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.

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The Yoga-Poetic Nexus

Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.

In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.

Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.

Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” [1096] (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

 

Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

 

Just to show that poetry isn’t all fear and melancholy, let’s look at a stanza from Whitman, from his aptly named “Poems of Joy:”

 

O to go back to the place where I was born!
To hear the birds sing once more!
To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,
And through the orchard and along the old lanes
once more.

 
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
 
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
 
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
 
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The sentence is the unit of writing at which beauty resides. So, while sentences might not be the sexiest scale of writing, it’s worth learning how to do them well. Stanley Fish offers a book which explores why we should care about the sentence and what separates the good and bad of sentences, before it moves into investigation of various types of sentences.

The first four chapters lay the groundwork by explaining what it is about sentences that make them worth mastering, and then outlines what makes a good sentence (while simultaneously explaining how truly great sentence construction might not come about through the sources and approaches that one has been led to expect.)

Chapters five through ten examine a few different classifications of sentences. Chapters five and six contrast the subordinating style with the additive style. The former sentences are hierarchically arranged, while the latter offers the freer / less ordered approach. Each of the two approaches has its advantages. The former make up many of the pithy bits of wisdom transmitted through sentence, while the latter supports a streaming consciousness style of writing (if done well.)

Chapter seven considers satire by sentence. Chapters nine and ten turn to a different classification scheme: first and last sentences, respectively. Both first and last sentences are disproportionately remembered, and each has a unique role in written works. The final chapter is about sentences that are self-reflective.

Throughout the book, Fish uses sentences – some famous and others from famous works – to offer the reader exemplars of the craft. The general approach is a good deal less technical and more reflective than most books on the subject. This makes Fish’s book both more readable, but also more contentious (in as much as a discussion of sentences can be contentious) than related works.

I’d recommend this book for writers and those interested in crafting language.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Whether a story works or not is often clear to small children and demented lunatics. Why a story does or doesn’t work requires a level of technical understanding not much less complex than that required to know why an internal combustion engine is or isn’t working. Why? Story structure rests invisibly below the surface (except to the writer and those who mine for it, and sometimes even to them,) and structure is where the story wins or fails.

John Truby’s book systematically explores what components are necessary to have an appealing story, and how those components are best arranged. It’s written for writers, allowing one to systematically proceed through the chapters in order to build a detailed outline of one’s story, but it could be beneficial for those who want to understand story in contexts other than writing (e.g. business uses, film-making, etc.)

As the subtitle mentions, Truby’s model of story revolves around a 22-step framework. It should be noted that this division is neither the only one imaginable, nor the only one that works. There are numerous great books on story available, and most have their own unique ways of organizing the details. While some authors focus heavily on screenplay versus the novel versus other story forms, Truby keeps his approach generalizable. Like others, he uses examples from both film and classic novels. Having said that Truby’s way isn’t the only way, it is a way that works, and it’s among the most popular works on story building.

While would-be writers may seek out books that focus on “concrete” issues, i.e. building character details, describing setting, plotting actions, etc., this book keeps eyes on the conceptual details that make or break a story. That is, the story consists of a flawed character with a need who experiences a chain of events or trials that results in him or her having a revelation and coming away changed. This is not to suggest that Truby doesn’t investigate issues like character development and creation of setting (there is a chapter each for those issues,) but he does so always with an eye to how one takes that character from a psychological and moral need through to a revelation, coming away somehow changed. I don’t want to make the book sound boring because it focuses on concepts like moral need, theme, and symbolism. Such concepts are what good stories are built upon. If one wonders why even movies with blockbuster budgets sometimes fail, it’s often because they lack such a conceptual framework.

The book consists of eleven chapters. The first sets up the idea of story and how stories work. The second chapter is about the premise of the story, the one-line idea that shapes the happenings of the story. Chapter three describes seven key steps of story, the seven are added to / expounded upon to develop the aforementioned 22 steps. The seven steps are: 1.) weakness & need, 2.) desire, 3.) opponent, 4.) plan, 5.) battle, 6.) self-revelation, 7.) new equilibrium.

