Tools of the Trade

Always a pile. Always.

If you’re like me, friends, the only thing you like more than writing is reading about writing.  In fact, sometimes that’s actually preferable: you can feel connected to your art without actually facing the horror of trying to create some.  Since I started working in book retail, I’ve read and purchased dozens of books on writing craft, and my product knowledge on the genre is actually one of my lesser known gifts ar work. As the folks over at Flashlight Reviews  have recently corralled what they consider the best books on writing, I thought I would share five of my own. Since I only recognize two on that list and have read none.

Thing is, there’s two approaches to a book on writing craft: a nuts and bolts how-to, filled with practical points and techniques to remember; and a more touchy feely, granola, dirty hippy, ‘get in touch with your artist’s spirit’ type of book. They both have their place, and I’ll be recommending titles from both styles, but in the interest of full disclosure you should know I have a strong preference for the former variety.  Shall we?

The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante
The one book I recommend to people more than anyone. Covering both fiction and narrative nonfiction, the book deals with a topic per chapter, from plot to dialogue to character. Just like every other writing book. But this book does a couple of things better than any other book I’ve seen: it has a less stringent focus on exercises, and it includes full texts. I don’t like writing books that want to kick me out and send me off to do something and come back to it later. I want a book to let me consume it, sit with it for a while, and then do exercises if I want to. Frankly, I’m kind of down on exercises as it is, since I don’t like being told what to write when it comes to fiction.

Also, a big problem with writing books is the way they tell you how writer X does something right, then presents a passage from the story in question, pulled out of context from the rest of the story. Which does the job, but wouldn’t it be better to have the full story in front of you? If you’re telling me what an amazing job Flannery O’Connor does characterizing the Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, is it better to give me a snapshot, or the whole story? I understand this is likely a copyright issue, excerpts under a certain length being exempt from royalty payments. But TMOAS opens the purse, and pays for the reprint rights. So if LaPlante is discussing how Cheever sprinkles details throughout ‘The Swimmer’, you’ll be able to see for yourself and read the story at the end of the chapter, with a trio of review questions to help you crystallize in your mind what the story excels at. Simply the best book you can get on the technical aspects.

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
There are few writers I respect more than Charles Baxter [as a glance at the last line of my Bio page will illustrate]. He is a fantastic novelist, but his essays might be even better. This collection is the book that broke me head open to what fiction could really do far more than my university studies. In pieces both illuminating and confrontational, Baxter opens up the face of fiction, and shows you the gears turning inside, when done right. I’ve carried his pieces on narrative ‘echoes’ and his argument against epiphanies in the back of my head for three years. A phenomenal collection.

The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
Few books discuss in any detail what you should consider in that terrifying moment once you finish your first draft, once all your fragile ideas are out on the page, ill-formed and sketchy. Bell, a former Random House editor, offers numerous tips and techniques for making a writer into a competent self-editor. Because the better an editor you are, the better your work looks when it gets into someone else’s hands. Includes wonderful examples from Max Perkins’ work as editor of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and how his ideas and suggestions made a good book into a classic.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The first book on writing I ever purchased, when I was still living in Kingston and thinking I might want to find out if I still had any of the talent people thought I had. This book probably impacted my writing development more than I realize, in the sense that it reminded me how important reading is, and flagged the sort of things I should pay attention to when I dip into my favourite authors looking for inspiration.

The Secret Miracle edited by Daniel Alarcon
My latest purchase, and so cool I don’t even need to finish reading it to recommend it. It was love at first sight when I saw the following Borges quote prefacing the introduction:

…like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.

Yeah, Jorge had my number on that one.

In a perfect world, all I would do with my life is work with 826 National, a miracle of a nonprofit organization that tutors students from 6-18 in expository and creative writing. To help finance their operations, they build superhero supply stores and Bigfoot Research Institutes. Love.

One of the things they do is gather our favourite authors in a room to have their brains picked by the students, and the folks at 826 realized that folks like you and me might want to see what they had to say. So they made a book, collecting replies from just over fifty authors, organized into what reads like the ultimate roundtable of contemporary novelists. Like who? Like Michael Chabon. And Jonathan Lethem. And Stephen King. And Rick Moody. And Anne Enright. And Haruki f**king Murakami.

Come one, people, when Murakami attaches himself to a project, you know it’s worth your money. He hates talking about process. This book is my new ‘warm-up’, the thing I read for 20 minutes or so before the work starts.

So that’s them. I could easily give you another ten [John Gardner, John Dufresne, James Wood, etc], but this will start you. If the public clamors for more, I’ll do a follow-up.

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