Monday, July 21, 2014

Can you learn to write by reading about it?

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time? Sell it to us.

by Meredith Cole

I admit that one of my time honored procrastination technique is to read books about writing. I tell myself it's to get myself unstuck, or to see if I want to use a new book with the class I'm teaching this fall, but really it's because I'm avoiding actually getting some work done. Occasionally I find a wonderful nugget in a writing book that does help me get unstuck or helps me look at writing in a new way, and then that book becomes a keeper.

Although I recommend On Writing by Stephen King (you think writing is hard? Try doing it when you're in constant pain...) and You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts (a short helpful book that is now available again as an ebook) to my mystery classes, my favorite writing book of all time is still Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Two big and valuable pieces of advice that Lamott gives: Take a project one step at a time and try not to panic about how big it is when you start. Tell yourself you only have to write some tiny amount of words or just fill up a little square on the screen if you're reluctant to get started. And then let yourself write terrible first drafts. The second is something I recommend quite a bit. I've seen far too many promising writers get stuck in an eddy where they perpetually write and rewrite their first chapter ad nauseum and never finish their book. This can sadly go on for years.

Although I don't consult Bird by Bird much these days, I recommend it to beginning writers because she addresses some of the problems we all have when we try out something new. Adults who are accustomed to dashing off an email or writing a contract with no problems suddenly find themselves paralyzed at the idea of making something up and writing something as large as a novel. For me, it was transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, and not having the least idea how to begin--just knowing that every sentence I wrote was terrible compared to what I was used to reading in published books. But eventually I realized that I had to write a terrible first draft in order to eventually get a polished and wonderful final draft.

Oh--and I would be remiss not to mention a book I contributed to: Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot which is, of course, chock full of lots of great advice. And great for when you're procrastinating on your next project.


Paul D. Marks said...

Meredith, I think your book recommendations are all good ones. And I especially agree re: Lamott's 2nd point is a good one. People spend too much time rewriting and writing. And, while rewriting is important, for the most part, it should come later. Good piece.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks Paul! I'm really relieved I don't have to go on Friday this week after everyone picks their favorite writing books... I'm sure we all have similar ones.

Susan C Shea said...

Ah, you named my favorite book on writing, as much for general inspiration and support as for specifics. Bird by Bird is a treasure that I always have handy. Roberts' book is right on target for mysteries - like one of her workshops. David Corbett's new book challenges me to go deeper and James Frey's series drive home some basics too easily forgotten. I wish I absorbed more from them than I do!

Meredith Cole said...

I haven't read David Corbett's book yet--I'll have to check it out, Susan!

Bettylouise said...

I am not a writer but learned many things while I read. I like mysteries as they usually tell about an area or some craft. There are so many good books that I don't have a favorite.