Books On Writing: Part One

A round-up of some of the writing books I’ve read recently.  
1. A Writer’s Workbook: Daily Exercises for the Writing Life by Caroline Sharp (2000)
Full of encouragement and chatty confessions, this book provides a solid introduction to some of the tips and tricks that writers use to get going.  The exercises are mostly designed to take no more than half an hour, and while not all of them were useful for me personally, there are a number that I have been using on a regular basis, such as “Reviews” (pretty self-explanatory), “Conversation Observation” (yes, I spy on you all, mwa ha ha) and “Where Have You Gone”, though seeing as this last one asks you to describe in detail every place you have ever lived, it’ll be a while before I’m done.  The ‘Obstacle’ pages give advice on how to overcome the dreaded writer’s block. 
The overall tone of the book is informal, passionate and ever so slightly earnest, in that peculiarly American way which is very well-meaning, but can sound a bit patronising to British ears.  That aside, the exercises are simple and well thought out, and often yield interesting (if not necessarily publishable) results.
  1. How Novels Work by John Mullan (2006)
Based on his columns for The Guardian, this book is aimed squarely at the book club crowd, but is an interesting read for any avid novel reader.  Avoiding both stodgy literary criticism and any ‘dumbing down’ in his explanations, this is an interesting dissection of the techniques used by both classic and contemporary authors, paying particular attention to the history and development of the novel as a form. 
My only slight gripe is that he does assume that you have either read the novels under discussion or else won’t mind if he gives away every plot twist and surprise ending – if Mullan mentions a novel you think you’d like to read in the future, I highly recommend skipping those pages until you have done so.  Spoiler alerts would’ve been nice, John.
  1. The Creative Writing Coursebook – ed. Julia Bell and Paul Magrs (2001)
 This coursebook grew out of the Creative Writing undergrad course at UEA, and includes exercises used on the programme. It is a much more comprehensive introduction than the Sharp book reviewed above. It is divided into three sections: Gathering, Shaping and Finishing, and within each section there are contributions from highly-regarded authors such as Ali Smith, David Lodge and Patricia Duncker.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is considering taking a Creative Writing course – I worked my way through most of it before starting my MA, and I think it gives you a good introduction to the practice of Creative Writing as a discipline.
  1. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood (2002)
 “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté”
Atwood apparently has this epigram above her desk, which makes me love her a little bit more than I already did. It also sums up her attitude towards being a famous writer.  This book is based on a series of lectures she gave at Cambridge, and there is a conversational tone to the prose that allows her wit to come through in her pithy asides. She explores questions of what it means to be a writer, but steers clear of the pitfalls of pretentiousness and arrogance (she is remarkably self-deprecating, in fact).
A wonderful antidote to all the ‘How To’ books on writing, and one I intend to reread often.  
  1. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge (1992)
 Like Mullan’s book, Lodge’s much acclaimed work is based on a series of articles, and also like Mullan, he focuses in on particular authors and texts to give close readings which illustrate various aspects of classic and modern literature. As A.S. Byatt says on the back cover, it is “a book for dipping” – there are 50 short chapters on topics ranging from teenage skaz (J.D Salinger) to weather (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens) to metafiction (John Barth).
I have to admit that I personally find Lodge a bit dry at times, and I am not entirely sure that we share the same sense of humour, but this is an instructive and accessible book.
  1. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
 Subtitled A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (that’d be me, then) this book is based on one of the fundamental principles of writing: a good writer is an avid reader. The oh-so-aptly named Prose believes absolutely that the two go hand-in-hand, arguing that “a close reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.” She also reiterates a point that has been stressed on our MA course – that it is important read slowly (advice that is all very well, but might have to be heeded once the course is over and the mountain of books on my bedside table becomes non-compulsory reading once more).
As an English teacher, I was a fan of her emphasis on the importance of good grammar, and as a writer, I was pleased to see her debunk some of the more didactic rules of writing, notably the cliché ‘show, don’t tell.’ But this book isn’t only for aspiring writers; anyone who is interested in literature will take something away from it.
  1. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
 Say what you like about Stephen King, the man knows how to get a book written. As an arch-procrastinator, any tips that will help me actually sit down and write are always appreciated. With that in mind, even though I have only read one or two of King’s books, I was keen to see what he had to say.
King certainly has a very disciplined approach: he “generously” suggests a starting goal of 1,000 words a day and four to six hours of reading and writing, which even at the moment is something I only achieve on a really, really good day. I do like his analogy of writing with the door closed and rewriting with the door open – more and more I am realising that writing and editing are two very different halves of a writing life, equally important, but calling for completely different skills (more on this in the next review).
There is plenty of good, basic advice in this book; I saw a review which described it as ‘the equivalent of Delia’s How To Cook,’ which sums up it nicely. However, the pally tone in which it is delivered may grate – see my fellow MA-er Benjamin Judge’s harsh-but-fair take on King’s book at – and it is hard to take as gospel the word of a writer whose idea of a complete re-edit is to print out the first draft and make a few minor changes with a felt tip.
  1. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934)
 Of all the books on writing reviewed here, this classic text was the one that had the most impact on me. It is encouraging without being patronising, and startlingly insightful, articulating what it means to be a writer in ways that, to me at least, made absolute sense. I also loved the old-fashioned tone: I feel like I can picture Dorothea in her horn-rimmed glasses, dispensing delightful advice such as this, for coffee addicts:
If you have an ingrained habit of putting off everything until after you have had your morning coffee, buy a thermos bottle and fill it at night. This will thwart your wily unconscious in the neatest fashion. You will have no excuse to postpone work while you wait for your stimulant.
Most of the advice she gives is much less ‘prosaic’, however, and her explanation of the ‘dual personality’ of the writer allows for a real sense of how to approach the very different disciplines of writing the first draft and returning to edit it. She explores the importance of the unconscious mind, along with ideas of what we now term ‘mindfulness,’ which can be an incredibly useful tool for a writer. The technique of ‘morning pages’ – writing two or three pages as soon as you wake up – has also proved invaluable for me.
I would definitely recommend this book to all aspiring writers, though I did wonder how male writers would react to it – boys, if any of you have read this, let me know what you thought!
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? And if you have any suggestions for other books on writing, let me know.

