I don’t think writers should abandon reading in their genre, but I love reading books about writing.
Photo by ShutterHacks (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.
I’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Birdand Stephen King’s On Writing. I learned the writing craft from books about writing nonfiction and fiction, plays and poetry, and even screenwriting (by the way, if you want to write for the silver screen, Save the Catis the essential guide).
But yesterday, I finished the best book about writing I’ve ever read.
Finding the Best Writing Book
I ran across Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, in the syllabus of a Stanford writing class and thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Stanford, I might as well skim it.”
Have you ever read a book that makes you realize how little you actually know about a subject? I thought I knew something about the writing craft. After all, I’ve been studying it since I was seventeen and writing about it on this blog for the last two years.
This book made me realize how much more I have to learn.
Here are three reasons I loved Stephen Koch’s A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:
1. Write Your Story in One Sitting
John Steinbeck said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.”
When writing a story, whether a short story a story in a novel, write the first draft in one sitting, says Koch. I’ve heard the rule to write your first draft quickly, but honestly, I’d never thought of applying this advice to short stories. This works because it harnesses the natural storyteller in you. Every storyteller hates to get cut off before she gets to finish telling her story, and you will write faster and longer in order to get the end.
The day after reading this advice, I wrote a 2,000 word story. I normally write very slowly, rarely more than 1,000 words a day, but the next day I wrote a 3,000 word story. Same with the next. Finally, on the fourth day, I wrote a 3,500 word story that I’ve been trying to write for two months.
2. Quotes… Hundreds of Quotes
Nearly every writing book has an authority problem. “That’s how you write, but who are you anyway?” Koch was a professor at Columbia University, one of the country’s top writing programs, but he rarely stands on his own authority. Instead, he lets the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed authors in the 20th century speak about the craft themselves, filling the book with hundreds of quotes from dozens of authors.
I especially liked when he pitted these authors against each other, showing how they disagreed, for example, about point of view or how to write a first draft. It was like being in a giant conversation—one that occasionally broke out into arguments—with the best writers of the century.
Here are just a few writers involved in the conversation: Michael Crichton, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, John Le Carré, Truman, Capote, John Gardner, and Mark Twain.
3. Fast Drafts, Slow Drafts
“As we have said, you may be someone who does your first draft very quickly,” says Koch. “If that is true, your second draft should probably be slow moving…. If the one draft is fast and reckless, the next should probably be slow and painstaking.”
Writing quickly gives confidence and allows you to make daring experiments and intuitive leaps. Writing slowly, on the other hand, allows you to thoroughly define your characters and their voices, to develop the setting, and fill in holes in the plot.
Most professional writers, Koch explains, write three drafts. The first draft is usually fast, though not always. Some writers, Gabriel García Márquez, for example, write very slow, complicated first drafts, full of tangents and false starts. For these writers, a fast second draft can unify the story and bring vitality to the prose. For fast first drafters, a slow, laborious second draft brings depth and subtly. Fast draft, slow draft; slow draft, fast draft: a good practice.
A Guide to Fiction
Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop isn’t one author’s guide to creative writing. As I mentioned before, it’s a conversation between the best authors in the world about what it means to write and how to do the job well. If you’re looking for a good writing book, I highly recommend it.
How about you? What is the best book about writing you’ve ever read?
Write a story in one sitting. Write as quickly as you can, and if you get bogged down, just skip that part and move on. Just make sure you get to the end.
When you’re finished with your fast draft, post a section (no more than three paragraphs) the comments section. And if you post be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.
(Note: Some of the links above are affiliate links.)
I'm not sure that any book has ever truly changed my life in the sense of dramatically altering its course, but I can think of one that determined it, and that's Palgrave's Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. It was my mother's book and she read to me from it, as I imagine, in the dark. It was from Palgrave that I learned that literature had a sound, that language mattered more than story, that rhythm haunted the imagination, and that love and grief and loneliness interested me more than any other subject.
A couple of novels that I read in my teens - Middlemarch by George Eliot and Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens - made me want to be a writer. But the only book I can think of that effected a large and immediately felt change was My Secret Life, the Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman (author unknown). I discovered it on my grandparents' bookshelf at the age of 10.
