Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Writing About Writing About...

by Sean Chercover

When I was very young, my mother worked as a dialect coach. Mom is from Atlanta, had majored in Theatre at the University of Georgia, and was a stage and television actress before she had children. So whenever a Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman play was being staged in Toronto, they'd call in my mom to teach the actors how to talk Southern.

I remember, as a little boy, spending the day up in the darkened balcony, watching actors on the bright stage as they worked on their lines and blocking with the director, and of course on their accents with Mom. As rehearsals progressed, the stage began to morph into a set, with furniture and props added, and flats painted like the walls of a living room. And the actors morphed too, as they developed their characters with distinct body language and costumes and makeup.

It was magic.

When I grew a little older, I'd sit with the script and read along, as the actors rehearsed. And I'd listen to the actors complain when a line just didn't 'ring true' for them. Of course, you didn't mess with the script, so the director would work with the actors to try and find 'the truth' buried in the words, so they could perform the line with conviction.

In 1978, my mom started working as a scriptwriter in the television industry. She would sometimes call me into the living room for a "story conference" and ask for my input on a script she was writing. She'd explain the characters and the scene, and ask what I thought the characters might do in that situation.

At the time, I was of course pleased that Mom treated me like a grown-up and valued my opinion. But looking back, I realize what an amazing thing it was to grow up in such an environment, with such a Mom.

She also subscribed to Writer's Digest, and I started reading the fiction column around that time. The fiction columnist at WD in those days was Lawrence Block.

Lawrence Block! Can you believe my luck?

Block's WD columns are collected in two books, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB. If you haven't read them, you should. He also wrote an excellent book called WRITING THE NOVEL, FROM PLOT TO PRINT. The "print" part of the book is a little dated, as the industry has changed greatly since 1979, but the writing stuff is as valuable as ever. Still in print, and well worth reading.

Anyway, it was the first "book about how to write a book" that I ever read. And I must confess, I've been reading books about how to write books ever since.

The funny thing is, I think the best way to learn to write fiction is (as Stephen King says in his terrific ON WRITING): write a lot and read a lot. He means, of course, read a lot of fiction - not read a lot of books about how to write books.

Reading books about how to write books often becomes a procrastination tool. You read a book about how to write a book, and you tell yourself that you are working on your craft. But unless your ass is in the chair and your fingers are on the keyboard, you are not working on your craft. In most cases, you can learn more if you dedicate your reading time to reading great fiction.

That said, I do believe I have gained a great deal from some of those books about how to write books. Some offer mostly inspiration, while others roll up their sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of writing technique. The vast majority are eminently forgettable, but here are a few that have stuck with me over the years:

This is actually a book about writing a play, not about writing a book. But it is a classic in the field for good reason, and most of it is directly applicable to writing a novel. And it nails character development and human conflict in dialogue like no other.

ON WRITING, by Eudora Welty
I love Eudora Welty's fiction. Love, love, love it. ON WRITING is a collection of her essays on both the craft and philosophy of fiction writing, written from 1943 to 1979. A mere 106 pages, with gems on every page.

A roll-up-your-sleeves volume of writing techniques and strategies, it is impossible to read this book and not improve your craft. Yeah, Stein is often dismissive of "commercial" writing techniques, but he was James Baldwin's editor, so just shut up and read this.

IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, by Brenda Ueland
This slim volume is more inspiration and philosophy than technique (although there's valuable craft stuff in here, too). Ueland writes beautifully about writing, and it has stuck with me for many years. And the chapter, "Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing," is worth the price of admission, alone.

ON WRITING, by Stephen King
Probably the best "book about writing a book" that I've read to date. The first half is a literary memoir of sorts, the second half is nuts-and-bolts fiction writing stuff. Great book.

Those are some of my favorites. Now I'd love to hear some of yours, since I still haven't broken my addiction to books about writing books...

Oh, and one more thing: My mom is one of my first-readers, and now we have "story conferences" about my work. Pretty cool, how things come full circle, isn't it?


Libby Fischer said...

Very cool, Sean. Your mother knew how to light a creative spark. She must be very proud.

My favorite books on writing include the King book. I also like Francine Prose's HOW TO READ LIKE A WRITER. It's a terrific amalgam of craft, technique, and long excerpts that show what she's teaching.

Also like Carolyn Wheat's KILLER FICTION... and for inspiration, Annie Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD.

Jamie Freveletti said...

What a great mom! Mine was an actress and jazz singer--they seem to really value creativity, don't they?
My favorite book on writing is "Making a literary life" by Carolyn See. Funny.

David said...

Nice, Sean. Your mom sounds really cool.

I found that I really like listening to the audio book of King's "On Writing." Hearing King read it himself really makes it feel like you're sitting and listening while he just chats about creating fiction. Great for the car.

Gerald So said...

The book on writing that has meant the most to me is THE ART OF FICTION: NOTES ON CRAFT FOR YOUNG WRITERS by John Gardner (Raymond Carver's teacher, not the former James Bond novelist). Gardner had a unique understanding of the practical and inspirational aspects of process. My only caveat is the subtitle, For Young Writers, is misleading. I bought the book in ninth grade, but didn't fully appreciate it until graduate school.

Dana King said...

I've read several of the books mentioned and gotten benefits from all of them. One that I rarely see mentioned is SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Dave King (no relation) and Renni Browne. Easy and fun to read, lots of practical, no-nonsense advice. I look at it once a project.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Sean. I read the two Block collections you mentioned, and they were inspiring. Another good one I've recently finished is "Plot & Structure" by James Scott Bell. Highly recommended, but not, as you say, as a substitute for putting your ass in the chair and your hands on the keyboard.

David Heinzmann said...

Now that's a writer's childhood. Really nice. I'll mention a book that's sort of on topic: Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees. It's an editor's perspective on publishing for writers. I forget who recommended it to me, but it's a very gentle and encouraging book. It won't teach you how to write, but it could help you hang on to your faith.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

It's technically about non-fiction, but William Zinnser's ON WRITING WELL is the best book about the nuts and bolts of good writing that I know. I read parts of it every year, but the world would be a better place if everyone would read it just once.

Jamie said...

It's posts like this that reassure me I'm not alone when it comes to reading about writing. James Wood - How Fiction Works - is a good read, as is EM Forster's Aspects of The Novel. George Orwell also wrote a great little essay called "why I write".

Marisa Moura said...

Muita Sorte! Mais importante é compartilhar com outros autores essa experiência de pensar sobre o texto.
Prazer em conhecer seu trabalho.
Marisa Moura da Página da Cultura, Agência Literária no Brasil

Steerpike said...

Great post, Sean. The Art of Dramatic Writing and On Writing are two favorite resources of mine as well. I'll be sure to check some of the others out - I wasn't familiar with all of them.


Michael Dymmoch said...

Wonderful post, Sean.

I would also recommend Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit and Rewrite by Theodore A. Rees Cheney (Writer’s Digest Books, 1983), a nuts & bolts book on revision.

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks so much for the recommendations, guys! I will check them out.

Kevin - I agree, ON WRITING WELL is essential reading - I didn't include it because it claims to be aimed at non-fiction, but like you, I refer to it often, and it applies to fiction as well. Great book.

Lori said...

Two favorites, though very different: Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott and The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.

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