Books about Writing (updated)

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!!


  1. shana on #

    betsy lerner has a lovely book the forest for the trees. she’s a former editor, and presently an agent and an author. it’s an enjoyable read, as well as an informative one; among other things, it’s required coursework for at least two publishing courses.

    everybody here always talks about Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird. i’ve never read either so can’t really comment.

  2. Romance gal on #

    Bird by Bird Annie Lammott.

  3. deborahb on #

    Delany was the first person whose comments on talent made perfect sense to me. 🙂

    I loved Sol Stein’s book when I read it a few years back. Also love the Gardner, for having lots of brilliant lines in it. Enjoyed the Betsy Lerner book Shana mentions above. Think the King book will be exactly the kind of read you’re looking for.

    Really enjoyed The War of Art, though I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for. It’s more a clarion call to writers to knuckle down & do battle with procrastination.

    Apart from that, I lean towards books on the psychology of writing. Like Palumbo’s Writing from the Inside Out.

    I stop now.

  4. TansyRR on #

    Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller is interesting for what it says about writing and what it says about being (and being married to) a writer. Though the main focus is the Clarion workshops & the relationship between writing and critiquing.

    I also really liked Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works – I’m not a big fan of his fiction, though I haven’t read much of it, but this book is a lovely collection of essays about all sides of the writing world, and are mainly personal/memoir pieces rather than being how-tos.

  5. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I took Robert McKee’s Story Structure seminar many years ago, and I still refer to my notes when I’m stuck on something. Though he focuses on screenwriting, his theory of storytelling applies to all genres and now he’s written a book called Story so you don’t have to take the seminar. Robert McKee incidentally is the writing guru Charlie Kaufman lampooned in his wretched film, Adaptation. Don’t believe Kaufman. McKee knows what he’s talking about. And no, it’s not about formulaic story-telling.

  6. Tricia Sullivan on #

    I really love THE RIGHT TO WRITE by Julia Cameron. It is more about the psychology of writing than the craft, and although it veers into the New Age now and again, I have found it astonishingly helpful for dealing with the old writers’ block/procrastination and attendant muck.

    I used to have WRITING DOWN THE BONES on audio, with commentary by the author. This is about writing as a Zen practice and I found it really interesting, but not of direct practical, professional value.

    I also recommend, tangentially, the audio recording THE CREATIVE FIRE by Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes (most famous for WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES). If nothing else, her voice and manner are so gorgeous you just feel totally pampered after hearing it.

    That’s a pretty huge recommendation about Delany. I usually avoid how-to books like the plague but this one sounds really challenging–thanks for posting this.n

  7. Tristian on #

    My writing mentor gave me a signed copy of From Where You Dream by: Robert Olen Butler she met him while he was speaking somewhere and she picked me up a copy. It’s really good.

  8. Justine on #

    [Taking a brief break from the writing marathon]

    Thanks so much for all the recs. I’ll check ’em out.

    Shana: I’m curious about the Lerner. One of the reasons I was attracted to the Stein book was because he is an editor.

    Deb: can you remember what you loved about the Sol Stein? Cause it really really isn’t doing it for me. I, too, enjoyed the King. Far more than any of his novels (not that I haven’t adored some of those). But it’s still not what I’m looking for. I suspect that only more Delany will do. There just aren’t that many writers who are so breath-takingly smart when talking about writing. Stein, for example, barely skirts the surface compared to Delany.

    Tansy: Thanks for the reminder about the Wilhelm. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy for ages! I’m particularly interested in what she has to say on the living with a writer part. (Wonder why?)

    Lauren: Scott has a copy in NYC and said it was a very useful read. I shall read it when I get back there. I also thought Adaptation was bloody awful. Kauffman has so many fascinating moments in his films but they always manage to die horribly (his films, I mean).

    Tricia Sullivan: Are you the Tricia Sullivan who wrote Someone to Watch Over me? Fabulous book! Thanks so much for commenting. Sounds like I need to give the Cameron a go. I can always close my eyes for the new age bits.

    Delany’s reallly isn’t a how to though there are some very practical sections. Mostly it’s Chip thinking about his own writing practice in essay, letter and interview form. He’s exacting, precise, and refreshingly judgemental. I found the book utterly exhilarating. And as I say it made me rethink some of my own writing practise. Though I’m not sure how possible it’ll be to follow through on it. I’m trying to make a living as a writer which means I have to write two books a year. I’m not sure I can do that and meet Chip’s high standards. But I really, really, really want to try.

