Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Favorite Titles of Books on Writing

Howzat for a frail topic? Not my favorite books. Nope. My favorite titles. Weak, dude.

Nonetheless, I have some real gems:

How to Write While You Sleep by Elizabeth Irvin Ross. To tell the truth, I haven’t read this, only glanced through it. I think it’s about programming your subconscious mind. I found it at the Book Baron closeout sale, and for fifty cents a title like that was irresistible. If she could instead teach us How to Earn a Living While You Sleep, we could write while we're awake, which seems like the real solution to our problems.

What Will Have Happened by Robert Champigny. The is a somewhat professorial discussion of the mystery genre. As the flap copy notes, “Champigny defines mystery stories as narratives in which the goal projected into the future is a determination of the past.” Well, I’m not sure that’s the snappiest definition I’ve ever heard. In fact, it's not even in the top thousand. It goes on to declare that “spatiotemporalization is equated with individuation; the mystery in a mystery story is a problem of individuation.” I was unaware of this fact, or maybe these facts, although I was intrigued to learn that “the question of justice must be interpreted aesthetically.” That has possibilities. Your Honor, I object! The prosecutor’s tie is mundane, and leaves me without a satisfying sense of symmetry, while his chracterization of the events of February 1st are a mere surprise, not an epiphany.

I didn't make it all the way through this book, and it's probably my loss. The first half is pretty clearly an attempt to cloak his essential interest in the topic of detective novels within a defensible, theoretical, potentially tenurable guise. The second half looks to be more engaging...but I don't seem to be able to get there. It's spent a year on my nightstand, and somehow all the other books get picked up first.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter. Quite an enjoyable book. But the title seems a little, well, on the nose, doesn’t it?

Three Rules for Writing a Novel by Willam Noble. The title, of course, is taken from Somerset Maugham’s “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Some Writers Deserve to Starve by Elaura Niles. The subtitle is 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry. An amusing book. A good gift for anyone who believes that writing a novel is the express lane to fame and riches.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore. An interesting book about strategy and self-promotion and becoming “an anthology slut” and all the other things you might do to give your so-called career an extra edge.

The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty. A book about compulsive writing, writer’s block, and the generally pathological factors that drive many of us. The author is a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School, and is also a compulsive (and sometimes blocked) writer. I find her author photo to be really, really a nervous, tight-wound, slightly scary way. Portrait of the Artist as a Compulsive Writer.

One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher. A Zen approach to writing by a Zen practitioner and psychotherapist. Too touchy-feely and far too mentally healthy for my taste, but a good title. I may steal it for my autobiography.

Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet. The title itself is perhaps a clue to why his trademarked dialog, from Glengarry Glen Ross to House of Games to Wag the Dog is always so damned convincing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I’ve reviewed this one before, as it’s one of my favorite writing books. The spin on Sun Tzu’s classic title is pretty nifty, too, if you like that sort of thing.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. The title almost begs you to dispute the number (aren’t there really 12, an even dozen? Or seventeen, the number George Carlin asserts is an automatically funny number? Or thirty-two, the number of Paths of Glory on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life--naturally excluding the hidden Sephira Da'ath?). So it makes me want to argue. But when you add ‘by Jane Smiley’ it becomes an irresistible title.

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood. Trust our Maggie to come up with the perfect title (pace Hemingway, who said the only choices a writer had were either to forge new ground, or try and beat dead men at their own game. The masterful Ms. Atwood knows there are other options than engaging in a dick-swinging contest.)

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Well, that's provocative and obscure. Of course, Hugo was primarily a poet, so I suppose it ought to be expected.

The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. Subtitled Uncommon Writing Exercises. I hate writing exercises. I don’t do them. Can't do them. I can’t write, or shoot marbles, unless it’s for keeps. But it’s a good title, and the exercises are stimulating—even if, like me, you only read them (but refuse to do them).

Who’s Writing This? edited by Daniel Halpern. Subtitled Notation on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits. The impetus for the collection of essays was Borges’ essay Borges and I. This is the sort of thing writers shouldn’t think about too hard. The collection is composed of essays by writers who have been asked to think about this. Possibly too hard.

Writer’s Block and How to Use It by Victoria Nelson. Hey, there’s an upbeat take on a dire subject! As it turns out, this is one of those cheap-o books I picked up simply because the title amused me…and it turned out to be a compulsively readable little discussion of all the ways we can take what ought to be a state of play and enjoyment and turn it into a burden. A smart, down-to-earth, long-out-of-print book.

How to Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) by Julia Cameron. A book of cartoons. The title says it all. Except I think she neglected to include blogging in her list of procrastination strategies…

Enough. But remember what Champigny pointed out: spatiotemporalization is equated with individuation. Much may it profit you.


Tim Stretton said...

“spatiotemporalization is equated with individuation; the mystery in a mystery story is a problem of individuation.”

That's obviously the key piece of information that Aliya was missing...cracking insight too. I'm now going to forsake writing fantasy forever and work on subtly nuanced individuation in mystery fiction.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, I need to go revisit some of the lesser Holmes stories--say "Blue Carbuncle" or "League of Red-Headed Men"--to see whose individuation is underway.

David Isaak said...

PS Tim, before you throw over fantasy, maybe you should check around to see what spatiotemporalization equates with there.