Friday, January 12, 2007

Writers on Writing

Over vacation I read, along with many other books (mainly history books because I write historical fiction), Stephen King's On Writing. Think what you want about his literary style, his genres, or the overwhelming financial success we all wish we had from our writing, but one of the interesting things about Stephen King is that he can talk about things going on in his life and make them not boring. In Entertainment Weekly he has a column where he will literally spend the whole time going on about some TV show he's really into and I will read it even though I don't have a working television.

Though the book is partially his autobiography and not really discussing writing all the time, he is definitely one of the few writers who can talk about writing and not have me running for the hills. Most of the books on writing out there that I would endorse (beyond grammar books) are by editors, not writers. I suspect this is because editors are trained to analyze why a piece of writing is good or not (it's their job), while a writer just writes.

Most of the books out there are junk. Stephen King only endurses the classic Elements of Style by E. B. White and says the rest are junk. I'm a bit more liberal. Here's my list of suggested books:

There's probably a couple others I'm not thinking of that I actually liked, and pretty much an endless amount of ones that I didn't.

26 comments:

Amy MacKinnon said...

My absolute favorite writing resources are Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life and Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees.

Laura K said...

I'd add Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. It's not a "guide" per se, but it's chock-full of great writing and suggestions on how you can think about your own writing in new ways.

Oh, yeah, and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, my favorite grammar book.

Mr. McBastard said...

I was also really impressed by On Writing. Every other article and essay I've read about writing has been uninteresting and, for the most part, irrelevent. I can summarize all these essays into one sentence: "I write this way, but that might not work for you." King's book, though, was very engaging, mixing anecdotes with helpful suggestions.

On a similar note, I am currently reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry. It is not about writing, really, but mostly about literature in general. I highly recommend it.

Ron said...

I too enjoyed Stephen King's book. Another I found very helpful was Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney.

Blogger won't allow me to make the title a link, so here it is:
http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Words-Right-Rewrite-Revise/dp/089879420X

Virginia Miss said...

The best book on writing I've ever read is Sol Stein's "Stein on Writing." His "How to Grow a Novel" is almost as good.

Second best: "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne & King.

I've also read the Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Pat Walsh and Noah Lukeman books that Rejector mentioned, and they're worthwhile, too.

Another good one: "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott. Like the King book, it's as much about her as about the craft of writing, but I highly recommend it.

Maria said...

Good list. I've read all but Immediate Fiction.

LorMar said...

I think I'd like to get a copy of Pat Walsh's book. Reading about why a book may or may not be published would be helpful before I begin my next project. It's better to be aware of the pitfalls.

ChapterKat said...

I'm surprised you recommended Noah Lukeman's book. I quit reading it after page 25, where he recommends that writers FedEx their query letters to agents. Everyone else says you're being annoying when you do that. They say it makes you look desperate as well as foolish for wasting so much money to send a query.

Tell me there is something there to redeem the book and I'll finish reading it. I just bought it a few weeks ago and am frustrated that I spent money on a book that starts off with bad advice.

Marissa Doyle said...

Welcome back! You were missed.

I recommend Betsy Lerner's "The Forest for the Trees". I like her writing style, I liked what she had to say about craft, and I learned a lot about the editor's eye view. But yes, "On Writing" was absolutely terrific, and Stephen King deserves every dollar he's earned.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I have a lot of books on writing, and I agree that most of them aren't that helpful with the actual writing. But buying them serves two purposes: 1) Allowing me to delude myself that reading them is forward progress; and 2) a source of inspiration when I am thinking all my writing is garbage.

Jen said...

I loved Stephen King's "On Writing." I found his humorous anecdotes very appealing and his 'teaching' very matter of fact and to the point -- not to mention sensible.

The Rejecter said...

Sorry everyone. Since I now moderate comments, there's going to be a delay for Shabbos before I see and publish your posts, unless I ask someone else to do it for me that week.

Chapterkat - I don't have the book in front of me, and yeah, that is bad advice, but there's a tremendous amount of good advice about prose, and the kind of things that makes him drop a partial right there. I'm a bit more liberal and will read the whole partial, but that's mainly because I'm an insanely fast reader and I'm paid hourly.

Conduit said...

I read Stephen King's On Writing just before Christmas and it was excellent. Setting aside all else, it was just an interesting and entertaining read. I also find Strunk & White's Elements of Style to be a very useful reference.

William Goldman's Adventure books (Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade) also made a big impression on me. Although they're focused on the movie industry, Goldman is also a great novelist. He has a lot to say about writing in general, particularly economy of style, getting to the action and plotting. Also, if you're as obsessed with movies as I am, they make a very interesting read.

Anonymous said...

You left out King's Danse Macabre, which is also about writing, and deals specifically with what makes horror stories work. Some of his insights would be useful in other genres as well, but I won't spoil it by explaining why - heh, heh.

There was also a book by Scott Meredith, the title of which I do not remember, but which was excellent, nonetheless. I could not stand Scott Meredith but I loved his book and it was worth every penny I paid for it. (Which was none. I read it in the library.)

Kudos also for Max Gunther's book on how to write and sell a non-fiction book. I read this one when I first got started (I am showing my age here), folowed his advice, and sold everything I wrote without a single rejection. Oh, OK, I started getting rejected when I started getting into fiction, but Gunther's book does not cover fiction. So ha!

