I always make a pretty big push to get writing done in the new year. (I got my first rejection of the year this morning!) In honor of that, I thought I might post a few book reviews on some nonfiction writing books. The greatest piece of writing advice, though, is something I was told verbally by Ryan Gattis in his Writing The Novel class at Chapman: In writing, you are not trying to imitate life. You are trying to imitate your memory of life – and the stuff that goes on inside a person as they are living. It’s an internal artform. I think it helps to think about that when you’re deciding which scenes to leave and what to ditch, and where to put the internal dialogue (and why you have to have internal dialogue).
These four book have also helped me GREATLY toward sharpening my skills. Not just in actually writing, but also in learning to weather the pitfalls of Self that all creative endeavors uncover. I am learning more and more, though, that there really is no teacher like experience. Write a ton, and your writing will get better.
But in the absence of writing, there is reading about writing:
Aspects of the Novel, by EM Forster: I guess this book is fairly cliché these days for writing students. Or so says the website I was just on. But having never been exposed to Forster’s essays before, I was floored. He just outlines the decisions you’re making, and the deliberateness with which you have to see everything when you’re writing a novel, in a way that was totally new to me. I learned buckets, and still swear that I need to go back and read it again. It made writing a novel seem like a craft, and not like flailing around in sentences until you hit something that works. Particularly eye-opening were the passages about windows, and the passages about flat characters vs. round characters.
On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King: the book is ½ memoir, and ½ writing tutorial. It’s interesting, funny, and it has much good advice tucked between the pages. I felt just a bit better about my own trials knowing that he had a stake on the wall to pin all his many rejection letters to, and to know that he was a starving English professor before Carrie was optioned in paperback. It was encouraging to hear that even Stephen King, the most prolific of writers, can have a life crisis that would make him stop writing for a while. And better still to know that writers return to their craft, even if it takes a while. His thoughts on scene description, adverbs, and editing have stuck with me. Perhaps my favorite section is the bit of writing he includes before edits, and after edits. It’s fascinating. Because of the structure of the book, it’s easy to get through. Even the instruction part feels like there’s a caring professor coaching you through it.
On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser: I heard once that you could teach someone the rules of writing in about 2 weeks if you had the time. It’s the pacing, the punctuation, the finding your voice that takes the longest, the years of writing. This book is that “rules of writing” crash course, and it gives you tips on how to maximize your use of language at the same time. It’s also written well, with clarity, and is easy to get through. It’s not tied to genre or anything, either, so it’s a good all-around guide. Even if you feel like you already know the rules of writing, I guarantee you will learn something by reading this book, or be told stuff you’ve forgotten.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott: Another part-memoir, although this one is mostly writing advice. The book is also a writing student cliché, of the worst kind. But hear it out. It’s a cliché for a reason (the reason is, it’s good). I do not know why or how, but for some reason this book was balm for my crazy-writer soul. She outlines all the neuroticism, the certainty that you’re failing, the daily struggle with yourself you have to navigate, and somehow makes it all seem funny. Not just funny, but cathartic. She’s nuts, in every way. But you’re nuts too, and laughing at her feels like you’re laughing at yourself, and suddenly it all seems manageable. Not only that, but it contains a billion good tips for fooling yourself into getting things on paper. And once you’ve learned the rules of writing, that’s your new biggest hurdle: how to get that butt into that chair, and convince your fingers to start typing.
Those are the ones that have stuck with me the longest. Want more? You can’t go wrong with John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). But I don’t find myself constantly thinking of their content as I write as I do with the above 4.
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