Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Company I Keep

I was having a little discussion with someone on The Twitter today, recommending (again!) Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird as a great resource for writers, would-be writers, and the easily frustrated of either type. The chapter on Shitty First Drafts (PDF) should be required reading, every single November. I know that whenever I pick up my copy of the book, I wind up going back and re-reading the whole thing from the start. Every year I get more out of it.

Anyhow, the Twitter chat made me realize that I don't think I've ever collected all the titles in one place, though I know I've discussed them before. So, here's the contents of my "sage writing advice" shelf.

People much smarter than I am

In photo order:
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
    To be honest, not my favorite of the bunch, but it comes praised by many. Perhaps you'll get more out of it than I did?
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
    Because I can never remember how to do quotes. Also, because I am trying to become one with the philosophy of cutting surplus words, if not in this blog, then at least in my writing.
  • The Moon & I, Betsy Byars
    Hilarious, unless you are snake-averse. Then probably seriously creepy. Writing advice disguised as autobiographical stories.
  • Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne & King
    The book so nice I braved the vultures circling Borders books to get my own copy. Makes a good argument for putting the extra effort into revisions of your own work, and gives real-life examples. My post-NaNo Sherpa. I reviewed this one earlier, though you may also want to check out Bell's The Artful Edit and Lyon's Manuscript Makeover. I preferred the Browne & King book.
  • No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty
    The pre-NaNo Sherpa. I picked this up after my first year of NaNo. Certainly not the most serious book, but then NaNo isn't the most serious creative endeavor, either. Baty's novel aftercare advice about summarizing scenes on index cards inspired my current pre-noveling process.
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss
    If your blood pressure ticks up a notch every time you see an abused apostrophe, read this. Funny for Type "A" personalities like yours truly. Obnoxious to everyone else, probably. Read immediately after (or in parallel with) Strunk & White.
  • Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
    Slightly hippy-trippy compared to the others in the stack, but her mantra -- keep your hand moving, always moving across the page -- is invaluable advice.
  • Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin
    Meant more as a workbook than a read-from-cover-to-cover work. Le Guin does get into discussions of taking criticism in a peer writing group, which is the only book I've found that does this. Type "A" people need all the advice we can get about accepting criticism gracefully and silently.
  • On Writing, Stephen King
    Also largely autobiographical, and King has led a colorful (and medicated) life. Solid advice, though, from someone who knows how to make popular, readable work. Also: a sample of before-and-after edited work.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
    Still among the very best in the pile, in my opinion, especially for writing-and-life advice. So many books that I've read were very dry, highbrow, academic books written by Serious Authors Crafting Serious Art. This is not those books, thank goodness. This is the one that gets me back in the NaNo frame of mind every year. After reading it, I'm excited about writing something terrible and bloated and meandering and occasionally surprising and subtle and wonderful.
Now obviously, one or more of these books simply won't do it for you. (Hopefully you are not also a planning-obsessed control freak, 'cause this here blog ain't big enough for the both of us...) If you're looking for some advice from smart people, though, you could do worse than this stack of paper.


Cameron said...

Mike, this is an excellent resource for writers! Thanks for posting the list.

I've read the Goldberg book but not the others.

At this point, so close to November, I am already feeling overwhelmed without the additional time expenditure of referencing these great books. Will I sink, or swim?

Details at 11.

deek said...

Nice list. I've read an own almost all of those as well. I do recommend the 50th anniversary edition of Strunk & White. There's some added commentary that is very enjoyable to read.

Mike Speegle said...

Sadly (and perhaps tellingly in my drafts), I have only read On Writing and of course Elements of Style.

On a similar note, I looked for the NaNo approved Putting Your Passion into Print at B&N the other day, and they told me that it was out of print. Oh sweet irony.

notagain said...

I found this amusing:

The bit about criticism gave me pause. Since I say "I'm a novelist but I'm not a writer," I have a different attitude toward criticism - more like a painter. You can tell me it stinks but I only want to use advice to improve the next one. NaNo was made for me because there's no time for revision. The story is what happened, not what was planned. You guys are actual writers, you expect to write for acclaim and sales. I get that.

mpclemens said...


That is an interesting read, thanks for sharing it.

I certainly don't love Strunk & White like a long-lost child, and to be totally honest, I often fell asleep while reading it. As with any advice, you take what you need, and discard the rest. I do notice, however, that in my first drafts I violate what I consider "good style," perhaps because I was taught by people who had Elements drilled into their heads at an early age. I'm an abuser of the "could (verb)" construct, for instance: He could see the dog. Better for my reader, I think, to say He saw the dog. One fewer word. (And knowing when to say "fewer" and when to say "less.") The abuse of passive voice also crops up in my first drafts, like my brain is afraid to commit to the actor in a sentence. But these are my own personal issues, and Strunk & White -- or any of the other books in that stack -- are just tools to help me see the problems in my own work.

That's where the benefit of external criticism shines through, by the way, and I believe in the value of having another set of eyes go through your work, whether you consider yourself a "writer" or not. Mr. Speegle sent me feedback on some points in my own work that struck him funny not-in-the-ha-ha-way, points that I glossed over because they were so familiar to me. A fresh perspective is difficult to manufacture on your own.

Finally, I think it funny that you consider me to be a "writer" when I don't consider myself to be that at all. At least, it's not high on the totem pole of "things I think I am" ("writer" falling just beneath "someone who occasionally cleans the bathroom.") I'm just this guy who happens to have a couple of first drafts tucked in a box where they can't hurt anyone. And who might share those with other people. An who wouldn't be sad about being paid to share them with other people, though he's really not counting on it. And by that definition, I think we're all writers of some stripe. Not all published writers, but writers nonetheless.

Mike Speegle said...

First: Yeah, but One Last Quest had plenty of funny "ha ha" moments.

Second: But you really should end up as a published writer. You have the Mike Speegle(tm) stamp of approval, after all!