BOOK REVIEW: Writing Haiku by Bruce Ross

Writing Haiku: A Beginner's Guide to Composing Japanese PoetryWriting Haiku: A Beginner’s Guide to Composing Japanese Poetry by Bruce Ross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: March 15, 2022

With this guide, Ross offers a compact guide to navigating Japanese poetic forms and the offshoots and variations that have evolved in America. The book does have a particular focus on the American and international style of haiku, and related forms, though the author always lays the groundwork by first exploring the “rules” of the traditional Japanese form. He also discusses concepts, such as wabi and sabi, that heavily inform Japanese poetry. However, most of the examples come from English language writers, and there’s extensive discussion of how American haiku differs in form and substance. This makes the book particularly useful for English-as-native-language writers who wish to capture the flavor of this spare and elegant poetic form, but who have limited acquaintance with the Japanese language and culture.

I didn’t think I’d need another guide for writing haiku after reading and re-reading William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, but Ross does cover a few topics in greater depth and detail, particular haiga (combining graphic arts with haiku,) renga (a partnered / team style) and several American variations, and ginko (a nature walk-based practice.)

The book has graphics as needed (i.e. in the haiga section,) and offers and extensive set of recommendations for further reading as well as resources.

While I’ve been writing haiku, tanka, and senryū for some time, I learned a lot from this book, and it got me excited to try some of the forms with which I’m inexperienced. I’d highly recommend this book for beginner, intermediate, and advanced haiku poets.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Good Writing is Like Good Sex by C. S. Johnson

Good Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on WritingGood Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on Writing by C.S. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Sex sells. This book attempts to capitalize on that fact to achieve a foothold in the concise writing guide market, a class of books for which there is no shortage and whose entrants include established masters such as Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Given the nature of this market, having hinted at sexiness as a hook, it behooves the writer to boldly embrace that hook, but this isn’t done. I’m not suggesting the author needed to venture into pornographic territory, and I understand that the book is not about writing erotica, specifically [a point that is made quite clear.] However, the banal and disembodied references to sex make the material drier than it otherwise would be. In creating a book that could be read by, say, the Pope or the chairwoman of the Southern Baptist Convention Lady’s Auxiliary without so much as the hint of a blush, the book draws attention to just how much it’s failing to follow its own advice. [I would go as far as to say that if a person had a rare condition in which the slightest sexual arousal would cause his or her heart to violently explode, killing everyone in a ten-foot radius, I would feel safe sitting next to that person on the couch as they read this book.]

The book takes a soup-to-nuts approach, reflecting upon the usual range of topics including: prep work, characterization, tension building, and editing. The information is good, and it’s presented in a brief and readable fashion. That said, it would be a much better first guide than one for someone who has read extensively on the subject because there isn’t much that is novel, either in the advice or the way in which it’s presented. If you’ve read other books on writing, you’ve probably read this advice before – and, in many cases, read it stated in a much more interesting fashion. There are some odd inclusions. At one point the author discusses the parts of speech. If you don’t understand the parts of speech, no writer’s guide will help you, and you probably need to revisit elementary school.

In this kind of book, examples are essential, and, here too, some odd choices were made. One such choice was the author using her own writings. [If you’ve read writing guides by well-known authors, you’ll note that they don’t even use their own writing, and instead tend to use stories like “Macbeth” or folktales – works that are well known to the broadest imaginable readership.] Among examples that weren’t from her own writing, there was a mix of more and less obscure references. It’s not so much that insufficient information was presented to get across the author’s point, but rather that a kind of affinity is achieved with readers when they have familiarity with a story, and that is sacrificed when the couldn’t possibly.

The long and the short of it is this, I think the book was a fine concise writing guide. It presents the information clearly and in a logically arranged fashion. That said, choices were made that felt odd – mostly in using sex as a hook and then eschewing any sense of sensuality. If you’re looking for an introduction to writing, you could do worse than this one [but you could probably do better as well.]


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to ReadBuilding Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

The Great Courses page

This book goes along with a video course of the same name from “The Great Courses,” but it can be obtained independently as well.

