Booking Through Thursday: Bedside Reading

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

What books do you have next to your bed right now? How about other places in the house? What are you reading?

My annotated night table list:

  • Starfarers by Vonda McIntyre. I’m on a science fiction kick. I’ve been wanting to read McIntyre since reading a mention by Ursula K. LeGuin. This particular novel is slow, yet the writing itself is compelling enough to carry on.
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. A recent Amazon purchase. Just started reading this — it had been on my Wishlist since 2003 when I first genuinely started becoming interested in the genre. I still feel intimidated by the idea of deep immersion. Maybe this book will allow a sprinkle on the forehead first?
  • Forever Fat by Lee Gutkind. Another Amazon Wishlist purchase. Also on Wishlist since 2003. Thought I needed to read stuff from the Godfather of creative nonfiction.
  • ARC of Peep Show by Joshua Braff. Reviewing this novel.
  • News Reporting and Writing, Seventh Edition. Received this a couple of years ago with the hope to brush up on my basic reporting skills with hopes of getting back into the biz (as crazy as that sounds because it is dying). It hasn’t helped — yet.

Other TBR in the apartment:

  • A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett
  • Libra by Don DeLillo
  • Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
  • Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Also on the night table, just because you need to know . . .

Firefly: The Complete Series on DVD. Great sci-fi series. Needs to be revived.


Ten Lessons of the Workshop from The Elements of Authorship by Arthur Plotnik

Last week I finished reading Arthur Plotnik’s The Elements of Authorship, a thought-provoking, humorous, encouraging, but realistic look at the writing life. In it he shares lessons he learned from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Are these lessons standard for creative writing workshops?

  1. Understate. Excessiveness kills. Show, don’t tell. The best writing is completed in the reader’s mind. Don’t stretch metaphors into conceits. Zap modifiers. Let context do its work. “She said,” not “she enthused.”
  2. Surprise. Predictability is death. Declare war on the generic and the cliché. Pop in the unexpected word. Take characters out of character — but within their character. Fake in

    Arthur Plotnik

    one direction and go the other.

  3. Reward. Delight. Writing must divert. Keenness of eye, melodious cadence, freshness of phrase, and wit lightly applied. Let style establish itself. Mix it up: long, short; upbeat, downbeat; comic, microscopic. Give the gifts of enlightenment, substance, catharsis. Challenge, do not punish the reader. Say goodbye to self-indulgent, inaccessible, and anal-retentive writing.
  4. Focus. Kim’s question must be answered — what is the meaning of all this? Meaning trickles from every element into a mighty flow.
  5. Believe. Get inside the subject. Insincerity begets boredom. Irreverence from the chronically irreverent is tiresome.
  6. Be accurate. Cows can’t fly, at least not in a rigid zeppelin after 1937. Readers care about truth in detail; slipups hurt credibility.
  7. Particularize. Not “bird,” but “red-breasted nuthatch.” Exploit the delights of nomenclature, the power of association, and clarity of the senses. Use all the senses, but not all at once in every description.
  8. Justify. People act, things happen, for good reason, even if that reason is perverse antireason. Logic rules the reader. The quirkiest turns of plot and character must add up in the end.
  9. Dramatize. Set the stage and get out of the way; keep the author’s hand out of the action. Let motivation arise from characterization, and action from motivation. Intensify: Create conflict and tension — someone fights someone or something; someone strives against the odds; something awful is awful is happening and must be stopped.
  10. Get attention. Leap above the ordinary. Somehow, shake the audience from its television-induced torpor. Close in, seize the most immediate, most intimate yearnings; probe the least touched, most sensitive territories of heart, soul, and flesh — or, put another way: You gotta grab those readers by the short hairs.

Booking Through Thursday: The Elements of Style: A Neti Pot for Prose

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

What’s the most useful book you’ve ever read? And, why?

The bible of simple and direct prose: The Elements of Style, aka Strunk and White. The slender volume, touted by such literary lions as Kurt Vonnegut and Francine Prose (who lists it as a must read in Reading Like a Writer), was holy writ for me as a student writer.

“Pound for Pound, no American writing guide is more revered than the five-ounce Elements of Style . . . .,” writes Arthur Plotnik in his tongue-in-cheek writing guide, Spunk & Bite. “No reference book sells more copies or draws gushier superlatives (Timeless!; Nonpareil!; The best book of its kind!). With some ten million  copies rooted on as many reference shelves, Strunk and White has become the ivy (if not the kudzu) on our great walls of clarity and correctness.”