I'd have to choose Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I first read when I was 13. My dad bought it eagerly but gave up on it a few chapters in. My mum had a go then, but found Nabokov's baroque style irritatingly impenetrable. I asked to read it and my parents said absolutely not. I didn't waste my breath arguing. I simply waited till I had the opportunity to whip the distinctive yellow dustwrapper off Lolita and rejacket it with the Catherine Cookson novel I was reading. I spent the next week reading in the bath, in bed, at playtimes, at school. It was a total revelation to me. I hadn't realised you could use language in such a rich and elegant way, and I was amazed at the subject matter. I thought it the most wonderful and exciting book I'd ever read. I realised that literature could be outrageous and mind-stretching and utterly extraordinary.
It would have to be Dr No by Ian Fleming. It was 1967. I was about 12, trapped in the weird and miserable bubble of prep-school life where my experience of sexual desire and violence edging on sadism was largely restricted to my French teacher. The book introduced me to a whole new world. Even the Jamaican setting seemed impossibly exotic.
Forming an outlook on life isn't all beer and skittles. By the time you've wondered what parts of a world view should be instinct or intellect, asked yourself if all perspective isn't just a product of bias and dogma, and then worked out that, in any event, the viewpoint you ended up with is no longer in service, nobody can blame you for seeking strong drink. This was roughly my position when I came upon Lila - Robert Pirsig's follow-up to the 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig continues his philosophical exploration in the form of a yacht journey down the Hudson river, accompanied by an easy woman - though her virtue is also open to argument. Written in everyday language, with searing disrespect for academia, this meandering holiday was a life-changer for me, both as a novel and a thesis.
"When the pupil is ready, the master will appear."
In a yacht. With a prostitute. Or is she?
I was crazy about history from the age of four and a half when I read (to myself) Our Island Story. But I had no precise idea of how to direct this passion until I came across my parents' copy of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, at the age of 14. I had just become Catholic and was attending a convent. I was deeply excited by reading Strachey, especially the essay on Cardinal Manning. What the convent library did contain was the official two volume life of Manning - just the kind of Victorian number Strachey had written to debunk. Immediately I began to compare the two versions with critical zest, beginning to form my own third one: here it is, I thought, the life for me.
I don't remember who wrote the book that changed my life. I don't even remember anything about its plot or characters. But I remember vividly finding a musty old hardback novel called All Dogs Go to Heaven on my grandfather's bookshelf. And I remember weeping - copiously - as I read the book, weeping for my pet dog who had recently died. I also recall my best friend, Asad, coming over and, in response to my "You must read this - it's set in dog heaven", saying, "Why don't we write a book set in dog heaven?" So we did. It was called A Dog's Life, and After. I was 11, and I never stopped writing after that.
I first read Moby-Dick on a bicycle trip round southern Greece. I was 21, on the brink of my last year at university. In the evenings I sat in tavernas writing my diary and reading about Ishmael, Ahab and the white whale. I found it exhilarating - not just the quest, but Melville's language, which was so alive and stirring, with the rhythms and image-richness I already loved in Shakespeare but had never encountered in prose before. I was giddy with it. I kept stopping to lean my bike on harbour walls and stare at the sea, looking for disturbances in the surface of the water.
The Beat Scene didn't change my life, but rather it confirmed it. In the late 50s, I was at Hull University and I had decided to become a poet, but I wasn't quite sure what that involved. In 1960, I came across The Beat Scene. It was made up of poems and interviews from the New York and San Francisco poetry scene at that time. There were well-known poets such as Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg alongside others I hadn't heard of. I realised just how big the world of poetry was. It showed them reading their work aloud to audiences in art studios, cafes, bars - a million miles away from my idea of poetry being something confined to a library. What was I doing in boring old Liverpool when I could be reading at the Gas Light Cafe in Greenwich Village with Diane di Prima?
I read Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot when I was about 19, and it has been decisive in shaping my sense of what faith and ethics are and aren't. It was the first novel I'd read that dealt directly with the Holocaust. It was a novel about mysticism that challenged me profoundly about what I meant by God, and forced me to see as never before the link between the artist and the contemplative - but not in any conventional way, because it also set out as starkly as possible the difference between the holy and the merely good. And it offered an unforgettably frightening picture of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", the evil that comes from dead minds, cliches, lying pieties.
Practically speaking, the book that had most direct influence on me as a writer was Paul Muldoon's volume of poetry Meeting the British. It taught me how to bring my own imaginative territory to bear on politics and history. Or was it the other way round? In any case, The Last King of Scotland was the direct result of that encounter with Muldoon's work. He is a rare bird, extraordinary, and I was fortunate to pluck the most modest of his tail feathers. The danger is, you find yourself ventriloquising him.