Landon’s book is one of the most beneficial writing books that I’ve read, and is the most beneficial one about sentence-level composition. The book’s core premise is that crafting richer, more interesting, and more artful sentences requires the ability to build longer sentences. This doesn’t mean there is no room for short and simple sentences. It simply means that if all one writes are short and simple sentences, one’s writing will read choppily, will provide limited detail, and – let’s face it – one probably doesn’t need to read a book on the subject after successfully completing elementary school.

Of course, it’s not enough to build longer sentences; the sentences must be enjoyable and readable. This is where learning how to write the right kind of long sentences comes into play. Landon argues the benefits of cumulative sentence syntax, using free modifiers to add propositions about a base clause (and / or about other modifying clauses.) He’s not suggesting that one only use this type of sentence, shunning the other varieties of syntax, but he does show how this approach allows one to build longer sentences that won’t lose the reader, a trait that cannot be claimed of sentences using fixed modifiers.

The first half of the book introduces cumulative syntax, showing how it compares to other syntactic patterns, presenting evidence of its superiority, and demonstrating how sentences using it can be improved and pitfalls avoided.

The second half of the book explores the various directions one can take one’s writing via cumulative sentences. Chapter eight discusses two types of information that can be introduced via free modifiers: comparisons and speculation. If one was taught to avoid injecting personal guesses and commentary into one’s writing, speculative propositions might seem particularly strange, but part of the beauty of this book is that it discourages mindless obedience to writing dogma, a trait that is in rare supply among writing books.

There is a chapter on prose rhythm. As in other sections, the focus is on cumulative sentences, but even with respect to cumulative syntax, the discussion is limited to a few key concepts because the topic is just too complex to address in great detail.

There are two chapters on suspensive sentences. Like the punchline of a joke, a suspensive sentence puts the most surprising or intriguing information at the tail end. This can be used to make sentences that are not only humorous, but also ones that are surprising or memorable. However, suspensiveness is not without a cost. Suspensive sentences are typically left-branching (or middle-branching) such that part or all of the base clause is at the very end. Throughout the book, Landon gives special emphasis / preference to right-branching cumulative sentences, meaning the base clause is the first thing one reads and the modifiers are tagged on behind. The benefit of the right-branching sentence is that it can be made quite long while maintaining readability. On the other hand, a suspensive sentence can lose the reader before they reach the base clause because they don’t have any central concept on which to tag what may read like a disparate collection of modifiers.

Chapters twelve and thirteen delve into writing in a balanced rhythm (Ch. 12) or in a rhythm of threes (Ch. 13.) Balances are phrases, clauses, or sentences presented in opposition. There are many technical terms to describe ways of balancing (e.g. anaphora, epanalepsis, epistrophe, polyptoton, etc.) but the emphasis isn’t on vocabulary building but rather on examples of these effective modes of sentence building.

Chapter fourteen discusses the idea of “master sentences” — long sentences skillfully crafted to not only convey information and to be readable, but also to make for pleasant reading experiences. The final chapter is a wrap-up but also makes an argument for valuing education in sentence-level writing, an area of the discipline that has apparently gone by the wayside in recent decades.

I found this book to be incredibly beneficial. If you are interested in how to grow your sentences longer without having them become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehension, this is the book for you. The author provides plenty of examples to make his meaning clear, and he also references other books that can be of benefit to writers seeking to hone their sentence crafting skills.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Description by Mark Doty

The Art of Description: World into WordThe Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

Usually, when a book isn’t what one expected, a feeling of disappointment accompanies that mismatch between expectation and experience. For me, this was the rare exception to that situation. I expected more of a how-to manual and less of a collection of essays. [I also expected a book that was less poetry-dominant and which touched upon prose writing to a greater extent. But that was entirely my oversight.] Anyhow, I think I got far more out of this book than I would have if it had been the book I expected. It encouraged me to revamp my thought process about writing description — be it poetic or prose.

