Anne here, bringing you Ask-A-Wench for this month, in which we're talking craft-of-writing books. There are probably as many different ways to approach writing as there are writers, and in our discussion of the topic, we found the wenches vary enormously.
Mary Jo: Basically, I hate how-to-write books. In the past, I bought a number of pricey books that other writers raved about. Books that help some develop strong plots, brilliant insights, and probably shiny hair. They did nothing for me. My mind blanks. Eventually, I realized that is not how I learn. (I'm not great with expensive, highly rated lecturers on writing, either. Honestly, I have no idea how I've ever managed to write a book!)
But one book I really like is Stephen King's ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft. Probably because it's more memoir and less craft. I don't read Stephen King novels because I've never been into horror, but in this memoir, he is warm and wise and witty and very easy to relate to. He intertwines his life with his writing, and the result is fascinating and powerful. (Also short. Unlike his novels. *G*)
I've also enjoyed TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, a collection of columns written for Writer's Digest by mystery Grand Master Lawrence Block, because it's funny. I'll read almost anything if it appeals to my sense of humor!
Okay, and now I've come up with a third book! (I seem to like books about writing more than about the craft of writing.) REJECTION, ROMANCE, AND ROYALTIES by my friend Laura Resnick is a collection of her no-holds-barred columns for various writing organizations, and they're funny, astute, and a comprehensive study of the writer's life. And did I mention funny?
Pat Rice says: Whenever anyone asks what craft-of-writing books I recommend, I trudge out Vogler’s WRITER’S JOURNEY and Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.
They both have valuable insights, although I can’t use their methods because my brain doesn’t work that way. But knowing what makes a strong character and plot is certainly helpful—and I think that’s key to making craft books work for us.
Writers are special snowflakes—we all operate differently. But stories are universal. Reading a craft book and attempting to follow it as a line-by-line instruction will only give us headaches and stifle creativity. Pulling out the parts that make us go Ah-hah and applying them to our work is another matter entirely—because we all need to strive to constantly better our craft. But personally, I’d rather spend my bucks on research books!
Nicola : I have a shelf full of craft books, which I referred to a lot when I was teaching creative writing. These days I don’t read them much because I find that sometimes if I analyse too deeply what I’m trying to achieve I can lose the creative spark. I write so much by instinct and don’t plan a lot but sometimes going back to the nuts and bolts can really help. For example, I heard a podcast from Freakonomics Radio on how to build suspense and found that very useful when I started writing House of Shadows. All writers are different and we all need to find out what works for us.
Last week, though, I did see a book on writing craft that I’m finding fascinating. Perhaps it appeals particularly because it is written for readers as well as writers. It’s called How Fiction Works by James Wood and it can be read as a “how to write” book but also as a way of finding more depth in the books we read as well. I’m on the chapter about characterisation at the moment and reading about how to animate characters rather than simply describe what they look like or what they are doing. "Get them moving" is the advice!
Susanna: Back in the pre-Internet late 1980s, when my sister dared me to actually finish the book I’d begun (instead of putting that first chapter back in the box with the rest of my first chapters), I turned for help to the library in the Very Small Town where I lived at the time. They didn’t have a large writing section, but they did have a copy of Phyllis A. Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing. That book quite literally changed my life. Not only did it get me through that first (not very good) novel, but it gave me the confidence to tackle the idea that became my novel Mariana. I gave the library back their copy and bought my own, and still go back to it between books for inspiration.
Apart from that, the only writing books I really read and re-read are the ones that gather lots of articles from many different working writers, so you get a bunch of small tutorials on aspects of the craft. My old 1990 Edition of The Writer’s Handbook has Rosamunde Pilcher talking about evoking emotion, Elizabeth Peters on developing ideas, Madeleine L’Engle on why you shouldn’t overthink a story, and my all-time favourite article by Stephen King: “Everything You Need To Know About Writing Successfully—In Ten Minutes”. (Best. Article. Ever.)
There’s no one way to write, as we all know. No rules or methods or techniques that work for every writer. But I like reading the articles anyway, and I do think that I learn from them. In Writing Suspense and Mystery Fiction (which also gets taken down from my shelf a fair bit), there’s an article by Mary Stewart on using setting in the novel, and she opens it by saying this: “Although I must confess that I have my doubts whether one writer can tell another how to write anything at all, or even describe adequately how he does it himself, I know that there is something heartening and helpful about the very community of experience. Every writer started somewhere, and no writer worth his salt ever had it easy, or ever will; so it is possible that a brief attempt to summarize the way I tackle certain phases of writing may be of interest to others.” I think that says it best.
Andrea/Cara (hanging her head in shame) I’m embarrassed to say I can’t offer any favorite ‘craft of writing’ books (unless one counts the Strunk and White classic— The Elements of Style.) You are probably thinking, How can that be? Trust me, I am asking myself the same question. I do a lot of sports and so I’m aware that without lessons and hands-on refinement of technique, one has little hope of getting better at a particular skill. Few of us are born naturals. We have to work at it, and instruction is key. Which makes me appear even more of a doofus when it comes to training my mental muscle.
