I have a conflicted relationship with writing books. Books on writing can seem like books on sex: embarrassing, beside the point, and possibly harmful. You like to think that you have the moves down, that you won’t get lost in the dark. It’s a difficult thing (I mean writing) and this difficulty sustains the market for writing books, which offer guidance, encouragement, and consolation. The consultation of these books can be a distraction, a form of procrastination, or a doomed search for easy answers, but many of these books do have valuable insights for beginning and experienced writers alike. There is no substitute for the work itself, but in moments of doubt, there are some good options out there, and we’ve tried to make them available at St. Louis Public Library.
The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman
As someone who has worked at a publishing house, a lit mag, and as a screener for a novel-writing competition, I can say that Lukeman has a solid concept here. In the flooded-as-ever literary marketplace, the “gatekeepers” are looking for any reason they can find to stop reading your manuscript, and Lukeman breaks down a number of the technical and stylistic problems that can occur in the opening moments of a narrative. Plus you have to like a writing book that begins: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I.”
Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson
While there is no formula for great writing, in a genre such as mystery there are a number of elements that must come into play if you’re going to earn your cred. Ellis and Lamson have gathered a large number of contributors to offer tips and exercises to help novices attain genre mastery. I like the entry from St. Louis’s John Lutz about engaging the senses in fiction:
An effective technique, too often ignored or not used to full effect, is to involve most or all of the senses. Weapons glint in the sun or look dangerous in the shadows; blood has an unpleasant taste; the flesh of combatants is sweaty and slippery; perspiration has an odor; bone makes a distinctive sound when broken; there might be ragged breathing, cries and moans of pain, soles scuffling on grass or dirt or gravel. So there we have sight, taste, feel, smell, and sound, all easy enough to use even in a brief action scene. All five senses. Makes my pulse quicken just reading about them.
You don’t have to tell a public librarian that perspiration has an odor, but this is the kind of straightforward, hard-hitting advice you can expect from Now Write! Mystery.
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
If only it were so easy! I jest, but Maass is a seasoned literary agent who knows something about the marketplace and why a book succeeds or fails. Along with richly anecdotal tales of his experiences in the publishing world, he offers good, common-sense advice about the scope, stakes, and emotional impact of a story, and his examples are refreshingly catholic, ranging from Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist within a single chapter. Bonus here is a preface by Anne Perry, one of Maass’s clients, and one of the real-life protagonists of the film Heavenly Creatures, who has gone on to explore the criminal mind in dozens of mystery novels.
Wonderbook,by Jeff Vandermeer
Full disclosure: this title is not on our shelves yet, but it is on order and should be available soon. I’m pretty excited to have a look at it, because Vandermeer is a fabulist who’s not afraid to lead his reader into strange and magical alleys: witness his recent Annihilation, book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy which will be published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in installments throughout the year. Based around an expedition to a thoroughly creepy nature reserve full of ambiguous ruins and Lovecraftian fungus, Annihilation is one of my favorite reads of 2014 and I think it’s safe to say that Vandermeer has “broken out” with this series, judging by the six-figure advance and the film rights going to Scott Rudin. (Kind of funny how the popularity-virus connection is structured into our language, don’t you think? One of those “metaphors we live by.”)
It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences, by June Casagrande
Have to admire a style guide that offers a grammatically dubious sentence as its title. Generally, I think we can say that writing books that acknowledge their own limitations are probably better, and Casagrande does that–offering a chapter on “when to break the rules.” This is more in the nature of a micro, style guide than a grand sweeping “how to write a novel” sort of book. Still, all books start with sentences, and I’m bound to be charmed by a book that focuses on this humble unit of prose. See also Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.
Artful, by Ali Smith
This book barely fits into the category at all. If you’ve read any of Ali Smith’s fiction–I enthusiastically recommend her debut novel Hotel World–it will come as no surprise that this book on writing craft is slippery, brilliant, and unclassifiable. I think it is the first book of lectures I’ve read that has a ghost in it. Anyway, if you find yourself feeling drab and uninspired, turn to Smith’s virtuoso meditation to remind yourself of how a great artist can rearrange and illuminate the world. With encyclopedic command, humor, and cameos from Dickens’s Artful Dodger, Artful is a book about art that is also a work of art–which is easier said than done.