Sunday, August 1, 2010

How-To-Write Books

The annual fiction issue of THE ATLANTIC contains, along with fiction, an essay by Richard Bausch called "How To Write in 700 Easy Lessons," about how-to-write books. Basically, Bausch is agin' 'em. He presents a few spurious arguments, one confused one, and one good one. As someone who has written three such books, I was very interested in this article, although I don't agree with much of it.

One spurious argument seems to be that reading such books produces "cookie-cutter stories" all written to formula. That may be true of some how-to-write books, but many of them (including mine) do not present plot formula but, rather, suggestions for improving prose or characterization or foreshadowing or other aspects of craft. What confuses Bausch's argument is that he also praises books "with essays about craft and critical analysis of examples of it...like John Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION." Well, in my experience, most such how-to books (including mine) do just that.

Bausch also dismisses all genre fiction as "harmless escapism" (one wonders if he's read Paolo Bacigalupi). This did not build my confidence in his acumen.

However, he does make one strong argument, although it only applies to some writers. Bausch maintains that many would-be writers read how-to books instead of great fiction. He says, "My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you need if you want to write." I agree with part of this: reading fiction extensively and constantly is essential to becoming a writer. But I also maintain that reading a few good how-to books can sharpen your awareness of craft. Just remember they are a side dish, not the entree.

And Richard Bausch -- read some good science fiction.

10 comments:

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Let's never forget the wise words of Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature:

"The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair."

TheOFloinn said...

Bausch also dismisses all genre fiction as "harmless escapism"

In one of those weird coincidences which web browsers generate, I saw this shortly after I read that.

We tend to think of Shakespeare as high-brow art. What we have difficulty remembering is that this is an accident of how most people are exposed to Shakespeare, and the company lovers of Shakespeare keep. - Brandon Watson

http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2010/07/on-symptom-of-deteriorating-artistic.html

Joe Iriarte said...

I think it's ridiculous to imagine that those who read books on craft by and large don't read actual fiction. We want to write fiction because we love *consuming* it. But I think it often takes more than reading great fiction to learn to write it--and I say this as someone who made the ultimate mistake of majoring in literature because I wanted to be a writer.

Writing salable fiction is about so much more than story ideas and clean prose. There are little tidbits that are hard to see when you read because they are invisible--as they're supposed to be--when you're caught up in the spell of the writer. And there's also learning what *not* to do. I've been reading and trying to write forever, but it's only in the last couple of years that I've learned about some of the things that make a narrative seem amateurish even when you're a decent writer. Overuse of "to-be" verbs. Overuse of past present. Junk words like "just" and "could" and "that." Repeating personal stock-phrases over and over. It would be hard to learn about this from reading the work of someone who's *not* doing these things. It was far easier to see it pointed out in blogs and books of craft and look at my own writing and say, yeah, you've got me there.

Joe Iriarte said...

Also, I bet you a dollar Bausch would contend that Bacigalupi is not a genre writer. That seems to be what literary snobs do whenever they accidentally like something from the one of the genre ghettos--they appropriate them. I've noticed that I can't find Samuel Delaney, Michael Chabon, or Audrey Niffenegger on the science fiction shelves of *my* local bookstores.

TheOFloinn said...

I can't find Samuel Delaney, Michael Chabon, or Audrey Niffenegger on the science fiction shelves of *my* local bookstores.

Though perhaps you may find their books?

* rimshot*

Nancy Kress said...

joe-- You make some good points.

But I think I DID see Chip Delaney crouching behind an easy chair at Borders....

秀李李迪秀李李迪 said...

Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key to it.................................................

Joe Iriarte said...

*laugh*

Metonymy FTW? ;)

Todd said...

I read Bausch's essay shortly after it came out, and found it interesting that his critique of writing manuals mirrored critiques of MFA programs.

Manuals, to me, help me look at the fiction I'm reading and writing with a writer's eye rather than a reader's eye.

qiihoskeh said...

Nancy--he always disguises himself as a computer.