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.

August 2011 Reading: The Blind Assassin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Norwegian Wood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
I recently met up with a university friend who asked what I was reading at the moment.  When I told him I was reading Margaret Atwood (the subject of my final year dissertation) he raised an eyebrow in disbelief.  “Still?”
It’s true: in many ways, I haven’t moved on from my twenty year old self: I still drink too much at parties, live mostly off my overdraft, refuse to dress like an adult (see recent purchase of Pinocchio necklace) and am about to enter once more into full time studenthood.  And yes, I’m still reading Margaret Atwood.  Yet oddly enough, my fascination with her work isn’t based on pure enjoyment – which is probably why I felt able to write a critical dissertation on her, now I come to think of it.  What interests me about Atwood is the sense of the craft of writing, the emphasis on how a novel is put together rather than the story that is being told.  In The Blind Assassin, the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel structure repeatedly draws attention to the story as narrative, as does the fact that we have an unreliable first person narrator.  I find this really interesting, but it also has the effect of distancing us from the characters.  Iris Chase, the elderly narrator of the story, which revolves around her sister Laura’s death, often sounds suspiciously like Atwood herself:
            “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read […] You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand, you must see your left hand erasing it.”
This could have been taken from Atwood’s non-fiction work on writing, Negotiating with the Dead (which I will be reviewing soon).
The playful dabbling with genres such as science fiction provides some welcome light relief, as does Iris’s occasional comic asides, such as her scepticism of a friend’s opinion: “she reads a lot of magazines at the hairdressers.”  The use of newspaper extracts to advance the plot seems a little outdated and forced, though they do offer an insight into the kind of society that the Chase sisters are expected to try and be a part of.
Although this novel isn’t one of my favourites, I still believe that Atwood is one of the most daring and courageous writers around, and her conviction in what she writes is both intimidating and awe-inspiring.  So JJ, ask me what I’m reading in ten years, and there’s a good chance my answer will be the same.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I’m not generally a fan of Swedish things (ok, by that I mean I just don’t like Ikea), but a spate of reportedly excellent Swedish crime dramas on TV, and the huge success of Larsson’s Millenium trilogy mean that I can no longer ignore the country that brought us The Evil One-Way System Store.  So, with my typical reluctance to embrace anything anyone else likes, I picked up the book originally titled ‘Men Who Hate Women.’
And, in this novel, oh boy do they ever.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so dark.  However, this is far from your average thriller, and the violence is rarely played for mere shock factor.  The main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and more-than-a-little-bit-messed-up security specialist Lisbeth Salander, are two of the most complex and intriguing characters I’ve come across in my recent reading.  Nothing about them is conventional or two-dimensional, the usual pitfalls of ‘characters who solve crimes’.  The plot itself is intriguing enough to sustain interest, though Larsson wisely resists the urge to do a Dan Brown and pack in as many ridiculous cliff hangers as possible.  I did struggle to get into the story, as a large portion of the start of the book is about setting the scene (it might not help that much of that ‘scene’ revolves around the world of Swedish finance, not exactly my specialist subject), but once it took off, I’ll admit, I was hooked.  I will definitely be reading the sequels, and I may even have to rethink my furniture-based prejudices.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)
Although I’m a recent Murakami convert/fanatic, I was a bit wary of reading Norwegian Wood after hearing a less-than-flattering critique of the recent film version from my friend JJ (who is getting quite a bit of press in this blog entry).  I believe his exact words were: “Two hours of a woman in a wood screaming about how she can’t get wet.”
Fortunately, the novel offers something more than this.  The narrator, Toru, is one of Murakami’s sanest characters, and the plot one of his most realistic.  The book tells the story of Toru’s relationship with two women: his first, unrequited love, Naoko (she of the screaming) and the girl he meets at university, the much more likeable (in my opinion) Midori.  Both girls slide up and down a scale of craziness, partly connected with certain traumatic events in their past, and partly, one assumes, because Murakami rightly believes that there’s no such thing as normal.  Murakami writes the female characters extremely well, and draws a pleasing contrast between the fragile Naoko, who withdraws to a private clinic in the mountains to try and recover, and the bold, brash Midori, who brazens out life in the real world even while things seem to fall apart around her.  Naoko’s friend Reiko is another believable and well-drawn character, with her own shocking demons to deal with.  Toru is also a sympathetic character, not without his weaknesses, but self-aware enough to try and do the right thing.
A lot of contemporary fiction focuses on the isolated individual, on self-absorbed characters failing to communicate.  One of the things I like most about Murakami’s writing, especially in Norwegian Wood, is the emphasis he places on empathy, on our efforts to help and understand those that we care about.  The narrator’s relationships with the women in his life and the friendship between Naoko and Reiko offer a more constructive, though never saccharine, view of life.