The book that changed my life is one of those questions that send me into a panic. Was it the illustrated Kidnapped, The Tales of Robin Hood, the feast of comics, Wizard, Rover, Hotspur, Adventure? The best I can do is to offer the King James Bible. I started to go regularly to the local Anglican church when I was about six and joined the choir. At school there was a morning assembly, which consisted of readings from the Bible and hymns and psalms. Parables, wars, agonies, revelations - the panoply of history, metaphor, ecstatic literature and the words of a great faith seem to have accrued, and a good number of them are still there. It was the sweetest possible learning, because if did not come through as teaching.
Alain de Botton
Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon opened up a whole new way of writing for me. It's a piece of reportage about the 1969 Nasa moon landings, in which Mailer adopts a freewheeling tone that enables him to discuss himself, his recent divorce, fascism in America, race and technology - all with huge intelligence, humour and a crazed energy. The book showed that the barrier between being a novelist and a reporter are in the end rather flexible and that you can take the stuff of ordinary newspaper stories and turn them into something resembling art and philosophy. I couldn't have written my most recent book without this great book as inspiration.
Looking back, I realise that probably the books that had the greatest influence on my imagination and sensibility were the fairy stories that I read as a child.I read them obsessively in my formative years and they introduced me to the idea that literature was transformative and magical. They also, at their heart, convey the message that girls are strong and wise and morally triumphant. The message that real justice always prevails in the end may not be true, but it provided me with a pattern for travelling hopefully through life.
I'm someone who likes to look at footnotes or endnotes first when I pick up a history. This one began, "Bretons are said to be drunken and prone to use their fists or broken glasses or bottles ... Men from the Mediterranean will stab using knives or stilettos." This was Richard Cobb's idea of a report from the archive. This was the bloody and bloody-minded world of his French Revolutionary masterpiece The Police and the People. I had never read anything like Cobb's exercise in total immersion; the historian sunk into the world of ne'er-do-wells, vagrants, informers, runaways, suicidal pregnant girls. It smelled of humanity. That was the kind of history I knew I wanted to write. I still do.
I'll reluctantly limit myself to three: Immanuel Kant's Critique Of Pure Reason in philosophical respects, Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in political respects, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for what literature can mean and do. I first read the latter two when young and although I did not then, and do not now, agree or sympathise with everything in them, they stimulated ideas that have remained permanently significant to me. Kant came later, and although I do not accept most of his arguments, they likewise contributed greatly to the study of some of philosophy's deepest problems. None of them would mean what they do without their connection to dozens of other books that matter to me also.
Reading Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks transformed the way that I understood the exercise of power in western societies, indeed in any society. It remains enormously rich, offering a battery of new concepts. Although written in an elusive style, partly to avoid Mussolini's censors, it is like a treasure trove; each new reading yields fresh insights and a bunch of new thoughts.
I can suggest no better place to start if you want to understand the nature and role of politics and culture. Hegemony, civil society, post-Fordism, passive revolution, organic intellectuals, it's all here and much more besides. Brilliant.
The book that has accompanied me all my life is John Donne's Collected Works. My wife gave me a copy when we got married. I was 20. It fell apart in the jungles of Borneo. But I've always had a copy since and it gives me continuing pleasure and solace.
At junior high school in the US I remember reading a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, about someone who is white and pretends to be black. As a kid living in America in a relatively integrated part of the US, it was an amazing insight into racial discrimination in America.
India changed my life and RK Narayan is a writer who captures what's so fascinating about India in all its difference and pain and complexity of life. I give his wonderful book The Financial Expert to all my banking friends. It's a story about a guy who stands on a box outside a bank and always gives better terms than the bank. He's very nice and very reliable. Then one day he just suddenly disappears, with all the funds.
At the risk of sounding dull and predictable, though those who have heard my radio work may think it's a little late to start worrying about that, the book that changed my life would have to be The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. And it has changed my life twice. When I first read it at university in 1976, the difficulty Holden Caulfield had in fitting into the world mirrored exactly the angst and ennui I felt in those life-changing, full-grant, debt-and-responsibility-free days. When I re-read it 10 years ago I found the hero, and therefore myself, irritatingly self-obsessed and shouted out loud: "For heaven's sake, Holden, grow up!" I took that to mean that I had.