The book is short, consisting of six chapters that take varied approaches to the subject. The first few chapters build on an idea that the art of description requires insight both into perception and into the nature of that which we become conscious. That is, one is not trying to perfectly describe the full extent of the world that lies before one. If one did that: a.) one would fail; b.) the reader would not be granted insight into what captures the writer’s eye – i.e. insight into the mind of the artist; c.) one’s writing would become drudgery to read. [I recently started Yukio Mishima’s “The Temple of Dawn” and he begins the first chapter with dense, wall-to-wall description of the story’s Bangkok environs, and I found the thicket of description was losing me. It should be noted that after that opening, the readability becomes excellent – i.e. very story- and character-centric.] There are certainly other issues discussed in the first four chapters. One idea that resonated with me was Chapter two’s discussion of the importance of how we perceive time (as opposed to the orderly pace at which it unfolds,) and the role of temporal perception in description.

The penultimate and final chapters are quite distinct, both different from each other and from the preceding chapters. Chapter five, entitled “Four Sunflowers,” presents four poems that feature sunflowers to show how various poetic masters take on a given subject. The four poems are by William Blake, Alan Shapiro, Allan Ginsberg, and Tracy Jo Barnwell. The final chapter follows a glossary format, and is entitled, “Descriptions Alphabet.” This section actually makes up about half of the book, and it considers a range of relevant topics in an ABC format. Some of these topics are discussed in more detail than others, and are of greater importance than others. Discussions that particularly resonated with me were one on “Economy” versus “Excess,” one about metaphors, similes, and Figures of speech, and those on Qualifiers, Sonic quality, and Verbs. In this chapter, the author delves into the value of common advice that is often (unfortunately) delivered in Biblical – i.e. “thou shall” / “thou shalt not” form. The point being that it’s often bad practice to follow such advice so dogmatically.

As I said, I got a lot out of this book. It’s a quick read, but loaded with food-for-thought. I’d highly recommend it both for poets and for prose writers. (Though, as I mentioned, it’s very much directed toward poets, e.g. all of the examples come from poetry. That said, the approach to thinking about description can be of value to any writer.)

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the NovelThe Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.

There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)

The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.

While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.

I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.

View all my reviews

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. IX [Streaming Poetry]

As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.

My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])

After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:

Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…

So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.

However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)

It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from? 

You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”

But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.

In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.

I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.

Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?

5 of My Favorite Books on Writing [So Far]

I’ve read enough books about writing to make it a challenge to pick a top five, but not so many that I would dare consider this list definitive. I know there are many great books on the subject that I’ve missed or are yet to come. I’m always interested in hearing about the picks of others, so feel free to comment.



5.) Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop: This book is one-stop shopping for the fiction writer. Besides offering lessons on writing, it presents exercises to help one get down to the nitty-gritty. It explores character development, plotting, pacing, dialogue, revising — i.e. the whole ball of wax. While the book offers the advice of many and varied experts, it uses a Raymond Carver story [which is included as an appendix] as a connective tissue across the various chapters.

 

4.) Wired for Story by Lisa Cron: Cron explores what it is about stories that appeal to the human brain, and how to take advantage of such knowledge in crafting effective stories.

 

3.) Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon: I bought the audio course from The Great Courses that this book is based upon and listened to it many times over. Landon’s approach to sentence crafting resonated with me, and while it might seem overly technical as one is perusing the Table of Contents, the author’s use of examples and his manner of explanation is clear and informative.

 

2.) The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Like the GWW book above, this is a guide to crafting stories. However, while Writing Fiction gets into a lot of concrete details, Truby keeps a systematic emphasis on taking a flawed character through a course of events and decisions that will result in the character coming out of the story changed. Writing Fiction presents a greater diversity of views about what is important, but The Anatomy of Story offers a more cohesive approach to building one’s story.

 

1.) Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury was, in my opinion, one of the best when it came to combining story-crafting and creative use of language. One gets a lot of the latter in this book. It’s not a guide in the sense that most of the books above are. It’s inspiration — explicitly, and by example.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into StoryInto the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)

The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.

“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.

The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.

The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.

Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.

The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.

The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.

I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.

View all my reviews