Maybe because I don’t have an MFA, or a degree in English Lit, let alone one in Creative Writing, my self-taught approach to writing has included a huge library of books on the subject, from basics like Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and inspirational tomes like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, to nuts and bolts guides to genre fiction like Cause of Death and Scene of the Crime. It’s been my experience that I usually get one good idea (sometimes more but rarely less) from every writing book I read. Yes, I could go to a workshop and maybe learn a lot more. I do that too sometimes. But for ten or twenty bucks, one good idea is a heckuva deal.
Sometimes I have a dry spell. I’m not interested in reading about writing, just doing the job. Then along will come a little magic pill between two covers and I dive in like Alice in Wonderland, wondering if I’ll get bigger or smaller. The idea the book conjures may be tiny, or it may just look insignificant. You never know. Here’s an example. I am re-reading James Wood’s excellent book, How Fiction Works. He discusses free indirect style and the development of the modern novelistic model given to us so completely by Flaubert. Lots of great classic examples, and contemporary ones, to explain what makes fiction what it is, an engrossing, intimate experience seen through the eyes and minds of realistic characters.
Fine, you say, but how to do it? There is no one way to write a better book. You can only write the book that’s yours. Here’s how it works for me: As I read along an idea pops into my head, relating to the manuscript I’m editing. I’m on about draft five and it’s getting down to the wire. But suddenly I have an idea for a nickname for the main character, one that her Army buddies give her, that encapsulates both her strengths and her weakness. Bingo! (That’s not the nickname.)
Where does this deliciousness come from, especially when I’m reading literary criticism? The writing of a novel is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that when reading about other books, other styles, the ways that one word can make a difference in a reader’s perception of a character, things just happen. Like those magic pills, they pop up and give themselves to you. Whether you take them or not is up to you.
You don’t have to be reading a writing book. You can be pulling weeds, washing dishes, eating breakfast, or any old thing. But reading about writing focuses you on the work at hand, that novel that needs tweaking, the structure that could be propped up, the pacing that ought to be ratcheted up, the dross that can be slashed.
I’ve been at this game awhile. (Thirty years!) But I still buy writing books. Sometimes I just skim to find things that I relate to. Other times I gulp them down whole and enjoy every bite. The thing about this writing gig? It is one long education, start to, well, if you finish before you croak, then start to finish. And that’s the beauty of it. Keep learning.
Next week I’ll write about two new books on writing that I recently discovered: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Thanks to Kate Flora for her wonderful list of writing books suggested by writers over at the Thalia Press Authors Co-op blog.