Monday, January 14, 2008

Uh-oh. Another series of posts.

Way back in June, Cate Sweeney (of Selfish Jean fame) was about to teach a workshop, and polled various folks about their favorite books on writing. In my case, this had roughly the same effect as asking an apartment-bound dog if he’d like to go for a walk. I bounded about, knocked over lamps, and frantically tried to find my leash. I even mailed her three books of which I had duplicates. (Two of them I had in paperback, then found them used in hardback, and the third…oh, why am I explaining this?)

For, you see, I read a lot of books about writing. More than you can imagine. Especially when I was working at my first novel, I found them a great thing for filling in spare moments. (Hey, we don’t watch TV—our set is hooked only to our DVD player, and has no cable or even antenna—so you gotta do something.)

Admittedly, most books on writing aren’t very good, and some of them are downright wrongheaded. But even those are fun, because of the furious arguments I have in my mind with the author—which often serves to clarify my perspective.

There is also the phenomenon, which I recognize from yoga classes, where an instructor will say something that hits me like a sharp slap. (Usually it’s something like, “The purpose of this posture is to stretch your ankles. Your forehead isn’t connected to your ankles. Scrunching up your forehead won’t help.”) When I tell her after class how helpful it was, and ask why she never mentioned it before, she usually says, “What do you mean? I always say that.” So, sometimes I apparently don’t hear things the first ten thousand times. And sometimes I don’t hear what books say, either, until fifty books have told me the same thing.

I don’t really know how many books I’ve read on the topic.

(Though I could come up with a damn good guess just by counting them. Anyhow, less than 200, but more than 100. Unlike most people, I find nonfiction to be more effortless to read than fiction, because with nonfiction I can pick it up, set it down, pick it up again, read it for five minutes while waiting for a phone call. I hate doing that with a novel.)

So, I plan to tell you—even though you didn’t ask—though Cate foolishly did—what my dozen favorite books on writing are.

I need to issue a disclaimer, however. I don’t like books that assign me “exercises”; if we aren’t playing for keeps, I find it hard to give a damn, so I don’t do exercises. And I’m not crazy about ‘inspirational’ stuff, like Writing Down the Bones or Let the Crazy Child Write, though I recognize they are the sort of thing some people like best. What I really enjoy is, well, shoptalk—where working writers share what they know as if you’ve gone out for a beer together. So my selection is very biased indeed.

And, to add a second disclaimer, I plan to cheat. In some cases, two or more books by the same author will be treated as a single unit. This isn’t one of those ‘desert island’ things.

And even if it were, I’d still probably cheat. (Did I ever mention that I spent a lot of time in juvenile correction facilities as a youth for an obscure crime labeled "incorrigibility"? Well, okay, and for some other things, too.)

Oh, and if anyone would like to toss in their own suggestions, please do. Some time back, Neil Ayres recommended Mat Coward's Success...and How to Avoid It, and I've been grateful ever since. (And I see that Matt Curran has posted about a favorite book of his which I now plan to track down.)


Anonymous said...

I suspect you're not alone in loving books about writing, David. In fact, I know you're not. We all love them.

My problem with them is that I tend to read them as a surrogate for, you know, actually writing. It's not good. Finally, I decided to stop reading them altogether. As a result, I've gotten more writing done and less reading about writing.

As for my tastes, I like ones that help me solve problems. They do usually contain exercises, which I never bother to do. But there's value there in the other stuff that leads up to the exercises. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate that there are people who like that sort of thing. I'm just not one of them.

And then there are Larry Block's writing books, which are, as you probably know, more like the ones you enjoy most. Not a lot of overt instruction in them, but there's a lot to learn. And if you're not in the mood to learn, at least you get the singular thrill of reading Block's magnificent stories and words. That man can effing write.

In any case, can't wait for the new series.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, I wasn't entirely honest when I said, "I decided to stop reading them altogether." What can I say... I tell lies.

