We are pleased to welcome Lou Freshwater to our Tuesday Serial site with a series of two posts. Lou is a writer, poet and freelance editor we have had the pleasure to come to know through the #FridayFlash community. We hope that you enjoy her posts and find some way to incorporate these insights into your writing. Welcome, Lou!
This is the first of two posts in which I will be relaying some of the inspiration and insight that I have gained from reading books about writing. These insights are timeless and the best part? They apply no matter what sort of fiction you are writing – poetry, short stories, serial stories, novels.
In this first post, I will focus on two books which deal with fiction writing. Although they are very different, they have both been helpful and a joy to read. Next week we will take a turn toward poetry, and we will explore some of the ways a fiction-writer can mine gold from books on poetry. Plus, I’ll also have a few more bonus titles to suggest as well.
Although I don’t believe a book alone can make someone a good writer, a book most certainly can help someone become a better writer and it can take their work to another level if they are willing to apply what they learn and practice it. Because anyone who has the blessing (or curse, depending on the day) of being a born-writer not only can learn but should learn from others on how to improve craft. And I believe this process should never stop, because if we look to our greatest writers they have all spoken about never being good enough and they were always trying to learn from those they admire.
I have read quite a few books on writing, and I think I can honestly say I have gained insight from each of them. But I want to talk about the ones which fundamentally changed something about the way I see my writing as well as the works I admire.
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills
When I read Hills’ book, I was new to both literature and writing, and I had initially reached that crisis point which still hits from time to time: Why should I bother writing when everything has already been said so perfectly by these amazing men and women who came before me? But within the first few pages of Hills’ book, I came across this quote:
You have to see everything in a way that’s not just accurate but peculiar – that’s all, just have an originality of perception and utterance.
Okay, I thought, peculiar I have and that I will cling to. This kind of validation ends up being why Hills is my first recommendation to anyone who asks, “What writing book should I read?” But Hills doesn’t simply give you platitudes and encouragement, he walks you through plot, character, point of view, and structure. Yet he does it in ways that will likely provide you with more than a few epiphanies, no matter how long you’ve been writing. In one chapter he talks about ‘The Inevitability of Retrospect’ in which he describes how the action of story progresses, and he brilliantly uses a diagram of a leaf with each vein forking in a new direction just as your story does. The last thing I’ll say about this book is that even though it concentrates on the short story, Hills compares the short story with the novel throughout, and in truth I found this book to be about storytelling in particular and the wisdom contained therein can all be applied to any story you are crafting.
The next book is On Writing by Stephen King.
The first thing I love about this writing book is that it is part writing advice and part auto-biography of a writer. King talks about how he became inspired to write, and the entire book is woven with story craft as well as a writer telling the reader about his own personal journey. Not only do I like the fact that this book is not academic, but it would be just plain silly to ignore the advice of a writer who is so successful at…making money! Not that making money validates you as a writer, but I’m not sure I’ve met a writer who would turn down the possibility of being able to earn a living doing what they are passionate about. King also deals with authenticity, which for me is number one on the list of what makes writing great. Here is a quote which I think illuminates the tone of King’s book:
“We’ve covered some basic aspects of good storytelling, all of which return to the same core ideas: that practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and that honesty is indispensable.”
And there you have it, from a wildly successful author: Be honest, and practice.
So I’ll turn it over to you: What books on writing have you found to be particularly helpful?
What nuggets of wisdom have you gained from them?
Do you prefer a more traditional book on the mechanics of writing, or a book like King’s which blends story with advice?
About Lou: Lou Freshwater loves literature (American in particular) and Existential philosophy, but not as much as she loves spicy food and the Delta Blues. She considers herself to be a life-long student of these and other things. She wrote a screenplay long ago, and she writes poetry and fiction at her blog and at Fictionaut. Her creative work has been published in numerous journals, and she has also published an essay on the Existentialism of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the Arthur Miller Journal. Her freelance writing and editing site is Not On A Map.
On Writing is probably the best book I've ever read on the craft. He has the nuts and bolts stuff, but then has the emotional, stick-with-it encouragement piece,too. King is so blatant — when he talks about being a coke addict and how it affected his writing blows me away. Peace…
Thanks, Linda. It is a great book. You should take look at the Hills book if you haven't already. I think you would like it.
Great post. On Writing is terrific, very accessible and I too loved the openness and autobiographical element. My only beef, he gets a bit prescriptive at the end saying you shouldn't plot out your books but go into the forest and find your way. I just don't agree with that. There are some writers who work it out as they go, and others who need to know the end point and fill in the detail en route. But that's a minor quibble, otherwise it's a great book.
Another really excellent read is "Bird by Bird" by Anne Le Mott, wise, witty and very encouraging!