Monday, August 19, 2013

Books on Writing Books

There was a length of time where I got sucked into reading books about writing books—you know, books with titles like, Write Your Novel, 10 Things Every Writer MUST Know, How To Write A Novel Blindfolded Only Using Your Left Pinky . . . those sort of things. 

It was a black hole, really. I felt like if I read just the right book, I'd find all the secrets to busting out a bestseller. 

The main thing I learned, however, was that reading books about writing was stopping me from writing. Simply reading good fiction and writing regularly did a lot more to help my stories and tales. 

Still, I came across a few books I really enjoyed, and I thought I'd share them.

(bird by bird, by Anne Lamott)

One of the main reasons I enjoyed this is because, even though I was searching for magical tips on making me a better writer, this book offered little advice to the actual nuts and bolts of writing. Instead it instilled a realistic mindset of writing (if you're writing for money or fame you're not going to enjoy writing) and at the same time was quite inspirational. 

Here are a few quotes:

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."


"I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it."

and finally

"You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sandcastles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us believes we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be."

The first two quotes are meant to spur us to sit down and write, the last one helps us understand why we feel so fulfilled when we do so. 

(On Writing, by Stephen King)
The funny thing is, I'm not a big Stephen King fan. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The first third is a well written memoir about King becoming an author, which, by the end of it, has you dreaming with a smile on your face about getting a phone call from your agent letting you know the paperback rights for (Insert the name of your book here) have sold for four hundred thousand dollars. Especially if you are living paycheck to paycheck like King and his wife were.

The middle third of the book is actual writing advice, which I found mostly helpful. For one, King is big on setting a chunk of time aside every day to write—he explains your muse is much more likely to extol magic if it knows where and when to find you. 

Also, here is a quote from the book that I completely agree with:

"Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

The last third of the book is about the new perspective he gained on life and writing after a terrible accident, which was also inspirational. 

The one problem I had with the book was King's view on outlining/plotting—he doesn't believe in it. He believes you should start with a nugget of an idea for a story (he likened it to a fossil), and discover the rest of it by writing it out. Plotting, he believes, leads to a "less true" story, and should be avoided. I have no problem with seat-of-the-pants writing, and in a way did it for my novel, but I don't think it should be thought of as the one true way to write.

As for books that work like a writer's workshop, the one I've enjoyed the most is:

(Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin)

I know this post is getting long, so I won't go into too much detail on this one. 

For the most part, I'm not a big fan of writing-exercise books (I feel like just reading a lot and writing a lot should take care of improving your writing ability), but if you ever sit down to write and can think of absolutely nothing to write about, it helps to have a little guidance. Plus this book helps you think about pacing, repetition, and the actual sound of your writing.

There are many other writing books, and I know I've just listed perhaps the two most popular above, but I don't want you getting sucked into the black hole of reading about writing. So I'll just leave you with this—the greatest secret of being a writer that is included in every how-to-write book: 

If you want to write you need to write. 

It seems obvious, but it's true. A lot of people (and I've been guilty of it) spend more time daydreaming about selling a book than actually writing the damn book. 

Finally, you should definitely avoid this book: