Kate: My students are always asking me about writing books–which ones they should buy, which will be really helpful. Fellow instructors at Grub Street often get into discussions about who can suggest a book which will address a particular problem a student is having, or what book might have a good discussion about making scenes, or a clearer description of point of view. I have a list I give out, although that list is constantly changing, and I also give this piece of advice: A book about writing craft has to speak to you. If you read it and it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not the book for you. To that, I will add this caveat: what a book about writing says to you may well change as you change and grow as a writer yourself. A favorite writing book is like a good friend–the relationship may not always be the same, but it is there to sustain you when you turn to it.
Currently, I find I return time and again to a book I picked up at the Orrs Island Library booksale: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, a book that is filled with practical, cut-to-the-chase advice about characterization, emotion, plotting, showing instead of telling, pacing and editing. Two decades ago, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction told me that everything I was doing was wrong. I was devastated. But after 28 years in this chair, I’m able to take what he has to offer, which is much, and discount that advice which doesn’t apply well to the conventions of writing crime fiction.
When I have questions, I find I return, again and again, to a book about writing mysteries that I’ve had for many years. One is called Writing the Modern Mystery by Barbara Norville, whose advice stands up well as mystery trends change. The Norville book stands beside the late and wonderful William Tapply’s nice, basic book about writing a mystery, The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing a Modern Whodunit.
Kaitlyn: I was just going to plug my own writing book (the Agatha-award-winning How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson), but the topic got me thinking and I decided to be perfectly honest with our blog readers first. I’ve never been a big user of how-to books. Why not? Because no how-to-write book is going to tell anyone the one sure way to write a successful book.
When I first started writing mysteries, they were for young readers, so I read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (and her Guide to Fiction Writing), Joan Lowery Nixon’s Writing Mysteries for Young People, and Jane Yolen’s Writing Books for Children, all published by The Writer.
Phyllis A. Whitney advocated making extensive outlines before starting a novel. I can’t do that. I can’t think that far ahead. Heck, I can barely put together a synopsis when one is required by my editor.
I had the opportunity to hear Jane Yolen speak at U Maine Farmington, where I was at that time working in the library. One comment she made impressed the heck out of me. Paraphrasing, it was this: you don’t have to have children of your own to write for them, you don’t even have to like children, you just have to remember what it was like to be a child.
What I realized, after my first few novels had been published, was that I’d developed a way of writing that worked for me and I wasn’t likely to change what I was doing just because a how-to book advocated a different system. Much more useful to me was attending the occasional panel on a specific nuts-and-bolts aspect of writing. I think of this as taking a refresher course in the basics. It’s always good to be reminded of why I should stick to certain rules . . . and can choose to ignore others.
And my own how-to book? Well, I made certain it wasn’t just my take on historical mysteries, and I included a lot of material on how to do research, and I conned . . . er, persuaded . . . about fifty other people (fellow writers, editors, reviewers, and fans of the genre), to contribute comments, anecdotes and helpful hints, thus offering readers more than one “right” way to write their own historical mystery. One of my proudest moments, right alongside of taking home an Agatha teapot for best nonfiction, was to read in a review (by Marv Lachman in Deadly Pleasures) that How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries was “the best book about writing mysteries” (notice that’s “mysteries” not just “historical mysteries”) that he’d ever read.
Barb: I’m afraid on this topic, I’m a traditionalist. I recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, with its wisdom about breaking things down into manageable chunks and sh**ty first drafts. These are basic concepts that I know, but need to learn over and over again, because they are so against my nature. I also love John Dusfresne’s The Lie that Tells the Truth. It’s a lively book that makes you feel like you’re one of the students in Dusfresne’s college class.
As I struggle through my current work in progress, which, have I mentioned, has a rather odd shape to it, the work I find myself reaching for most is Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel which is such a practical guide to turn to when you have a problem you just can’t see the solution to.
My favorite is Stephen King’s On Writing. Recently I was asked to tell why it was my favorite on another blog. I found I had trouble articulating it. So I pulled the book off the shelf and was immediately sucked back into it. I could have re-read the whole thing. That’s how compelling it is. The book is divided into three sections; the story of how King was formed as a writer, guidance on how to write, and a final portion, written as he recovered from his catastrophic injuries after being hit on a country road by a van, called “On Life.” On Writing is highly entertaining, but King takes himself, his craft and the reader seriously. We all need to imagine a writing life, and he helped me immensely in imagining mine.
Julia: We all have several books on the shelves in common, I see. I, too, am a great admirer of Gardner’s, King’s and Lamott’s books. What I look for in a writing guide is practical advice from an author who actually makes a living selling commercial fiction. In that vein, my absolute favorite, the one I return to again and again, is Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun & Profit. Block divides his work into three sections: Fiction as a Profession, Fiction as a Discipline, and Fiction as a Craft, and he gives the pithiest, funniest and most useful advice I’ve ever read. One of the highlights of my professional life was meeting Block at the Nero Awards and getting to tell him what Telling Lies For Fun & Profit has meant to me.
Another fall-back for me is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Swain taught at the ground-breaking Professional Writers Program at the University of Oklahoma, and his widely-acclaimed instruction was grounded in solid experience: Swain published literally hundreds of short stories, novellas, chap-books, novels, screen plays and non-fiction works in his lifetime. Techniques of the Selling Writer is the go-to book when you want to learn about scene structure, conflict building and the architecture of fiction. It’s been continuously in print since 1965 – for good reason.
Sarah: A longish time ago in a little bookstore in Mendocino I picked up a copy of Pamela Frankau’s Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook. Now, Pamela Frankau is not well remembered today even though she wrote more than thirty novels. But what she had to say about writing electrified me then and still resonates with me now. In a few paragraphs it taught what one needs to know about point of view; in another few, what it is like to try for a year to write one particular novel, and to fail to write it. It is not, as so many of the modern how-to’s are, a book of technical advice. But when you are feeling lost or losing heart it is the best one to have, I think, and like the best teachers it instructs as much by example as by “lessons.” (Also, it was through this book that I learned about another one, The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, a novel that is a writing-lesson all by itself. Also, it is the only novel I know of in which…well, I’ll let you find out.)
Another one I’ve gotten a lot out of is Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Writers House founder Al Zuckerman. Al’s book assumes you already know a bit about how to write, and builds on that foundation to teach dramatic techniques, so you can present your story in the most effective way possible. Many best-selling writers aren’t super-fine prose stylists, but what they do have is what Al is teaching in his book. So, seeing as you most certainly are a super-fine prose stylist already, how can you lose, right?
Finally, and this one like the Frankau book is out of print but well worth finding, I have to mention What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects by Fisher and Bragonier. Want to know what part of a bell the clapper strikes, or what you call the stitching around the edge of a catcher’s mitt, or the flat piece at the bottom of a window frame? Just find a picture of it in What’s What and bingo, the bit you’re trying to name is labeled for you. Now if only I could find a book just like it for verbs — have you noticed that all the really interesting verbs are too obscure for modern thesauruses? — and I’d be all set. What’s What is for sale used on Amazon; there’s also a What’s What in Sports if your killer happens to be a football player.
Kathy: I remember that talk Jane Yolen gave in Farmington. Must have been, oh, three decades ago — at least, when our kids (Jane’s son and my daughter) were in high school. I had no idea you were there. I got an orange “Maine Young Writer: button at that event. Still own it. I like the concept. I’ve always thought that writing book of hers is excellent.