Part 15 of an intermittent series where I read or re-read the writing books on my shelf to see if they’re worth keeping. See previous part here
Well it’s 2021 and I’ve read a whole bunch (although only skim read a couple tbh) of writing books
I realised that in a previous article I said I was reading Dialogue by McKee but then didn’t say anything about it
(as usual a very dull cover)
This is not as immediately ‘classic’ as Story but it is a very good book – if a little padded and the material stretched for more pages than seem necessary. However there are few books on dialogue, and the others I’ve read in the past were fairly poor so I’m keeping this one until something better comes along.
Back with the Structure books I re-read Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison and although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on a first reading I still found it full of inspirational ideas on how to introduce pattern into your writing – if you’re a bit bored of the usual 3 act structure.
This book, Story Trumps Structure, by Steven James, was recommended by Donald Maass – who, you may remember, I read a couple of Nuts & Bolts books from and decided to discard. This is a book full of good advice and comes from an angle of ‘structureless’ writing is better because story is king. Although of course there is a structure (it’s even drawn in the book – a semi-spiral with Orientation, Crisis/Calling, Escalation, Discover and Change being steps upon the path.) However as a Nuts & Bolts guide this is one of the good ones – full of advice on the macro level that I found useful and it’s a keeper. Not sure it counts as a ‘structure’ book though… the advice from James is to throw out your outlines, ignore the 3 (or 4,5 or more) act structure and just write – not many books tell you how to ‘pants’ and if you are a pantser this may be the writing book for you.
Some ‘tangent’ books before I got to the next category of “Mount Olympus” – in WAWAW first post I covered the 4 main categories of writing books:
How To English – Guides for how to craft a sentence. Nothing in these about character or story.
Nuts & Bolts – Creative writing workshops in book form
On Mount Olympus – The philosophy of writing & the writing life
Golden Parachutes – The business of writing
So far I’ve been covering the How To English and the Nuts & Bolts books. I’ll return to Nuts & Bolts when I come to specific Genre books (e.g. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy) but before I do I’ll cover the Mount Olympus books.
Anyway, those tangent books (i.e. off shelf or off category)
How to be your own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis (not that Richard Curtis) – this is a comprehensive explanation of what Literary Agents do and what a Literary Contract contains. I don’t have a lit agent (and Curtis advises that even writers that do can benefit from this book – which I’d agree with) and since I have a couple of contracts coming up I thought I’d better gen up on the subject. Highly recommend this book – it’s a little out of date (publishing has changed massively in the last 20 years) but the basics are gold.
This is a collection of essays written by working editors split into two sections – Theory and Practise. The subtitle is: What Writers need to know about what editors do. Which isn’t really backed up by the content. Because it’s written by multiple authors (editors) it’s a mixed bag. There are plenty of essays on specific genres too, some of which are of no interest to me. However there’s enough good stuff in here I’m of a mind to keep it. It’s very dated (as I said Publishing has changed a lot) but some of the philosophy of how to be a good editor is eternal.
Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel was a birthday present (yes I completed another orbit in January) and is a graphic novel exploring the new(ish) medium of narrative podcasting. Abel has written a previous visual guide to radio about This American Life and there is an excerpt of the previous book inside. However she refers to the previous book a lot – and sometimes says things like “we covered how this is done in the previous book” – about information she didn’t include it in the excerpt. As the first book appears to be out of print and hard to get hold of (in the UK at least) this was more than a little annoying. However the material is good apart from that quibble and the visual of ‘being lost in a German forest’ for that moment in every story when you can’t see the wood for the trees is very good (as are a few rules of thumb for creating good stories) so I’ll keep it.
One of those I skimmed was Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer – it’s interesting to compare and contrast with Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write which came out not that long after (Brande’s book was 1934, Ueland’s 1938.) They’re a world apart. Brande comes across as schoolmarmly, po-faced even (she married an actual fascist) and it’s all about ‘doing what’s best’ whereas Ueland is joyful, passionate and independent and doing what’s fun. Of the two I’d much rather spend time with Ueland than Brande and therefore I know which of the two I’ll keep on my shelf. (Writing is hard work but it also can be fun – Brande is all about the work, Ueland is all about the fun. Maybe you should read both and find a balance?)
These are examples of the On Mount Olympus – how to be a writer – style book rather than have any nuts and bolts advice on how to write. Brande seems to have originated the ‘morning pages’ thing – where writers are supposed to rise an hour earlier than they’d normally and write. I always thought that was harsh advice and now I know that Brande was a fascist it totally makes sense. Ignore her. Be more Ueland (her Wikipedia entry includes this fun fact: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”)
I’m currently off on another tangent, re-reading Damon Knight’s excellent Creating Short Fiction which is another fundamental resource. If you want to write short stories this is the best guide to doing so I’ve read. One of my goals this year is to write (and hopefully publish) more short stories so am exercising my brain on the subject by re-reading this book.
After I’ll be back climbing Mount Olympus with some more classics – Bird by Bird, Writing Down the Bones and John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. But that’ll be WAWAW review 16.
Just a reminder that my first story collection – A Tiding of Magpies – is now available to buy again in both ebook and paperback. Amazon may show the paperback as “being out of stock” but apparently they do that with all Print On Demand books – something to do with their algorithm changes during Covid reprioritisation of products. I’ve been assured that if you order a physical copy there’ll be no delay in getting one.
Drop a comment with your favourite writing book or tip here or email me via the Contact page. If you’re a publisher or Indie Author and would like me to review your writing book drop me a line!