My copy of King's On Writing fell apart in my hand when I tried to read it. It was like a scene from a horror novel. My pulse raced as I desperately picked up the pages from the bathroom floor. Blood splattered everywhere as the serrated pages cut my fingers to shreds. I felt myself losing consciousness as some evil force from King's novels took control of my body.

Then I just threw the damn thing in the trash and said to hell with it.

After reading your review I may get another copy and try again.

Kanani said...

I really liked Stephen King's book. I don't read his books, however, he's a working writer and I think that's what all of us want to be. To write everyday and be paid for it, and not have to do our usual 'day jobs' to make ends meet.

All of the following can be found on Alibris, as many are out of print.

I also enjoyed Thomas Farber's book, "Compared To What: On Writing and The Writer's Life."

When I first started, back in the days of the dinosaurs, I enjoyed Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings" and also Russell Bakers "Growing Up."

There are also great interviews of MANY writers in "The Writing Life; Writers on how they think and work" edited by Marie Arana from many interviews done in The Washington Post.

I've found a few gems in Milan Kundera's interview on fiction in the small book, "The Art of the Novel," which often seems contradictory, but if you can get through the European philosophy, you can mine a bit.

Good exercises can be found in "What If?" by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I found these to be invaluable when I was first starting out, and even today I stil go through it. One can also learn a lot by reading Joan Didion.

For poetry, I love Mary Oliver's "The Rules of the Dance" and also "The Poetry Handbook." There's also a wonderful collection of interviews of poets by BIll Moyers in "The Language of Love."

Kanani said...

I really liked Stephen King's book. I don't read his books, however, he's a working writer and I think that's what all of us want to be. To write everyday and be paid for it, and not have to do our usual 'day jobs' to make ends meet.

All of the following can be found on Alibris, as many are out of print.

I also enjoyed Thomas Farber's book, "Compared To What: On Writing and The Writer's Life."

When I first started, back in the days of the dinosaurs, I enjoyed Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings" and also Russell Bakers "Growing Up."

There are also great interviews of MANY writers in "The Writing Life; Writers on how they think and work" edited by Marie Arana from many interviews done in The Washington Post.

I've found a few gems in Milan Kundera's interview on fiction in the small book, "The Art of the Novel," which often seems contradictory, but if you can get through the European philosophy, you can mine a bit.

Good exercises can be found in "What If?" by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I found these to be invaluable when I was first starting out, and even today I stil go through it. One can also learn a lot by reading Joan Didion.

For poetry, I love Mary Oliver's "The Rules of the Dance" and also "The Poetry Handbook." There's also a wonderful collection of interviews of poets by BIll Moyers in "The Language of Love."

Catja (green_knight) said...

I'll reccommend Robert McKee's 'Story' - which is really aimed at scriptwriters, but says so many important things about how to make stories work that every writer should read it.

Alice said...

I'll stick in my recommendation for Ansen Dibell's Plot - a very good practical how-to guide on structuring a story. Not sure if it's still in print, though, but worth tracking down.

Alice said...

I'll stick in my recommendation for Ansen Dibell's Plot - a very good practical how-to guide on structuring a story. Not sure if it's still in print, though, but worth tracking down.

~Nancy said...

I second the Stein on Writing and Self Editing For Fiction Writers.

Two more to consider:

Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises For Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers From Start to Finish (whew!) by James Scott Bell.

*This book helped me with the very simple idea of using index cards to write down scenes. That it's not set in stone is good, too; I tossed out and re-did many scenes. But Bell came up with a slew of ideas and advice on structuring your novel which has helped me a lot.*

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

*This is one I'm using right now, in conjunction with the ideas on Jim Butcher's blog (just Google his name). Swain talks about Scenes and Sequels, and although I like the idea he doesn't have any exercises in his book (my brain's not wired that way), I was having a hard time getting it down into something simpler. Enter Jim Butcher's blog, where he's encapsulated (in 2 separate entries) Swain's ideas into 2 templates I whipped up over the weekend.*

I've many other books on writing, but the 4 above are the ones that have helped me the most at this point.

~JerseyGirl

Richard said...

I have not enjoyed Strunk and White's Elements of Style at all.

I agree about The First Five Pages. A fantastic book that, best of all, is shy of 200 pages. A similar book is Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost, it is thicker and covers a few more topics. Also has a nice section on the rhythm of your writing.

xiqay said...

I second Nancy's recommendation of Plot and Structure by Jon Scott Bell (even tho' it's a Writer's Digest book!) Practical help.

A book I found surprisingly good is one geared toward teaching writing to elementary students called After The End by Barry Lane.
[url=http://www.amazon.com/After-END-Teaching-Learning-Creative/dp/0435087142/sr=1-1/qid=1168997698/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/105-9896322-1150012?ie=UTF8&s=books]AFTER THE END [/url]

I also liked Orson Scott Card's book: Characters and Viewpoint.

Cheryl said...

I love OSC's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. It always gets the ideas flowing--which is what I think How-To-Write books are best for.

Rashenbo said...

I have the first five pages and I find it pretty interesting. I've used some of the material from it as discussion items for my blog. :)

Don said...

I just finished reading 78 Reasons and First Five Pages (the last two, for whatever reason, didn't draw me in from their titles). Both are excellent, and I think that I may well actually buy Lukeman's book having read a library copy. You can read my full reviews at my reading diary

M. D. Benoit said...

I'm not a Stephen King fan but I really enjoyed On Writing. Two of my favorites are Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (we share the same neuroses) and Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoints.