poetics" -- an admonishment I've encountered on other writing blogs.

talpianna said...

Wes, a slight correction: Guthrie wrote the screenplay for SHANE; the novel was written by Jack Schaefer. I know this because I once had him as a dinner partner at a banquet. In case you were wondering, we talked about Tolkien and Wilbur Daniel Steele.

talpianna said...

I can also recommend E.M. Forster's ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL.

And don't read Aristotle's POETICS--see the movie!

Incidentally, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a delightful essay, "Aristotle and the Detective Story," which proves that the detective story is the only currently extant literary genre that fulfills Aristotle's criteria.

BuffySquirrel said...

Eh, it's okay, they're evil hugs.

Anonymous said...

The how to books are non-fiction, so why turn to them for novel writing you ask...In law school, the professors, absent a few adjuncts, were the ones who would have made terrible lawyers. Yet somehow they taught us to be lawyers. Is it possible therefore to know how to do something but not be able to do it yourself? When I cook someone else's recipe, exactly to the directions, it turns out not quite...right. I know how, but I can't. So these how to books can show you how, but the magic better be in you.

benwah said...

Tal's comment reminds me of another essay, Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder."

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

I'm going to sidestep the group hug, but will give EE a hearty handshake when (if) he extracts himself.

*straps joybuzzer onto palm*

I wholeheartedly second (third?) the suggestion of Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. As with any book that hands you tools, it's up to you to use them and if they don't work you can drop them back in the box. He has good tools. Often basic, yes, but not always ones that always come naturally to me.

I also find that books like that work best when you're reading them with a specific project in mind, so you're mentally applying examples to the work you've already done. (i.e. hmm, this character goes to ground after the crisis point, but Maass suggests she goes hell-bent for leather...hey, yeah, she could do xyz instead and that works much better.)

Anonymous said...

Since this is about writing and hopefully you guys are still checking it, I have a question my how tos don't address. If you are dealing with college or grad students in your novel to you refer to them as men or boys, women or girls? Boys sounds stupid for grad school but men seems to give a different sense...

Sarah Laurenson said...

Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul to read how other writers get through the day, the process, past the doubts, whatever.

I had a lot of trouble in English class until the day I walked in, found out we were having a test and passed it easily. Not studying worked much better.

It's in me. I just need to let it out.

Sarah Laurenson said...

In grad school? Is it how peers refer to each other? How they are viewed by children? By undergrads? By their parents? By the narrator?

Boys, lads, men, guys, girls, women, ladies, gals. Lots of choices, each of which carries its own meaning that can differ with every reader.