    Tristian: what did you like about it?

  9. Colleen on #

    I can not recommend Ray Bradbury’s Zen & the Art of Writing enough. It is not a how-to, but more of a story of how he got some of his more famous ideas, and how he came to put the books together (Martian Chronicles, etc.). It’s also about his life as a writer and why he loves it and how it is the only life he could have. It’s just a great essay collection and one that I have returned to again and again.

    Stephen King’s is also an excellent read and I would bump it to the top of my list if I was you!

  10. anonymous on #

    You must read Stephen King’s On Writing! It’s excellent!

  11. Justine on #

    Deb, Colleen & Annonymous: As indicated in the original post I have, indeed, read the Stephen King. More than once, even! I agree, it is most excellent. However, the next person to tell me to read it, well, that’s a paddlin’ . . .

    The Ray Bradbury collection sounds just the kind of thing I’m looking for. Thanks for the rec, Colleen!

  12. marrije on #

    i read gardner’s art of fiction, and he depressed me no end, probably because he seems convinced you have to have read *and* understood /everything/ under the sun before you can even attempt to put pen to paper. it’s all very deep and intellectual and scary. I may of course be exaggerating here, and perhaps you’ll love him, who knows.

    and if you like judgemental guys: try nabokov’s lectures on literature. i love old crankypants nabokov in those books (though for some reason I can’t really get through his novels (same as with that guy king. say, have you read his book about writing??)), and i love tossing him aside and grumbling at him, too.

  13. Justine on #

    Marrije: you just earned yourself a paddlin’!

    The Gardner books sounds just what I want: “deep and intellectual and scary”. Yum! Soon as I finish M!M!M!O!O!O! in lo, these many forty hours, I’m on to it. That or collapsing into a puddle of exhausted brainless soggy tissue . . .

  14. Colleen on #

    I just checked my shelf and I also have Julia Alvarez’s book, “Something to Declare” which is a collection about how she came to write several of her books. It is especially interesting as she also writes about what it is like to be a writer who was born in the Dominican Rep but now lives and writes in the US (moved here as a kid) – but still goes back home. She writes from a different place than, say, King (please don’t beat me!) and her thoughts are very interesting.

    And this doesn’t seem like a book on writing, but Tim O’Brien’s book about Vietnam, “THe Things They Carried” is one of the books that changed how I write. It is a collection about the Vietnam War – make no mistake there – but he also writes about the nature of a true story, about how you can not tell a true war story, and how he came to write this collection. He even has a story in it that he follows up with an essay about what is true and not true in the story and why he wrote it the way he did. It’s very interesting on multiple levels and a first rate book about war, on top of everything else.

    Looks like you have a ton of reading to do! What fun!

  15. Richard B. on #

    Gwenda turned me on to Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop aka the green book. It’s more philosophical and less concrete than some of the try/fail/try/fail rules books about how to write. And therefore pretty damn good, esp. the section where Koch debunks the first-thought-best-thought crowd.

  16. Justine on #

    Colleen: my mum is now reading the Tim O’Brien book on your recommendation. She loves it and sends her thanks.

    Richard: Well if you say so and Gwenda says so then I’ll be getting it, won’t I? Yay! More writers’ porn!

  17. brandy on #

    Hi. Surfing by from Gwenda’s blog. Busy taking notes, but also here to rec two books by Charles Baxter – Burning Down the House, Essays on Fiction, and one he co-edited with Peter Turchi – Bringing the Devil to His Knees, the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Go for Baxter’s own book first, he’s a marvelous writer and a very subtle thinker. It goes beyond the how-to’s into deeper issues of subtext. In fact, I think it’s time for me to dig the book up and submerge myself again, for the sheer pleasure of rolling around in his mind.

    And thanks muchly for the tip! Off to order the Delany now.

  18. Justine on #

    Thanks, Brandy. Hope you enjoy the Delany.

    I have to confess that none of the writing books I’ve been trying since reading the Delany have worked for me. They all seem thin and banal in comparison. I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of the books whose object is so clearly different from Delany’s. Turns out that the book I’ve been searching for is Delany’s autobiography. Time to reread it, then I’ll reread About Writing.

  19. marrije on #

    I haven’t read this book, but if Jeff Vandermeer thinks it’s good it’s bound to be: “Carol Bly, in her amazing writing book The Passionate, Accurate Story, makes a compelling case for the inclusion of the political — and thus real-world ethical, moral issues — in the creation of character.”

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