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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Recommended Books on the Craft of Writing

I’ve been reading The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante (W. W. Norton, c2007). I’d read several chapters, maybe six months ago, and I never had time to go back to it. Now I’m making the time, because I realize, after re-reading the parts I’d already read, how much of LaPlante’s philosophy about writing I’d incorporated into my own. One important idea is that the universal is attained through the use of specific, concrete detail. Another central idea validates my method of writing: I write without a plan, to find out what will happen next. LaPlante has an entire chapter titled: The Splendid Gift of Not Knowing.

Every chapter past the general introduction, so far, has been a jewel of discovery, including concrete information, specific writing exercises (which I review, but do not do), and full text short stories and creative nonfiction pieces exemplifying her ideas. This excerpt from a Booklist review says it better than I do:

“Comprehensive in its coverage of inspiration, craft, aesthetics, veracity, and purpose, this one-stop guide to writing is casual in tone and rigorous in content, elucidating the nature of fiction and nonfiction and clarifying the qualities unique to each and common to both. Each chapter contains an explication of such subjects as point of view, creating characters, and narrative structure; writing exercises, and an illustrative story by the likes of Tim O'Brien, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Expansive, clear, and sophisticated, LaPlante's richly resourced guide is destined to become a standard.” - Seaman, Donna

I highly recommend this guide. Over the past several years, I’ve read and studied twenty-five or more books on fiction writing, fantasy writing, and playwriting. These are a few of the better fiction writing titles I can recommend:

Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Longman, c 2003. I own the 6th edition of this book, but a 7th edition came out in 2006. I don’t like the author’s introduction, but other than that, this expensive college textbook is extremely useful, and also includes full text short stories to illustrate its points. Because of the price, you may want to check your local library for this one.

LaPlante, Alice, The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, W.W. Norton, c2007. Discussed above. List price $29.95. Amazon Price $19.97.

Morrell, Jessica Page, Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, Writer’s Digest Books, c2006. This is one of the better popular guides with ideas for the intermediate fiction writer.

Sexton, Adam, Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats, McGraw-Hill, c2006.

There are many popular writing guides, available in any major book store that can be useful, depending on your particular stage of development, and your affinity with an author’s delivery style. I recommend perusing the shelves, and also checking your local library for out-of-print guides. I like to buy them, so I can highlight the ideas I find personally useful. These are two of the popular guides I’ve found particularly helpful. Note: Few of these guides are useful, unless you’re actually writing, or have written a substantial body of work, so you can mentally apply what you’re reading to works-in-progress, or stories you’d like to revise:

Kress, Nancy, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writer’s Digest Books, c2005.

Rosenfeld, Jordan, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, Writer’s Digest Books, c2008. Rosenfeld’s style is deceptively breezy and simplistic, but the information is concrete and useable. She repeats herself, but it serves to reinforce her ideas. Chapter 8 on plot is perhaps the weakest chapter, but the overall content is well worth the price for the intermediate fiction writer.

Classics or Soon-To-Be-Classics That Should Not be the First Books on Writing You Read:

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, Tarcher/Putnam, c1938, c1981, Foreward by John Gardner. Dorothea Brande would advise you to read her book before you begin your career as a writer, but I personally recommend waiting a bit, until you've mastered a certain amount of technique. Otherwise, in my opinion, though she intends to encourage the novice or struggling writer, her tone can be a bit discouraging, in that, if you don't follow her method, she claims you are not a writer (the very kind of discouragement she otherwise rails against). Otherwise, her ideas are extremely useful and encouraging.

Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt, c1927, c1955. Though it is tedious reading, this book is often cited by popular and academic writing guides, so it’s useful to read the original yourself.

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage Books Edition, c1991, c1983. Gardner’s tone and condescending attitudes will drive you crazy, but you will learn. This book and the next, by Gardner, are considered essential reading for every writer.

Gardner, John, On Becoming a Novelist, W.W. Norton, c1999, c1983.

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Portland, Oregon: Eighth Mountain Press, c1998. I just love Ursula LeGuin. Don’t you?

Yolen, Jane, Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, Writer’s Digest Books, c2006. You will either love or hate the way she’s organized her thoughts.

Essay Collections for Intermediate to Advanced Writers:

Tin House, The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, Tin House Books, c2009. This essay collection includes valuable insight from established writers on the craft of writing fiction, with one essay about poetry.

Jauss, David, ed., Words Overflown By Stars, Writer's Digest Books, c2009. This collection comes from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A. Program, with sections on both prose and poetry.

Overall, I’ve found that the act of writing coupled with reading books about writing, everything from mundane texts on revision, to popular guides about mainstream fiction and genre writing, to tomes on literary fiction, is the best way to learn how to write, all with the goal of forming a personal philosophy of writing, and finding your own unique style. Of course, reading quality books is also essential, and allowing your work to be read by others and critiqued, and your willingness to analyze and critique other author’s writing, will also aid your development as a writer. Published or unpublished, those of us who are devoted to the craft are all writers-in-progress. And that’s a great place to be.


  1. i haven't read any of these!

    john gardner is my uncle's name! :)

  2. Jane Yolen's Take Joy is one of my personal favorites. I love her defiance of the usual "writers must be miserable" cliche and the quote, "How can I not approach such other worlds with joy?" is my personal writig mantra.

  3. Great list. I'm going to have to hunt many of these down.

    Have you read "Writing down the bones" or "Bird by bird"? I'd recommend those, too.

    Been meaning to read Le Guin's book. This just might be the nudge...