Earlier in the week I came across someone on Reddit linking to an article about the best “books for writing” and it provided the inspiration for this post. On my first lazy read-through of the post I thought they were asking for recommendations for which of those WRITE YOUR NOVEL IN 30 DAYS we liked.
Be wary of books like these, by the way. There are no shortcuts. It’s like working out for a week and not noticing a change. You’re not going to notice an immediate result. Sometimes, it’ll take up to a year for you to actually see yourself go down a few sizes. If you’re doing it in a healthy way, anyway. I recently had surgery to remove impacted wisdom teeth. I lost 14 pounds in the two weeks I couldn’t eat anything solid. Something similar happened in college, where I lost 20 pounds in the span of 3 weeks because I came down with a weird virus that basically meant I was puking out everything I was eating.
(I don’t recommend it.)
But what the poster was talking about was what our favorite books on the craft of writing were like. I felt significantly better about the poster. And I thought, well, I don’t really have fav---wait, yes, yes I do, and that’s why I’m going to talk about my own holy trinity of WORDCRAFTY books.
Before I do that, though, I’m going to add that reading a book on craft isn’t always necessary. What is necessary is that you read a lot. See what works. See what doesn’t work. See what you like, love, hate. I love, love, love the way Terry Pratchett approaches humor. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at something I’ve read as hard as I had when I read Night Watch. I loved the way Benjamin Alire Saenz captured the power of desire in Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I loved the way Holly Anderson and Drew Magary manage to be informative and humorous writing for Grantland and Deadspin. Right now I’m reading Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I’m finding myself falling in love with the way he weaves English and Spanish seamlessly in the novel.
I learn from all of these things and I do my best to integrate them in my own writing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s terrible. The point is to be constantly trying to improve and challenge myself to be better. That’s one of the downsides/upsides to my cooking hobby…whenever I try something really good, I take it as a personal challenge to come up with my own recipe and make it better. For instance, there’s a food truck in Houston called The Golden Grill. I tried one of their grilled cheese things, loved it, and decided to improve on their recipes (to objectively great success) and for Christmas I got an electric griddle from my future father-in-law so now my grilled cheeses are going to be even better!
(the trick, kids, is mayonnaise)
Okay, enough about all that.
Let’s talk about DosAguilas’ top three books on the craft of writing.
Stephen King’s On Writing
Stephen King’s half-memoir, half-self-help book takes you through his life, his experience with literary rejection, drug issues, and sprinkled throughout are bits and pieces of writerly advice that are invaluable to anyone who wants to pursue this course of action.
But I’m going to tell you why this book is my number one.
Stephen King writes:
“The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. ... Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers — common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”
I’ve made no secret that I don’t smoke weed. I think it should be legalized. I think non-violent drug offenders are getting the short and unpleasant end of the stick constantly. I think there’s a lot of medical benefits that we should definitely be funding more than we are.
But I’m not going to smoke it. I’m not going to demonize or attack anyone who does, either, but it’s a personal choice I’ve made for myself. One of the reasons why I made that choice goes to a grudge I’ve carried for years:
*wind chimes play, blur wipe out to a memory*
It’s college. I’m walking to my car with a friend, and, at this point I’m firmly in the “I’m not smoking weed camp because it’s illegal but I have no problem if people smoke it” camp. I don’t have a lot of other reasons besides that. So, we’re talking about writing or something creative related and the friend tells me that I’d probably be more creative with weed. The logic was, well, weed relaxes you and THEREFORE more creativity and all the best creative people smoke weed so you should do it and it’ll help your writing. I’m 100% sure my friend didn’t mean to insult me, but my reading of the statement was: Without the weed, you’re not good enough.
So I said, okay.
Internally, I said: I’ll show you.
*memory fade to black*
But here’s the thing, I never had a convincing argument. Not a single writer I knew could validate my feelings. I wanted someone, anyone, in the industry to tell me, yo DosAguilas, you’re right. You don’t need that shit to write. Then years and years later (specifically, 2013, five or six years after the conversation took place) I read On Writing and I’m validated. I felt so validated that I actually dog-eared AND highlighted AND wrote on the book. And it’s not just King being sanctimonious, it’s a former addict telling you that there’s no glory in this. I mean, I’m sure it helps people but it is not what makes a writer write or a painter paint. I don't need coffee, I don't need soda, I don't need anything to write but my hands, a pen, a notebook, and/or a computer.
And I know people love touting the Hemingway “write drunk, edit sober” bullshit but…I’ve been drunk a few times. Last thing I feel like doing when I’m in that state is writing because the times I’ve tried, not only am I writing chicken-scratch (and my handwriting is terrible as it is), I have to deal with sober me trying to figure out why I the following scrawled in Sharpie on my journal: CHIKENFJJJJJA—L------ and an arrow pointed to PLOTCONFLICT!!!! And an angry face underneath it.
But on an impersonal note, On Writing is amazing, because it’s honest. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture because it’s not. There’s substance abuse, which maybe some don’t get; but there’s also rejection, and working long hours, and crippling self-doubt, and darkness. There’s no “WELL FOLLOW MY WAY AND YOU’LL BE DADDY WARBUCKS!” self-help bullshit. In a way, I kinda read Scott Turow's One L a few years later like that and appreciated the honesty in it.
As far as the demons go, I thrive in conversation with them:
“With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work” --Federico Garcia Lorca, "Theory and Play of the Duende"
This one's a relative newcomer to my arsenal but also another book I intensely dog-eared and learned from. I started writing flash fiction unofficially in 2014, with some shitty one-off stories that I would workshop during the MFA program. A year later, one of the short stories in my manuscript (that would eventually be cut and submitted solo and was published in Riding Wheel) qualified under flash fiction, and I discovered that hey, I was kinda sorta good at this thing.
But good is baseline.
so I asked for advice, while at the same time I was getting a crash-course in writing through sorting through the slush pile at Bartleby Snopes. My friend Hillary recommended I get this book, and man, it was amazing.
Things I liked about the book: It's really not a hold-your-hand kind of thing HERE'S HOW YOU WRITE FLASH. Nah. It kicks off with a brief introduction and then bam, 25 essays from flash fiction heavyweights, and each with a sample story and a writing prompt at the end. And you'd think the essays were repetitive? Not in the least. When I had a flash fiction workshop in the early fall of last year, I used Pamela Painter's essay for help, for instance. But each writer has a voice and it was great to see one of my MFA professors (Lex Wiliford) have an essay in the book.
Another thing I like about the book is that in those 25 essays, there's something for everyone, and 25 different ways of writing flash fiction really help point you in the direction YOU want to go. And I think (and I'll elaborate on this next week) that's the beauty of flash fiction. You can go anywhere. You're stripping everything down to the barest. It's beauty in simplicity. If you want an example, consider reading Don Shea's Jumper Down or Neil Gaiman's Nicolas Was.
And coming in as a surprise...The AP Stylebook.
For three and a half years, this book never left my desk. In the years after, it didn't, either. Now, there's not much to this book. It's a guide as to how to write like a journalist. As a blogger on the internet, it's very useful for me to have. I also recommend it for those of you citizen-journalist types that are popping up. Buy it, and print out the SPJ code of ethics. You don't need to go to college to be a journalist, you just have to do it right. Source. Cite correctly. TIME DATE PLACE.
Now, there are a lot of other books out there that talk about the craft. Just to name a few:
Strunk and White's Elements of Style
Right, Wrong and Risky
John Gardner's The Art of Fiction
But that's enough of that. What are YOUR favorite books on craft?