Discussion → Best Book About Writing

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    Gloria Garfunkel
    Jan 15, 02:10pm

    Name your best, favorite, most useful book(s) about writing.

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    Gloria Garfunkel
    Jan 15, 02:16pm

    I just dumped about half of mine, deciding they were too wordy to be good. What makes a good book on writing? Are there any? I'm still trying to decide that for myself.

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 15, 06:03pm

    Great question, Gloria!

    —John Gardner, Art of Fiction — http://bit.ly/TYjByv
    —Dorothea Brande, Becoming a writer — http://bit.ly/XBaWBE
    —Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners — http://bit.ly/XBaMKE
    —Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? — http://bit.ly/XBilRr
    —Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse — http://bit.ly/RYeC13
    —Margarete Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead — http://bit.ly/TYkl6R
    —Ursula LeGuin, Steering the Craft — http://bit.ly/XBbuaM

    These are all brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, craft- and life-changing books.

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 15, 09:09pm

    ..I could serve up some quotes from these books which would make it clear quickly why I love them—in fact, I do so often on my blog.

    What makes a good book on writing I think is a sense of honesty and a no-bullshit attitude that you usually only get from the best (Brande is an exception above, she was a teacher rather than a writer) who themselves write not to please or for success alone.

    Brande and Le Guin are practical more than visionary. The others are visionary though Gardner has some exercises (his book has two parts the second one is about craft), too.

    I can never stop thinking or working on questions of craft: to me there are more unanswered than answered questions left, and the longer I write the more questions come up (not necessarily altogether new ones but at a different depth of understanding). The questions get harder and harder. I read these books so often (the only one missing is E M Forster's The Art of the Novel) and I get something new from them every time I do.

    I can never stop working on vision either. Why we write, how we do it, whom we write for, etc. are more questions that I find endlessly fascinating—and distracting, too. I expect more and more of my thoughts and answers will somehow wander into my fiction (hopefully not turning it into drivel).

    Case in point: whenever I post a writing issue/question on my blog, I get dozens of comments and many, many more hits than when I post anything else. Same here on Fictionaut in the forums.

    This quote by Flannery O'Connor (from the book that I mentioned) beautifully expresses the writer's need to reflect (and in which spirit):

    «A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. [...] The writer has to judge himself with a stranger's eye and a stranger's severity. The prophet in him has to see the freak.»

    —all serious writers I think are aware of this need, of this responsibility towards the mystery that inhabits them and that feeds on them, too, at times, like a beautiful beast. Good writing books can help shoulder it.

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    Letitia Coyne
    Jan 16, 12:15am

    "Case in point: whenever I post a writing issue/question on my blog, I get dozens of comments and many, many more hits than when I post anything else. Same here on Fictionaut in the forums."

    Could this be part of the dilemma we have created with the new age of digital publication, when there are more writers than readers.

    Once readers were often closet writers who dreamed one day of doing what their literary heroes did. Now they do it, and for many [I saw it very much in the webserial community] they begin with absolutely no formal training in the craft.

    By that, I mean authors once learned the techniques of writing. They had a basic grasp of grammar and punctuation, although many I'm sure like me are lazy and allow others to care for these details. Now I listen to their discussions on forums when they need to ask very very basic questions, and to look for answers to basic 'how to' questions, because they have not had an opportunity to learn.

    Studying writing or language is not an option for 90% [or more of my guestimated statistic]. They need to gather help, instruction and support from those who can explain.


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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 16, 06:06am

    I think there are still vastly more writers in the sense of serious writers as opposed to, say, people who blog or who write forum posts or create/edit wiki entries, or who write a lot of facebook posts, to name a few pastimes that involve writing but for whom all that mystery/talent/gift babble is but unnecessary baggage. Following the pleasure principle, these good folks do what they like but hardly what they must and rarely what delivers the kind of pain brought on by writing a story and trying to write it well.