February 2012 Reading: Diaries of a Dead African, The Night Watch, An Elegy for Easterly, GB84, Purple Hibiscus

Diaries of a Dead African by Chuma Nwokolo Jr. (2003)

Given its title, I was surprised by just how funny this book is. Tracing the tales of Meme and his two sons, Calamatus and Abel, who each in succession find the previous diaries, Diaries of a Dead African is a merciless comedy, which doesn’t shy away from the problems faced by its Nigerian protagonists, but nor does it present them as mere victims. Calama’s involvement in the 419 scams is nicely nuanced, and the letters he writes are increasingly inventive and amusing – his section reminded me of another Nigerian novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, which deals with the same theme, and is also well worth reading.

For me, the final section was the most interesting, probably because Abel is an aspiring writer, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder: “Why won’t publishers take a chance on me? Must everybody write like Chinua Achebe? I like to write about Tortoises. That is how I am.” His (partly) unwitting involvement in politics brings yet another dimension to a book that functions on many levels, a book that (when I eventually have time for such things) I will definitely reread. Nwokolo himself is a deeply impressive man, and his website is well worth checking out:
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (2006)
I just read a review of Waters’ latest novel, The Little Stranger (which I haven’t read yet – anyone who has, let me know what you thought of it) in which the reviewer mused “perhaps it was a mistake to lose the lesbians”. Luckily, they are out in force in The Night Watch. The 1940s setting, which is beautifully evoked, allows for an interesting exploration of the obstacles, and, arguably, increasing freedoms, encountered by lesbians, and indeed by everyone, during World War Two. I’ve decided to write about Waters for my MA essay, which I have just started doing the research for, but I won’t bore you by getting all geeky about it here.

Instead, I will just say that I found The Night Watch a refreshing change from some of the more ‘heavyweight’ stuff we’ve had to read for the course (yes, Sebald, I’m talking about you) – another reminder of the fact that what I am really looking for in a novel is a cracking story and great characters. Sue me. The reverse chronology of the novel (the three sections move backwards in time from 1947) worked for me, although it does create a lack of resolution at the end of the novel which some may find unsatisfying.
  An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah (2009)
This collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe manages to be scathing, cynical, compassionate and funny all at the same time. It gave me a jolt, made me realise how little thought I have given to the situation in Zimbabwe since it dropped out of the news. These thirteen stories are laced with the reality of living with political corruption, economic turmoil and an AIDS epidemic (the latter brought to the fore even by the title of the story ‘The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom’) but the tone is far from didactic or moralizing, and the characters are much more than mere symbols. 

The spectre of death, as suggested by the collection’s title, looms as large as the ever-present hyperinflation in many of the stories, but there is also gentle humour and a quotidian normality that grounds the stories in everyday life. ‘Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros’ is a lovely twist on the scams mentioned in my first review, and ‘The Negociated Settlement’ is an understated and complex depiction of a marriage that may or may not be breaking down. Gappah is a writer I will definitely be keeping an eye on; luckily she has a blog, too, so that makes things easier:
GB84 by David Peace (2004)
Another MA read, and, in all honesty, another struggle to get through to the end. Peace’s novel is a week-by-week account of the Miners’ Strikes, told with such intensity that reading it becomes an almost physical act. There are two narratives running parallel to each other – I don’t know if this is the done thing, but I read the ‘main’ one through to the end and then went back and read the second, shorter, and, for me at least, more accessible, narrative. I’d be interested to know if anyone read both simultaneously, and if that added anything. Peace’s novel has been described as ‘the literary equivalent of the epic events it commemorates’ (Guardian review), and I definitely felt as if I had ‘lived through’ something on finishing the book, rather than just read a novel. I’m not sure I will be reading more of Peace’s work, though: I feel like ‘I survived’ isn’t the best reaction to have to a book.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004)
Having read Half of a Yellow Sun a while back, which was one of the best books I have read in a long time, I thought I would go back to Adichie’s first novel. It tells the story, in the first person, of fifteen year old Kambili, daughter of a wealthy and respected Nigerian businessman who is a tyrant and religious fanatic at home. This is a much quieter, more subdued novel than Half of a Yellow Sun, much more domestic in its themes, and I have to admit, I found the main character frustratingly passive. Her hero-worship of her father in particular made me side with the other characters in the novel, those who take a more critical view, such as her brother Jaja and her auntie Ifeoma, and I found myself wanting to hear them speak rather than Kambili. 

Having said that, the story is extremely well-told (like Waters, Adichie plays around with the chronology, so that we are presented with four sections: ‘Palm Sunday’, ‘Before Palm Sunday’, ‘After Palm Sunday’ and ‘The Present’) and her language is just the sort of prose I enjoy, clean without being too spare, descriptive without being overwritten. Her book of short stories, The Thing Around My Neck, arrived from Amazon today – I’m looking forward to seeing what Adichie does with the short story form.