Booknotes: Favorite Writing How-to Books Part 1

With this new series, I plan to share my favorite writing how-to books. Not all of them will be “how-to” books in the traditional sense. And not all of them will be the popular bestselling kind either. These are books that have helped me with my own writing (particularly literary fiction but also overall) and ones that I revisit from time to time. What draws me back again and again is both the content and the writing style. For me, these books have been invaluable in my personal DIY MFA curricula (more on this in a separate post later.)

[Note: I might also share a handful of online blogs/sites/columns/podcasts that have been helpful.]

I am not presenting these books in any kind of order of preference. Also, I am still working on fixing the gaps in my own reading of such books/works by writers of color. There is an excellent list over at ‘De-Canon: A Visibility Project‘ and I intend to dive into that shortly.

1/ Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

This is one of my all-time favorites and I’ve mentioned it various times over the years on this site. The subtitle is “A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them” and, indeed, that is just what this is.

Francine Prose, if you need an introduction, is an award-winning novelist, literary critic, and professor of Literature.

Though I’ve always been a close reader, I learned new ways of reading for craft, language, themes, and more from this book. And, really, reading great fiction is the best way to learn to write it. But, as Prose demonstrates throughout here, our reading needs to happen in a conscious, deliberate manner. Since I first read this book, I also mostly read with a notepad and pen, taking notes as I go along. It is also the kind of reading you cannot do online — at least, I cannot. And, finally, it might make you a slower reader, as it has done for me, but the entire experience will be much more rewarding, I promise.

Prose gives us examples from both classical and contemporary texts and parses them to show us what works and what does not. She shows us how writers adhere to the so-called “rules” and how they also, often, break them. There is an extensive reading list at the end, which I confess I have not even read half of yet. I do wish there were more diverse books in her selections. And I keep hoping she will consider putting out a second volume that focuses on non-fiction and online reading as well.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly under-appreciated fact that language is the medium we use in the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

2/ The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

Lodge is well-known in the UK for his campus novels. But, like Prose above, he is also an award-winning writer, celebrated English Literature professor, and a well-respected literary critic.

This book is a collection of about 50 brief essays, many of which were published in The Independent on Sunday (UK) and The Washington Post (US). Each essay addresses a particular aspect or technique of fiction — beginnings, setting, character, voice, symbolism, and so on. And each essay begins with an excerpt from either a classical or a contemporary text (upto the early 1990s, I think.) Lodge parses the excerpt, explaining what makes it such a good example of the aspect/technique he is addressing.

Given his vast knowledge of English literature, he also throws in interesting tidbits about the writer and the book to which the excerpt belongs. Unlike Prose’s book, this one is aimed at the general reader and not necessarily at writers. That said, I have found it to help my writing as well because, again, the close reading. The essays are not exhaustive and, as Lodge admits in his preface, each essay topic could be an entire book on its own. His goal is to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of prose fiction and, for me, he has far exceeded this. I was drawn to read his excellent novels too after my first read of this book.

My only complaint is that his excerpts are almost entirely from books by white, male writers. Not that this diminishes anything Lodge has to say. But he could have greatly enhanced his points by drawing from a more diverse roster of writers out there.

It is, as I say, easy enough to describe Holden’s style of narration; but more difficult to explain how it holds our attention and gives us pleasure for the length of a whole novel. For, make no mistake, it’s the style that makes the book interesting. The story it tells is episodic, inconclusive and largely made up of trivial events. Yet the language is, by normal literary criteria, very impoverished. Salinger, the invisible ventriloquist who speaks to us through Holden, must say everything he has to say about life and death and ultimate values within the limitations of a seventeen-year-old New Yorker’s argot, eschewing poetic metaphors, periodic cadences, fine writing of any kind.

3/ A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

Woolf is an all-time favorite writer whom I have mentioned several times before. If you have been following me for any length of time, you will know that her work means a lot to me.

Though I have a complete set of her published diaries (26+ volumes apparently survived but not everything was published, understandably), this small volume includes excerpts related specifically to her writing. She often used her journaling as a way to practise, or think out loud, or plan her writing. She also wrote about meetings with other writers, her thoughts about books and essays she read (and their writers too, of course), and her struggles with her writing life/habits.

Though this is a heavily-edited volume by Leonard Woolf, her husband, and his need to protect those who were still living at the time of publication, it contains beautiful passages which, as Leonard Woolf says in his must-read preface, “throw light on upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer. It gives us an unusual psychological picture of artistic production from within… The diaries at least show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote, and rewrote, and again rewrote her books.”

For me, this book is all of that and more than I can articulate. We see her incandescent genius mind at work in a lucid, ordered manner — quite unlike the “mad woman writer” image that popular media seems bent on showing us. In today’s world, she would have been diagnosed as a depressive, not as crazy.

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional.

I will do this in groups of three at a time. So, until next time, with the next lot of three. Enjoy. And please do share your own favorite writing books in the comments.

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