Writing books (noun, not verb)


October 21, 2007 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Since nothing much is happening around here publication-wise (or submission wise, admittedly, though I sent a short story to a contest yesterday) (or writing wise, *smacks self on wrist*), I shall write about Writing Books. As far as I can tell, there are two basic types of Writing Books:

1. Books that encourage you to tap into the great sublime and feel, nay KNOW, in your innermost core, that you are a writer.

2. Books that tell you how to build a plot/increase dramatic tension etc.

The ones I tend to buy/keep are in the first category, though I only have a few – Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a long-ago gift from Nels), Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, and Pamela Frankau’s Pen to Paper. The last-named is mostly memorable for a) the fact that she wrote only TWO drafts of a novel – the rough and the smooth, and b) that I read it on my 25th birthday while eating Chinese food in Cambridge, England. I had Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird at one point, having cashed out some Amazon associate credit for it, but I must have given it away, having been less enthused about it than I once was. (BTW, I am linking to books from Powell’s in this blog. I highly recommend Powell’s. It is a dream of mine to visit their store someday.)

I think these types of books are indeed useful and good. Even when you have publications, you still feel like a fraud some days, and these books draw your attention away from the foreign rights and the kill fees into the reason why we do what we do, and the value of it. The drawbacks of these types of books is that being a writer means writing, not reading, and it’s easy to lull yourself into a belief that reading books about writing is somehow equivalent to placing your butt in the chair and producing a draft.

I have found that the more mechanically-oriented sub-genre of Writing Books are most useful when I am working on a specific project, because then I can directly apply the lessons in the book to my work. ‘Using details to develop character’ is important, but as a concept it’s hard to pin down, whereas if I say, aha, the girl who’s obsessed with being seen by her father can poke the eyes out of a china doll…exactly. The book I’ve found most helpful, by an order of magnitude, is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. I used to have some Writer’s Digest books around here but they must have been culled in one of the household moves.

Other books I keep around because they are both enjoyable and useful are John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, even though I don’t (most recent publication notwithstanding) write much formal poetry these days, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, even though it’s a bit tacky to have two cover blurbs from authors whose work you use as examples of Great Writing.

If there are any books you find particularly useful, please leave a comment!


One thought on “Writing books (noun, not verb)

  1. kicking_k says:

    In the second category… well, it’s not a book, but something I’ve found endlessly handy lately is the TV Tropes Wiki. It’s basically a huge compilation of narrative devices, now not just from TV but almost any storytelling medium.

    So in some ways it’s a directory of clichés (or, at least, recurring patterns). But I’ve mostly used it to answer questions like “What is the quickest way to get my characters from plot-point A to plot-point B? OK, now that I know the quickest way, how can I make the journey more interesting?”

    Plots are my biggest problem, though, and therefore my greatest fascination, which means that browsing the wiki has eaten a lot of my time… as you say, reading about writing is not writing.

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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