Books about Writing

There’s an abundance of these out there.   Here are some I found insightful and useful, and the first three indispensable.

On Writing Well: A Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Don’t be put off by the word nonfiction in the subtitle.  Many writers consider this to be pretty much a sacred text for all wordsmiths of fiction and nonfiction.  Count me as one.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor

This collection of various lectures, letters and articles by one of the widely acknowledged masters of the short story form and the author of three novels is a treasure trove for writers, readers, teachers and admirers of peacocks (you’ll see why). 

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

In this classic book first published in 1934 (and devoured and almost completely underlined by me five decades later) a respected writer, editor and creative writing teacher covers a wide range of topics, including treating yourself to “the artistic coma’ (not comma) and being wary of “the arrogant intellect”. Novelist John Gardner, the author of Grendel, wrote the introduction in the copy I have, in which he says of Brande “her whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart.”

The Art of the Memoir by Mary Karr

The author of the memoir The Liar’s Club, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for over a year, probes deep into the genre. It was published nearly twenty years after I wrote mine. I sure could have used it then. It also has an extensive list of memoirs for you to consider when planning your reading.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Witty, powerful, and full of sound advice, this is a perpetual (in its zillionth printing, I think) favorite of writers young and old, authors of a row of bestsellers and beginners, and legions of folks who just enjoy a good read.  It will inspire, teach and entertain you.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

In this part memoir and mostly compendium of what writers do, how they do it, and their love of wordsmithing by the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has been underlined, highlighted and re-perused by countless writers and writer wannabes since it was published over thirty years ago.  I was in the first wave of devotees.

The Summing Up by W. Summerset Maugham

Maugham, one of my absolute favorite writers, declares in the opening sentence of this consideration of his long career that this is “not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections”. While it is actually both, I found the many parts dealing with the craft of writing useful.

A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham (him again) and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

These two books let us see into the minds and the intricate approaches to the craft by two of its best practitioners.

Maugham’s entries in his notebook (abridged to keep it in one plump volume) cover a half century of travels, writing projects and things he happened to notice that might work their way into his stories and novels. Since he chose to record the entries in complete sentences and paragraphs, it’s interesting to see how his precise wordsmithing is at work even in his notes.  I enjoyed finding passages that he later worked into particular stories that allowed me to see how he grew ideas into fruition.

Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel consists of the many letters he sent to his editor while he was working on East of Eden, letting us see how a great writer worked his way through the writing of a great novel, from start to finish.

Faulkner at the University  Edited by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner 

When William Faulkner was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in 1957 and 1958 he held thirty-seven question and answer sessions about writing in general and his writing specifically. This volume contains the transcripts of much of that exchange, providing us with a master class taught by one of the true masters of the craft.

The Elements of Style by William Struck Jr, and E. B. White.

 First published by Mr. Struck in 1918 and much later amended by E.B. White, who also gave us Charlotte’s Web, here is the long-revered rule book complete with much having to do with usage, listings of words commonly misused and others commonly misspelled and all things grammatical.  It’s a fine tool when you want to follow the rules, and you usually should, but remember that creative writers often stray from the straight and narrow road laid out by Struck and White, slipping in sentence fragments and Oxford commas here and there. We just can’t be depended on to stay in lockstep.

The Writer’s Quote Book: 500 Authors on Creativity, Craft, and the Writing Life Compiled, arranged and edited by Jim Fisher

Here is a deep well of nuggets of advice and examples for writers, with an obliging list of topics at the beginning to point you toward what you might be needing help with.

Hemingway on Writing edited by Larry W. Phillips

Another collection of quotes, all pulled from Papa’s letters (mostly to his editor Maxwell Perkins and to F. Scott Fitzgerald, for whom he seemed to serve as a combination father confessor and guidance counselor) and from the texts of Hemingway’s stories and novels. Here’s one of my favorites, in a letter to Fitzgerald: “The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damned life – and one is as good as the other.”

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Both of these but are as much about writing as they are memoirs. King’s book is exceptionally good.

Writer’s Digest Magazine

Published continuously since 1920, this monthly magazine is a treasure trove of instruction, examples, author interviews, heaps of information about writing contests and overall cheerleading for people wanting to write and publish. When I taught Creative Writing I kept my old issues in my classroom and they were constantly consulted.

Publication Resources

Should you consider launching a search for a literary agent or a potential publisher for your memoir, which I encourage you to do and hope you will, you’ll need a resource with plenty of names and contact information.  Here are two that are revised often and have excellent cross references to guide you in the right direction.  I recommend you get the current edition of either or both because you need send your query to a specific agent or editor and not to an ‘Acquisitions Editor’, and agents and editors jump from agencies and publishing houses pretty often.  These resources may be available at your public library, but take your notebook and pencil along since many libraries don’t let reference materials leave the building. Read the entries carefully, especially about they want to see and what they don’t, to save yourself some time and effort; anyone interested in representing or publishing only Russian culture and murder mysteries won’t be interested in seeing a memoir (unless you’re a Russian murderer, I guess).

Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Who They Are, What They Want, How to Win Them Over

Jeff Herman is a successful literary agent of many years standing who also publishes this resource, which in addition to names and contact information includes several articles related to your search, one of which is good advice about how to write a fetching query letter, which will be essential to getting your foot in the door. This is a particularly helpful resource that I have been recommending to students and writing workshop participants for years.

Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published

Writer’s Digest Books has published this useful guide since 1921.  It’s the book that sent me, after numerous failed attempts, to the publisher who signed me to do my first book, the memoir Into that Good Night.

My ‘Big Sandwich’ definition

(not found in any dictionary)

story (noun): a carefully crafted tale – be it fiction or nonfiction – with interesting characters that the reader cares about, excellent sensory description throughout, a well-established setting, believable dialogue, sufficient suspense, conflicts, irony, foreshadowing, and some degree of resolution, all ultimately as pleasing as a big sandwich.

Some Good Rules for Good Writers

  1. Use the very best word in every situation (wordsmithing).
  2. Set aside a specific time for writing.
  3. Write a story – a ‘Big Sandwich’ – not a report. *
  4. Write clearly (clarity is next to Godliness).
  5. Show much more than you tell. **
  6. Don’t just write the ‘thing’, write the bigger thing.
  7. Leave out more than you put in.
  8. Plan. Know where you’re going.
  9. Keep a writer’s journal (and/or a handy notebook). ***
  10. Use the five senses to describe, don’t rely on just sight.
  11. Make the first sentence perfect.
  12. Make the last sentence as good as the first.
  13. Make every sentence perfect (wordmithing).
  14. Make characters and situations believable.
  15. Make the writing accessible to people other than your friends and family.
  16. Evenly mix dialogue and narrative.
  17. Use as few tag lines as possible.
  18. Don’t preach.
  19. Don’t clutter.
  20. Vary sentence (and paragraph) lengths and patterns.
  21. Plan and write lonely; revise collaboratively.
  22. Take your time.
  23. Revise! Revise! Revise!

*story: (n.a carefully crafted tale with interesting characters that the reader cares about, excellent sensory description throughout, a well-established setting, believable dialogue, sufficient suspense, conflicts, irony, foreshadowing, and some degree of resolution, all ultimately as pleasing as a big multi-layered and perfectly seasoned sandwich.

**telling uses exposition, summary, and blunt description to convey the plot of a story; showing uses actions, dialogue, interior monologues, body language, characterization, setting and other subtle writing tactics to pull readers into your story. When writing creatively showing is almost always better than telling.

***good things to put in a writer’s journal or notebook (use a pencil, these change constantly):  episode or chapter ideas / outlines / plot graphs / notes / observations on how elements work (or don’t) in books, stories, movies, plays / borrowed (stolen) dialogue and dialect pilfered from the world at large / situations that might be worked into your plot / physical characteristics of people you see and hear / floor plans, maps, schematics for possible settings / title ideas / interesting, uncommon words / words that don’t exist at all, but need to / a list of clichés that you read or hear, then avoid using them like the plague / life’s little ironies (things that are not as they should be; people who are not what they seem) / details aplenty that you might use in your description/anything else that will help you in your planning and writing.

Genre lengths

Short Story ~ 1,000 – 7,500 words

The ’regular’ short story, usually found in periodicals or anthology collections. Most ’genre’ zines will feature works at this length.

Novellette ~ 7,500 – 20,000 words

Often a novellette-length work is difficult to sell to a publisher. It is considered too long for most publishers to insert comfortably into a magazine, yet too short for a novel. Generally, authors will piece together three or four novellette-length works into a compilation novel.

Novella ~ 20,000 – 50,000 words

Although most print publishers will balk at printing a novel this short, this is almost perfect for the electronic publishing market length. The online audience doesn’t always have the time or the patience to sit through a 100,000 word novel. Alternatively, this is an acceptable length for a short work of non-fiction.

Novel ~ 50,000 -110,000

Most print publishers prefer a minimum word count of around 70,000 words for a first novel, and some even hesitate for any work shorter than 80,000. Yet any piece of fiction climbing over the 110,000 word mark also tends to give editors some pause. They need to be sure they can produce a product that won’t over-extend their budget, but still be enticing enough to readers to be saleable. Imagine paying good money for a book less than a quarter-inch thick?

Epics and Sequels ~ Over 110,000 words

If your story extends too far over the 110,000 mark, perhaps consider where you could either condense the story to only include relevant details, or lengthen it to span out into a sequel, or perhaps even a trilogy. (Unless, of course, you’re Stephen King – then it doesn’t matter what length your manuscript is – a publisher is a little more lenient with an established author who has a well-established readership)

Remember, these word counts are only estimated guides. Use your own common sense, and, where possible, check the guidelines of the publication you intend to submit your work to. Most publishers accepting shorter works will post their maximum preferred lengths, and novels are generally considered on the strength of the story itself, not on how many words you have squeezed into each chapter.

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