As I’ve mentioned I recently read Samuel R. Delany‘s About Writing which is seriously very very good. One of the smartest, most inspiring books on writing I’ve ever read. It includes a piece on “thickening the plot” where he shows you precisely how he does it. The many moments where he goes through word by word pointing out exactly what isn’t working in any given passage are gorgeous (as are the pastiches he whips up for dissection). His advice to wannabe writers is harsh and honest and reveals heaps about his own writing life. The introduction—where he discusses the difference between “talented” and “good” writing—is worth the price of the whole book (as is the appendix, “Nits, Nips, Tucks and Tips”). In the intro he sets out the rules of good writing, it’s the usual suspects: “use precise language”, “avoid the passive voice” etc. etc. and then Delany writes
If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eight-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull . . . However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction.
Delany is such an extraordinary writer that reading him musing at length on his profession is beyond pleasure and off into a whole other realm. His book made me realise how far I still have to go to become the kind of writer I want to be. I’m a mere beginner at the published writer game, there’s still oceans for me to learn (especially about punctuating conversation!—see the section on same in the Appendix). A sobering and incredibly useful realisation. How many books force you to look close and hard at what you do for a living? The book has fuelled my own writing and left me hungry for more brilliant books on writing. Books as good as Delany’s.
So far I’m not doing great on finding such a book. Right now I’m reading Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing but compared to the Delany it seems kind of anaemic. I suspect that this is because, unlike Delany’s book, the Stein is aimed at beginning writers and also because what I really want to be reading is more Delany on writing.
I’ve been asking around for recommendations and so far I have From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, Writing the Australian Crawl by William Stafford, A Dangerous Profession by Frederick Busch, and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner on my list. Anyone read ‘em? Whatcha reckon?
Update: Just to be clear all the books in the following paragraph are books I’ve already read. There’s no need to keep recommending Stephen King’s On Writing!
Other books on writing I’ve read and enjoyed are Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners, Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Stephen King’s On Writing and Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. The books I enjoy most are not how-tos, but personal accounts of a writer’s relationship to writing. I’d love to hear of more.
PS I know this post should have been all exquisitely writ and that, but I got a book due Tuesday and I’m saving my pretty sentences for Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!!