Eight writing manuals that are not an absolute waste of time

artMost writing books are a terrible waste of time, because they give you pretty basic Creative Writing 101 type advice about point of view, tense, plot structure, etc. and then combines it with a few workshop platitudes like “show, don’t tell”; “start strong”; “characters have to change during the story”, and then wrap it up with some canned advice like, “the most important thing is to write every day and read widely.”

If you don’t know that stuff, then maybe one of those books might be worthwhile. As I recall (this is way back in the dusty recesses of my memories from my last year of high school), I found Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction to be fairly useful. Oh, wait, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers was also really useful, actually. It’s all about how to cut words and make things cleaner. Well worth a read. And I thought that Donald Maas’ Writing The Breakout Novel was a fairly good overview of things you should think about when you’re trying to write fiction with commercial appeal.

Mostly, though, I don’t enjoy books that are about how to write. I am sure that there are some good ones out there, but I think that the craft of writing is something that you mostly get a sense for by reading books and then trying to do the things you’ve read. For me, the best writing books are the ones that give a sense of how to go about your life as a writer. Honestly, I can’t remember even a tenth of the actual advice that is in any of the following books, but each of them gave me this very vivid sense of a writer who’d developed their own systems and modes of writing. To me, these books are more like commencement speeches than handbooks. Their mix of advice and autobiography inspires you to go out into the world and find your own way of looking at it.

  • About Writing by Samuel Delany – The best writing book. This is my bible. For several years, I had it on my bedside table and whenever I was feeling down, I’d leaf through it. Delany’s intelligence is so vast and cool. It flows from whatever he is talking about. There is plenty of advice (good advice) in here about the actual writing. But there’s also advice on how to conduct yourself as a writer. The overwhelming lesson of this book is that if you want to write good fiction, you should be as serious and curious as Delany himself.
  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas – Typical acerbic wisdom from Nick. Half the book is about writing fiction and the other half is about freelancing. Mamatas is a contrarian, and in these essays he largely aims to explode myths propagating by other advice-givers. If you’ve been reading his livejournal for the last eight years, then most of these essays are probably already familiar to you. However, if you haven’t, then you absolutely need to get this book. His persona is pugnacious, but also literate and sensitive. He’s the reigning defender of the uncommercial side of commercial fiction.
  • On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner – The author of this book taught inside the academic creative writing industry for years (as did/does Delany, of course), and serves as a kind of voice from over there. Over there is a weird place, where they do things pretty differently. For instance (as I recall), his chapter on publication basically says, “Publication will come when you’re ready.” That advice is insane. But you know what else they do over there? Write some good fiction. Gardner’s advice is a bit more froofy and mystical than you’ll find in creative writing books written by spec-fic writers (although, by the standards of literary writers, it’s pretty hard-nosed and practical), but that’s okay. Sometimes you need a little froofiness.
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – Literally ten letters written to an aspiring poet by Rilke. Hard to describe them. They’re exhortations. They’re about finding the silence inside of you and learning how to feel your way to the point where poetry rises out of you. The letter format is wonderful, because it feels like he’s literally writing to you. It’s also beautiful that he took so seriously the aspirations of someone who really hadn’t produced anything yet.
  • What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – Almost no other creative writing book dares to tackle the topic “What kinds of things should you write about?” But Tolstoy goes there. Spoiler: You should write about stuff that’ll improve the reader’s moral and spiritual condition. The most insane performance in this book is when Tolstoy summarizes (and then dismisses) two thousand years worth of aesthetic theory. He also takes down ballet and the opera for being immoral, and then he rails about the millions of people whose lives are being blighted by art. This is brilliant stuff. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. After reading this, you will spend twelve hours absolutely convinced that Tolstoy was right. Of course, it’ll eventually wear off (thank God).
  • Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer – Advice about how to organize your writing career. In retrospect, I was perhaps a bit too early in my career when I read this book, since I didn’t really have any publications or any kind of profile yet. But it was mostly revelatory because it’s the only writing book that concedes that there is this thing, this “booklife,” as Vandermeer calls it, which threads throughout your writing career and which you need to nurture and manage.
  • On Writing by Stephen King – This book is half writing advice and half Stephen King’s autobiography of his life as a writer. The writing advice is take it or leave it; the autobiography, though, is gripping. Stephen King is the spec fic phenom of the latter half of the 20th century. How can anyone not want to get in there and figure out how he did what he did? In this book, he comes across a bit like a Stephen King character. Always slightly down-at-heel, but hopeful and self-educated. It’s a resolutely blue-collar image of how to produce literature.
  • Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury – This book is actually a bit depressing. I am not sure it’s possible for me to work as hard as Bradbury did. The story I remember most is that he’d sit down on Monday and write the whole first draft of a story. Then on Tuesday he’d write the second draft. Wednesday he’d write the third. And so on until Friday, when he’d write the fifth draft and then mail out the submission. That is insane.

Hmm, that was significantly more books than I thought there’d be.

P.S. I know someone is gonna mention Elements of Style. Don’t even get me started on Elements of Style. That book might be a fine guide to grammar and usage, but it’s no good on style. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some old (and dead) dudes tell me that I can’t incorporate business and military slang into my writing.