If you want to write well, you first must assemble your arsenal.
Spoiler alert: the majority of this arsenal is books.
As this series for writers unrolls, I will talk about fiction and memoirs that do certain aspects of craft well: setting, character, dialogue, tension, et cetera. But first, let's talk about craft books.
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If you've never been in an MFA program, the term craft book might conjure images of rickrack and glitter, yarn and embroidery hoops. And while that's pretty far from the kind of books I'm talking about, books on the craft of writing function in a similar way; they're concerned with the actual making of prose and poetry, the mechanics. The craft of it all.
There is a school of thought that good writing can't be learned. Talent can't be taught. But in writing, as in most other art forms, study and discipline outstrip talent every single time. Lucky for us, a whole bunch of famous authors have penned their own craft books. To ignore the wisdom they've chosen to share would show some serious hubris, and we all know how that turned out for Odysseus.
The right craft book won't just teach you, it will motivate you. I find I can never read a great craft book for too long without the urge to work on my own writing; I can see how the techniques they offer will help my work, and I want to put them into practice before I forget the lessons. As such, reading craft books is an excellent way to knock yourself out of writer's block.
The right craft book isn't there to cheer you on. It's there to help you write the best book you can. Expect tough love. Be prepared to learn that some deeply personal, cherished piece of your manuscript is better off as kindling. Detach from your work and try to see it as the craft book's author might: objectively, critically, but with your best interest at heart.
Here are 5 craft books, well-worn copies of which sit on my bookshelf, ready to be read and re-read*:
- Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott. Read this if you're lacking confidence and motivation, or if you think you're the only neurotic, self-sabotaging schmuck of a writer out there.
- The Art of Fiction, John Gardner. Here's the tough love I was talking about. I'm someone who needs a direct ass-kicking by an arrogant author sometimes. If you're like me, this could be the book that gets you moving.
- The Writing Life, Annie Dillard. Read this if you find yourself motivated by envy. Dillard so clearly paints the romantic life of a full-time writer, it jumpstarted my drive and ambition to have what she has. (This is another one that ass-kicks at times.)
- The Elements of Style, Strunk & White. Read this for hardcore training in making your work more readable. This slim little life-saver is all about structure and mechanics. After a read or two, you'll write stronger, tighter sentences that lend power to your narrative instead of weighing it down.
- Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway. It reads like a textbook, which (for me) felt like a familiar way to learn and made writing seem more like a skill to hone than a gift from on high. There are exercises and lots of practical tips for new writers who are finding their voices. Excellent for kicking out the cobwebs.
BONUS MUST-HAVE: The Chicago Manual of Style. Before you can break the rules in your writing, you need to learn them and do them well. Don't be intimidated by this big, orange tome with bible-thin pages. It is everything you need to know about grammar in creative works, and so much more. You'll be surprised by what you've been doing wrong your whole life. Get the latest edition you can; things change quickly. (And wield your newfound knowledge benevolently. No one likes a grammar snob.)
Writing is a craft. No one is perfect the first time, and if you want to be a serious writer, you have to take it seriously. Studying the lessons of other writers is a great place to begin.
Until next time,
*I'm a fiction writer. Some of these are explicitly for writers like me; others are more broad and helpful to everyone. Poets and essayists: who do you love?
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