clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Comfort Reading for the Writer

At left, skillet chili on a cold night. I serve it over cornbread. Yes, those are beans. I'm not in Texas. It isn't against the law here.

I want to touch a little on some of the books I've devoured over the past months.

Consider this an annotated bibliography centered around the events of an unfortunate demise.

In no particular order.

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop. John Scalzi
- Scalzi is the author of Old Man's War which is a very popular series of novels on near-future Terran expansion. He's also president of SFWA. Lastly, he makes a good living as a commercial writer of all manner of topics. It reads like its title.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells. Ben Bova. If you don't know Bova from his extensive list of titles, you know him as the editor of Omni. Well, Some of us remember Omni. Some of us remember Nixon. Bova includes all the basics here though the tone is a little of "old editor" and if you had to read the slush pile, you might get a touch of "old editor" too.

On Writing. Steven King. This is part memoir and part treatise on something close to writing. It reads like a morality tale of "don't do this" which in the end is the best most of us know. We, like Edison, have a list of 3000 things that didn't work. Some of my associates love this book. I wouldn't replace it if I loaned it out and never got it back.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  You probably know Todd by his work : editor at the Atlantic among other places. Kidder won a Pulitzer for The Soul of a New Machine which I devoured in a single evening thirty years ago (or a little more). Read this. You write fiction? Read it anyway. It goes a long way towards sharpening the brain to avoid phrases like "very cold" as if "cold" wasn't enough. The section "Being Edited" is especially useful. This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one." Yea - that good.

Fiction Writing for All You're Worth. James Scott Bell. I'm going to say he's the best writer on writing who has also written in the genre of zombie lawyer fiction. Think Grisham x George Romero. His text is clear and the book has some gems. By the e-book version.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Larry Phillips. You don't know Larry Phillips unless you're related or dated him in college. This is a look at writing from Hemingway's correspondence. It's a bit voyeuristic. You'll learn something but if you want insight into how to quit sucking at writing, this isn't it.

Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. James Scott Bell. See FWfAYW above. I have this. I haven't read it yet. I need to. I'm entering a big revision and re-write cycle next month and I'll read it late this week.

The Forest for the Trees. Betsy Lerner. You don't know her but you want to. She's been a great editor and is now an great agent. If you get a "not quite right for me"  rejection letter, frame it. It'll be like a grader note from Obama that your paper on the forth amendment should invoke the fifth. I forgot I had it until today. I'm going to re-read it starting tonight. I have been a nitwit. Christ - no wonder my errors keep sounding familiar.  This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one."

The Simple Art of Murder. Raymond Chandler. You know Chandler for The Big Sleep. You should know him for more than that but we'll let it go for just movies staring Bogart based on a novel. This text talks about writing - the good parts. It talks about what you don't know about characterization and why it didn't occur to you. I say that because I've read it half a dozen times and every time I say "yea, that makes perfect sense."  I then run off an read The Assistant Murderer  by Hammett. You can get this cheap as an e-book. Do so.

The Writer's Notebook (I and II) . Tin House. These are a collection of craft-of-writing essays by some great teachers who are also great writers. [ read Swamplandia by Karen Russell].  You'll read these for several years at least. This is in the running for "the best to buy if you buy only one .. or two."

Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Ron Carlson. The best short story I've read NOT by Hemingway came out last year by Ron Carlson in Grey's Sporting Journal. It was called "Six Pound Test." Carlson takes us through his process of writing a short story in this book. It is an excellent reference treatise on the fear we feel when we're writing the story, it's going well, and we haven't a clue where we're going. That thrill and that fear are known only to writers. If you're reading this, you know exactly what that feels like and how it affects you. "The best to buy if you buy only one."

A Writer's Guide to Characterization. Victoria Lynn Schmidt. This is an archetype-based character reference. Skip it. Don't buy this sort of book.

Editors on Editing. Gerald Gross, editor. I haven't read it. I bought it a couple months back because an editor I know told me to read it this time before I drove someone else up the wall. [ I was young - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it] She used different words. Less pleasant words. It's on my list.

The Chicago Manual of Style. Just buy one. You can find them in bookstores selling used books.

Merchants of Culture.  John Thompson. Has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the book business and the current state of the industry. If you read non-fiction, buy it.  I read texts on orbital mechanics so I have a high threshold for non-fiction. I love this text. It won't do shit for your writing. It will however let you avoid being the fellow button-holed in the corner by a self-publishing nazi  who lectures you on how publishers are dead. Did I say nazi ? Sorry to offend. Just attribute it as a familial reference and smile knowingly. I have a leather bound Achtung Panzer I can see from here. I keep it next to War as I Knew It.

The World Within Tin House. Writer's talk writing. I haven't read it yet. Looks good but then so does a breakfast at IHOP. That's why the menu has pictures. Don't eat somewhere that has pictures of food - or anything else including pandas - on a menu. The book does not have pictures of writers writing, so it should be O.K.

The Best American Short Stories (2012). Tom Perrotta, editor.  There are thirteen more versions of this  title's series lying around here if you look. Watch out for the cat. He bites. You are buying these, right ? You have to read as well as write.

Book of Poisons. Serita Stevens (insert alphabet here). This is a lovely text to leave in the powder room. It provides interesting conversation for weekend house guests and keeps residents of your domicile on their toes. It will not however keep your grown sons (and their loinfruit) from coming over and drinking milk from your fridge directly out of the bottle. When you catch them, they smile sheepishly and ask why you didn't buy milk in bottles when they were at home. Seriously, this is a gem. I've a number of reference volumes on toxins hanging about (and a really great rare text from '69 on venom and envenomation that is just world class) but this is clear for the non-professional.

I'm going to stop here. It's late now. I have to run tomorrow with the hounds of love. (cred. inspiration  Kate Bush)


Unknown said...

You think you've been a nitwit? I once got a return comment from Ben Bova telling me my story based on Three Mile Island was too obvious. He also included instructions on proper formatting of a manuscript. Also,on two other occassions,I got return postcards from Isaac Asimov answering a couple of questions I had regarding science fiction lit since I was interested in that genre at the time. Regretfully, I no longer possess these little treasures. What happened to them? Lost, I guess. Too much moving around in my younger days. Yours truly, Toe.

jack welling said...

Well - I'll admit I don't have such famous notes.

I have had one come back right after college asking that I learn NOT to put a space between the word and the question mark. That was a little embarrassing. It came back with the suggestion that I fire my girlfriend and hire a real typist.

No one famous though. Just an anonymous bit scrawled on the edge of the rejection. _Outdoor Life_ of all places.