In addition to the fiction I'm reading, I've also got Gary Provost's MAKE YOUR WORDS WORK in progress.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

"What can I say... I tell lies."

Ah, a born writer.

I certainly agree with you about Block, and he's easily on my list of the top dozen. BTW, have you seen his course manual, Write for Your Life? Republished recently as an e-book, and also fun.

But you're right, reading writing books is no substitue for scribbling. But they are great fodder for dentist's offices or those other moments in between.

Janet said...

You mean I'm not the only one who doesn't do the exercises? :o)

I do fantasize about teaching a class on it and making OTHER people do exercises though. I'm twisted that way.

Anonymous said...

I am saying something foolish I know. But can you "teach" someone to write a novel? I only read voraciously other works of art from across the world, and try to discover my own slot in it. I read non-fiction to get my perspective in order. I meet, talk to people,observe to get my characters speaking in my head. Other times I walk, talk, sleep in the imaginative realm. And everyday I play with words. And only very recently I worry about publication. A teacher by profession I am suspicious of what they claim to teach. To date I have never picked up a book which teaches me to write. But maybe I should take David's advise, and start. Any idea on which one first?


David Isaak said...


That seems fair to me...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Suroopa--

Whne the great dancer Nijinsky was asked how he mad such astonishing leaps, he said, "I go up into the air and then reqmin there until I come down."

Not useful in learning ballet. Yet he was supposed to be a great teacher, largely by telling people what they were doing wrong.

I don't think you can teach people how to write a novel, but I think you can teach them aspects of the craft of writing. And by teaching "close reading" of things that work very well.

On the other hand, I don't think it's necessary by any means, and for me it's more of a nervous habit.

In your case, I've read your novel, and your writing is already excellent--so you certainly don't need to read anything on the topic unless you are drawn to do so.

But in any case you've given me the topic for my next post...

Alis said...

Incorrigibility...sounds fascinating! Are you going to tell us more?

Anonymous said...

Ah, WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE. For years I thought it was like Nessy or the Yeti... something only known in folk tales. Either that or it was the writer's equivalent of sending someone on a snipe hunt.

It's been only six months or so since I learned about the e-book from the publisher.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

"Incorrigibility" is one of those vague, all-encompassing crimes that have been all but banished for the lexicon of the adult justice system. It seems to include: 1)Disrespect for authority, whether legally constituted or parental; 2)Doing things such as running away from home (which is of course a subset of the previous crime); 3)Continuing to commit certain other crimes even though they've told you not to do so; 4)Consorting with people you've been told not to consort with; and, 5) Having a generally bad attitude.

With the exception of possession of LSD (well, okay, more than one count--after all, I'm incorrigble), nothing I did would have been a crime were I not a minor. These days all I'm guilty of is a generally bad attitude.

But I was indeed the guest of the County for some prolonged periods, including one rather extended stay where I wa kept in isolation. That was interesting, to say the least. (And people wonder why I talk to myself when I write.)

I also dropped out of school in the tenth grade. There. My tawdry past revealed.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

Yeah, I actually had a running correspondence with Block on the issue; I'd write him once a year and ask when the hell he was going to revise and republish WRITE, and he'd write back, "I know, I know, I'm almost ready to get around to it..."

Nice guy. He was also kind enough to let me borrow the famous misprint from "The Scoreless Thai." There's a chapter in my novel "Tomorrowville" which is entitled "Tanner's Tobbo Shop: We Never Sleep." A reference which perhaps ten people in the world will recognize. If it ever gets published, that is...

Jake Jesson said...

"Incorrigibility"? Christ, I heard that word a lot as a child, during my home-schooled years. I never realized it was actually an obscure legal term. Huh.

I must confess an addiction to how-to-write books myself, so this series of posts may well cause me to spend yet more money that I do not have. (Actually, it has already; I purchased Gardner's book. I did skim these posts when they originally went up, and recognized the title at Moe's...)

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