I published my first book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, and then straight afterwards had two children: I was thrilled. But as I patrolled the sandpit or stood beside yet another swing, I also knew a secret despair, at times amounting to panic, that I'd never find my way back to writing. Around then I read Far Away and Long Ago – WH Hudson's intensely evocative 1915 account of his wild Argentine boyhood, which he wrote in London at the age of 74. You might think: nothing very cheering here for the writer by the swing – will I have to wait that long? But his enchanted pampas vibrate so vividly through those pages; the sights, the smells and sounds: the finches in the peach trees, at first "throaty but growing clearer and brighter towards the end ... the effect on the hearing being like that on the sight of rain when the multitudinous falling drops appear as silvery grey lines on the vision." If it is yours, I understood, not only will it wait, it will ripen, growing clearer and brighter. Thirteen years later, I published my first novel, Attachment.
It was the first book I read by myself when I was about six. It made me long for bedtime, even though it was summer and still light outside. The Faraway Tree was buried deep in an enchanted wood, at whose edge lived the children Bessie, Fanny, Jo and later, cousin Dick (in his new PC incarnation unfortunately renamed Rick). One day the children stumble upon a magical tree inhabited by a clutch of fairy folk, among them Moon Face, Silky the fairy, Dame Washalot, the Angry Pixie and the Saucepan Man, a creature rendered deaf as a post because of the constant clang of the saucepans he wears. As with most Enid Blyton books, food is integral to the story, and the children are incessantly eating delicious sweets and biscuits and having picnics. As an immensely greedy child, my plump imagination was on overload due to the graphic descriptions of said feasts, and it was probably my first exposure to food writing, which has stuck with me ever since.
The Enchanted Wood fueled my imagination, appetite (for food and reading), and perhaps most importantly, uncovered a lifelong voracious leaning towards happy endings.
When I was a late teenager, a friend of mine recommended a book called In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki. It examines darkness and shadows in Japanese culture at the turn of the early 20th century. It's a very simple book – a fiction where a traveller experiences numerous cultural encounters, all of which are informed and narrated through his experience with light, or the lack of it. It uses incredibly simple language, but is a very intellectually provocative book. It informed my thoughts on physical beauty in the world – forcing me to question and look at it in a way I had never done before. It has had a direct impact on the way I think about architecture – how you understand and reveal space. My friend never knew what an impact this book had on me – perhaps now they will.
The book that changed my life was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. I read it as a teenager and instantly became completely absorbed by it. It is one of those genius books that eclipses the film, brilliant as that was. I suppose it changed my attitude towards those with mental health problems and the voice of the Native American narrator stayed in my head for a long time afterwards. I read it in a few days, and when I got to the final page was immensely pissed off to discover someone had torn it out ... the torturer. I couldn't "gather" (to borrow a Kate Winslet word), until I'd got my hands on another copy some days later.
I was in my early 20s when I bought Lenny Bruce's How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. I think I mistook it for a self-help book. For me, it became one. Although Lenny Bruce was a standup comedian, the book's influence on me was more to do with my everyday attitudes than my work. I didn't become a comic until about 10 years after I read it. It was Bruce's honesty, his raw openness, that changed my life. I immediately became less guarded about my insecurities, my longings, my secret thoughts. I think it spooked my friends at the time. I'd always loved talking dirty but now I dropped the male bravado and the talk became both dirty and painfully true. When I did finally become a comic, my act was an expression of the mindset I'd developed since reading the book.
I saw the film The Cruel Sea as a schoolboy and didn't realise it was based on a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. But when I was about 13 I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop, and bought it at once. I have probably re-read it roughly once every three years ever since. I believe it to be quite the best work of fiction to come out of either the first or the second world war, and I include Catch-22 and Birdsong in that. Monsarrat's beautiful, thoughtful and sometimes shocking prose inspired me to write. His ability to simultaneously communicate detachment and profound emotional involvement in his story – based on his own harrowing experiences of convoy work during the battle of the Atlantic – is, to use a much overused word these days, awesome. His subtle and gentle revelation, as the novel progresses, of the love that develops between the men aboard ships fighting U-boats and mountainous seas – fights to the death – is deeply moving. I'm currently writing my first novel. If it is one twentieth the work Monsarrat created, I'll be a happy man.