Despite its dated 19th century prissiness, its heralding of Standard English — whatever that is — it’s a solid reference book, a swift guide to usage, a kick in the pants to those who overuse jargon, passive voice, and abstract language over the concrete. Reading Strunk and White and following its guidelines, cleared my prose like a Neti pot clears the sinuses, especially in grad school with its jargon-clogged literary theory.

For basic advice on writing, especially for beginners, few books beat it. At the same time, gushing aside, as Plotnik notes, it’s musty and wrinkled, and it’s rules are often too limiting, and allow for no rule bending.

“Both Strunk and White knew well that bending the rules — judiciously breaking them — can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style,” Plotnik writes. “Bending the rules can spring writers from ruts — get them out of themselves, out of the ordinary, and into prose that comes alive, gets noticed, gets published.”

So, as useful as Elements of Style has been for me, I would ally it with Spunk & Bite and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to goose your writing.

Booking Through Thursday: The Anxiety of Influence

It’s been a long time since I answered a Booking Through Thursday. Here is this week’s question:

Are your book choices influenced by friends and family? Do their recommendations carry weight for you? Or do you choose your books solely by what you want to read?

My book choices have multiple influences: Sometimes it’s whim — go to bookstore or library and browse and see what looks interesting. Sometimes I read about something in a review or in another book and think, Hey, this sounds interesting. Sometimes friends and family recommend stuff, and I actually follow their recommendations. Sometimes I just follow an ever changing list in my head. And, of course, there are the stacks of unread books that often beckon, Read me, read me!, and eventually I obey the books.

Getting My How-to Write Fix

The first how-to write fiction book I ever read was Rita Mae Brown’s Starting From Scratch. That book led to an addiction to how-to write books. I gobbled them up.  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which introduced me to creative nonfiction/literary journalism), Josip Novakich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, and on and on and on.

In The Atlantic‘s current fiction issue, writer Richard Bausch critiques writing instruction manuals in an essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons”.

“My quarrel,” he writes, “is with the implication in the how-to books market that one can merely read them to find the magic secret for writing well enough to publish.”

Bausch argues the writer’s manuals promote being a writer without the need to do the work. He tells a story of a student who “with great pride” said “he had ‘over a hundred books’ in his library — I [Bausch] could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books . . . . He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role.”

The argument is similar to the one John Aldridge makes in Talents and Technicians, a critique of MFA writing programs. Aldridge argued that MFA programs created cookie-cutter writers whose prose was so similar the only difference was the byline. The writing programs, Aldridge said, produced writers for the sake of being writers. These writers didn’t come from reading other writers; it came writing in the writing programs.

Bausch addresses this argument:

I know an assumption exists in certain quarters that writing programs do damage, mostly by causing a so-called cookie-cutter effect, everyone sounding the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and you need only look at the work to know it. Allan Gurganus, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, and I were all at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at roughly the same time. Allan and I had classes together. We hung out. I went horseback riding with Jane Smiley . . . and we talked about everything under the sun, including writing

You would have trouble finding four writers who are more different.

If a cookie-cutter effect ever develops, it will come from people keeping to the manuals and how-to books.

And writing that comes from those whose reading is confined to the how-to books is cramped and obvious.

My experience with how-to books has, overall, been decent. I don’t view them as negative, cookie-cutter mills. Bausch says there are classics in the genre such as Gardner’s Art of Fiction. These books, he says, deal with the “aesthetics of the task.” But, I’ve never viewed the manuals as substitutes for reading and learning to write from reading novels, essays, poems or plays.

Bausch says the manuals steer would-be writers away from reading and learning from other writers. Reading the manuals has helped me become a better reader, even better, I think than the reading I did in graduate school. I read deeply and learned to analyze texts in grad school, but  much of that analysis was fueled with theory.

After reading a manual I could go back to the books I loved and pick up on the techniques the manuals had taught. I could see what was bad and what was good. Those books also introduced me to writers such as Bausch and Boyle.

The other thing I learned from were the exercises and prompts. I learned to apply the techniques, and I would practice the techniques, not only at home, but at work when I was writing feature stories. Those exercises were important, too, because they got me to place ass in chair and write.

Of course, the manuals are full of the standards: write what you know; use active voice; show, don’t tell.

But many also go beyond those standards with practical advice like considering journalism as a way to make a living and actively write.

Still, the manuals won’t make you a writer, any more than an MFA program. They can only give you a tiny amount of instruction. Some of it useful, some of it trash.