    The questions I'm talking about aren't technical as in grammar or punctuation or even POV, but technical as in the recent threads "who do you write for?" or "how do you deal with the inner critic?" which is a different level of discourse altogether, innit?

    The judgement on what the co-creation mode and possibility of the new digital universe does to writing is still out, I think. Books will not disappear and neither will novels...because some things cannot be said elsewhere and will still need to be said. I'm less pessimistic now than I was even a year ago. The number of serious books and serious writers will probably stay the same...but I don't know and it is altogether probably too early to discuss these things...

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    Letitia Coyne
    Jan 16, 06:55am

    Yes, there is a distinction between incidental writers and storytellers.

    But, I didn't mean them. Communities like:

    Web Fiction Guide - http://webfictionguide.com/
    and forums - http://forums.webfictionguide.com/.
    Also Digital Novelists - http://www.digitalnovelists.com/
    and Epiguide - http://www.epiguide.com/forums/.
    Protagonize collaborative writng community - http://www.protagonize.com/
    Also, far down the track to the unreadable but successful, Wattpad - http://www.wattpad.com/ [et al]

    have a large group of educated and competent writers. But there are just as many, or more among them, who write to a regular schedule chapters of serial fiction that build into massive story arcs, who have no more knowledge of writing as a craft than their high school English class. Most build an audience and continue in their endeavours for many years.

    Some struggle to construct a coherent sentence, and any imposed, deliberate story structure that does not emerge naturally or organically would be a mystery. The idea of a rewritten second draft is unknown. Rewriting = proofreading and correction. Third and fourth drafts are unheard of.

    They certainly consider themselves serious writers, and they discuss, too, on their forums, how tos and writing rules and suggestions. Those who review on the WFG are full of advice on how to show not tell,etc.

    They too ask 'who do you write for' and answer in terms of 'me, for the joy of it', or 'I need to create', or 'for my audience; I need to sell'. Much as some respondents on these forums answered your question. Some perhaps, even here, did not see the conundrum as you saw it.

    Successful members of the digital writing community have also said, in response to a discussion on editing and the editor's right to demand changes in text: "I don't know where this new idea of editors having any say in how a writer writes comes from! I cannot imagine someone telling me how I should complete one of my paintings.' She was quite serious.

    I pointed out some editorial critique on record for Samuel Johnson from the 1750s, and the number of revisions visible under different light spectrums of great Masters' paintings. But this notion was apparently new to her, and abhorrent.

    I would stress again that there are many superb writers listed on the above sites, but those who are naive are perhaps much more prevalent. Here, it does seem that there are a higher number of 'Literature as Art' writers, for whom questions like, 'What good how to books would you list?' is likely to bring a different list of titles than from the other sites.


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    Letitia Coyne
    Jan 16, 07:25am

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    Letitia Coyne
    Jan 17, 12:41am

    Still rambling, sorry.

    We used to have teen mags, and the editors scanned submissions, but they were still the repository for adolescant angst. Now the internet is alive with free expressions, some much better than others, and images of razor slashes.


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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 18, 02:45pm

    I must check all of these out—I hadn't even heard of any of them! I don't know what your take on your painter friend's remark is but I can only agree — have not made any good experiences with editors.

    The Vice magazine article: I saw it...a number of interesting responses there including one by Frank Hinton (who's also on Fictionaut, in fact he invited me here) and who is serious. ... I'm more in touch with "Alt Lit" (mainly because of my association with Frank and Metazen) and I enjoy the wild flower mentality of the crowd. "Teen mag" is perhaps a good comparison...but there's also a lot that invites serious consideration especially because every age must find and define its own literature, I think...? I don't know where this leaves me. I've heard that Palahniuk and his Portland crowd quite consciously (and I find cynically) trim their books to be suitable and attractive to the 18-25 year olds...I don't understand anybody else, I hardly understand myself, so this is beyond me.

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    Sam Rasnake
    Jan 18, 10:02pm

    Wen Fu by Lu Chi

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