Writing by the book

In 2002, Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott published his first novel, The Catsitters. I remember reading an interview with Wolcott at the time in which he was asked how, as a nonfiction magazine writer, he had prepared himself to tackle a novel. He spoke of reading Dorothea Brande’s 1934 book, Becoming a Writer. I had never heard of Brande before, but as a magazine guy with aspirations toward fiction myself, I promptly went out and bought a reissue of her 175-page treatise (my copy is a Tarcher/Putnam paperback; the latest version is a Mariner Books paperback). Becoming a Writer sits on my bookshelf to this day, along with all kinds of other books about the craft.

You don’t have to tell me, and I don’t have to tell you: We learn by doing, not by reading about how to do it. Nevertheless, I am something of a sucker for how-to books about writing, in my case with an emphasis on novels. I also lean toward books whose approach is more practical and anecdotal than psychological and inspirational.

For our library workshop, I recently catalogued the writing books on my shelf. They fall into 11 different categories:

• Overview How-to
• Catch-Phrase How-To
• Touchy-Feely (Brande’s book is one of these)
• Genre-Specific
• Grammar & Style
• Getting It Done
• Famous Authors
• Nonfiction
• Writers’ Advice Anthologies
• Screenwriting
• Literary Agent Guides

There is plenty of cross-category advice in these tomes, from developing and sticking to a routine of putting words down each day, to when to write in scene and when to write in summary, to how to structure your story in the traditional three acts. Rarely does an author offer something entirely new. But a passage that expresses a familiar lesson in a new way may be all that’s needed to jump-start the composing battery when it runs low.

So writing guides do serve a purpose for many of us. As I continue to work on making the transition from sports-magazine staffer to fiction writer, I might think of my writing books as a coach on the sideline, ready, during a timeout, to remind me of a trusted play or give me a motivational kick in the pants.

Despite the many titles in my collection, were I starting all over again, I’d follow the Wolcott model. I’d sample a few writing books, pick one, and rely thereafter on it. Here are a few suggestions, cherry-picked from my list (with its category in parentheses), that you might consider as your primary source:

Gotham Writers’ Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School; Edited by Alexander Steele (Overview How-To).

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them); Jack M. Bickham (Catch-Phrase How-To).

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life; Anne Lamott (Touchy-Feely).

Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing; Patricia T. O’Conner (Grammar & Style).

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; Stephen King (Famous Authors).

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers; Lawrence Block (Famous Authors).

Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction; James B. Stewart (Nonfiction).

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller; John Truby (Screenwriting).

Another option you might consider is beginning a book exchange among the members of your workshop. Chances are good that each writer has one or more how-to manuals at home.

Or you could find a copy of Brande’s Becoming a Writer. My book has yellow highlights scattered about it that I haven’t re-read in more than a year, at least. But I just opened it to page 71, where there is a marked passage that seems to speak specifically to me:

“A journalist’s career does teach two lessons which every writer needs to learn—that it is possible to write for long periods without fatigue, and that if one pushes on past the first weariness one finds a reservoir of unsuspected energy—one reaches the famous ‘second wind.’ ”

Time to post this blog and put those lessons to the test.

Alex McNab

Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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