I can’t explain why I don’t feel compelled to search out craft books. I have learned some very good things listening to authors speak at conferences. But when I’ve tried to sit down and peruse a book on writing advice, I don’t react well. Perhaps it stems from the fact that I’m a total pantser type of writer. My brain finds it hard outline or think formally about structure. I tend to go more on intuition, and I suppose I excuse that response by telling myself I have learned some basic things by osmosis, as I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood.
Susan: When I first started writing fiction, I read a few books about writing and enjoyed it very much, certainly learned something as a newbie. Really I learned more about writing from writing, trying, writing some more than from how-to books. I always loved writing poetry and stories and secretly worked at that for years. Graduate school taught me good solid writing skills as I worked my way through dozens of papers and talked to professors about writing craft as well as method. I had strong writing instincts to start, and my professors, authors and accomplished writers themselves, helped me hone my natural tendencies. I learned to stay on track, trim and focus, find the punch in the statement, avoid sentiment, and learned to get that grammar and punctuation right. I learned not just history and research methods but thinking and writing skills. Writing that flows and a structure with a clear beginning, middle and end is as essential in a good art history argument as it is to good fiction.
Writing, especially fiction, is a uniquely self-taught skill. You have an ability for it or you don't, and it develops from there. Good writing depends on self-learning as you figure out what works for your own style and interests. To me it's an artistic approach that is grounded in instinct, intuition and natural ability. And anything can be improved--we can always learn from others. We osmose good writing from good writers, but books about the craft of writing can be very useful,enjoyable, thought-provoking reads. I like reading about writing, but if there are rules, steps, phases, exercises or workbooks involved, I'm outta there. Some of my favorite books on writing and storytelling are keepers on my bookshelves. I love Stephen King's semi-autobiographical On Writing--you don't have to be a writer to enjoy the straightforward sizzle there. I also love the refreshing honesty in Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird, and when I was a very young writer I felt encouraged by Dorothea Brande's classic Becoming a Writer. Christopher Vogler's Writer's Journey clarifies the importance of storytelling and explores Joseph Campbell's work on archetypes and mythologies in The Hero's Journey. Vogler is the one writing book I go back to now and again. I feel most like a bard and a storyteller when I thumb through those pages, and it reminds me that there is a bigger reason why I do this.
But clearly I have been picking up the wrong books. After reading over the other Wenchly recommendations, I am aghast at myself for not being more open to exploring valuable resources. My TBR now has a number of new additions—and I am determined to prove you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Jo Bourne: I'm not much of a 'writer's craft' book person. Everyone else seems to do things so differently from me. I learn most about writing by reading what folks have written, I think.
Like several others, I’ve read and enjoyed King’s On Writing. I think of it as a book of philosophy as much as a writing manual. More. It’s a keynote speech to the conference more than a workshop advising folks to boot the adverbs out of the house -- though it says that, among other things. King says, “ Go sit down and write, for Pete’s sake,” with a dessert of “. . . and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Looking at a 'style and technique' book for the nuts and bolts of writing, I'd go to McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting. This is, as the lengthy and exact title tells us, a guide to making movies rather than writing books. Movies are storytelling in snippets of realtime action presented in a two or three hour format. This is so applicable to genre fiction. Story is full of advice on making action matter, on wrapping the viewer in feelings rather than abstractions, and provides useful warnings against plodding along, pontificating. Every time I open Story or On Writing to any random page, I find something worth thinking about.
Anne here again: Like Nicola, I have a lot of craft-of-writing books that I take to writing workshops, because I think you need to "taste" a book to see whether the author's approach will might suit you or not. Some books that people rave about, do nothing at all for me — it's very personal. The more "instructional" a book, the less I like it. Like most of the wenches, I firmly believe that I learned to write by reading widely in a range of genres since I was a child, and by writing and rewriting to get the effect I want. I think I absorbed a lot of craft without knowing it.
But some writing books are valuable to me simply for inspiration, or to remind me to do something I might have forgotten, or to remind me of the joy of writing when I'm struggling with a plot that refuses to come together as I want it. As Joanna said, simply opening various books at random can offer insights worth pondering.
One book I like is Linda Seger's Creating Unforgettable Characters. It's a screenwriting book, and she helps you go deeper into character by asking you questions. It's the Socratic method — the answer, like the character, is in your head, but you need the right question to unlock it. If I'm struggling to understand a character, I'll often turn to her. It's also very entertaining, as she refers to examples from TV and movies that I've watched.
So that's the wenches — now what about you? Is there any craft book you love and return to again and again? I don't mean craft-of-writing, necessarily —we're not all writers here—but any kind of advice book you find helps you in some way.