The fourth chapter is about characters. However, it’s more about arranging characters in webs of interaction and considering them as archetypes in order to advance the story, rather than the usual types of advice on making unique characters. Chapter five is about the moral argument being made by the story. The hero’s path from need to revelation will reflect some sort of moral lesson. The sixth chapter is about story world, which other books might call “setting.” Again, the approach remains focused on advancing the story, and not on picking a time and place that seems neat or interesting for their own sake.

Chapter seven delves into territory that one doesn’t see in every book of writing advice, and that’s symbolism. The chapter describes building a symbol web that – like the story world – advances the feeling one is trying to create in the story. Chapter eight is about plot, and it fleshes out the seven key steps mentioned above to offer the full 22-step model. Chapters nine and ten discuss scene, the individual events happening in a story at a given time and place. The first deals with what Truby calls “scene weave” or how scenes are organized to create optimal tension. The penultimate chapter is about how individual scenes are constructed to advance the story. Chapter ten also explains how dialogue is most effectively written. The final chapter is a brief conclusion that explains how stories with good structure maintain relevance.

The book uses text-boxes, graphics, and notes as necessary.

I found this book to be tremendously useful. Truby spends a lot of time using well-known examples from film and literature to explore how the masters put together stories, and that benefits the reader greatly. 22 steps sounds like an unduly complex approach, but it works, especially as the focus remains so tightly on the hero’s arc. I’d highly recommend this book for writers, and anyone else who needs to understand story at a detailed level.

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POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?

The Only Bad Poem is a Dead Poem, or: Random Thoughts on Meaning in Poetry

What makes a bad poem?

  • too cloying and / or angsty?
  • too cryptic and indecipherable?
  • uses too many words like “cryptic” and “cloying”?
  • composed by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, or a Vogon?*
  • reads like pop music lyrics from the 80’s?
  • doesn’t rhyme?
  • does rhyme, but in a Dr. Seuss-y kind of way?
  • a trochee got jammed amidst the iambic pentameter?

In my opinion (typically, not humble), the answer revolves around meaning and feeling. Poetry is a product of words, and for every other product of words, clarity of meaning is at the forefront of desirable traits.

Allow me to illustrate: Say one produces a business memo, and one hands copies around the conference table. If, having read the memo, not all readers are in agreement about its meaning, one has failed as a memo-writer. (Unless one or more of the readers is an idiot.)

However, if one produces a poem, hands copies around a table, and everyone agrees about its meaning, you’ve failed as a poet.

Like any blanket statement about poetry, that one is a lie. My point is that meaning is overrated as trait of poetry. Poems can be like Zen koan. If you can grasp the meaning intellectually some old monk will be there to cuff you upside your noggin (probably figuratively, your own inner angry Zen monk.)

So if conveying meaning is purely optional, what to convey? Feeling. Sounds, images, and even metaphors can evoke a feeling in one reader that’s different from the next reader, but evoke a feeling in each never-the-less.

So, just ask, will this poem make a reader feel some kind of way?

___________________________________________________________________

* This is a joke that only makes sense to those who’ve read Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” books. If you haven’t, go read at least the first (same-named) book and come back. I’ll wait.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief GuideThe Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem–such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits (i.e. more or less stressed.) By adopting a more flexible view of the concepts like accent (stress), rhyme, similarity of sound, one opens up limitless options for poetry.

The book consists of five chapters. The front matter includes an introduction and a brief commentary on theory. The latter points out that there are no hard rules, but by paying attention to these concepts one can produce richer and more interesting sounding poems. Pinsky reviews the most common poetic terms (e.g. iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.) but also looks at how these are varied for effect in a way that is enjoyable to all but prosody hardliners.

The chapters are: 1.) Accent and duration; 2.) Syntax and line; 3.) Technical terms and vocal realities; 4.) Like and unlike sounds; 5) Blank verse and Free verse. (fyi: Blank verse is unrhymed verse that has a regular meter (most commonly iambic pentameter. Free verse is unrhymed verse with irregular meter.)

There are relatively few poems used as examples in this book. Some readers may find this a bit tedious and would prefer being exposed to more (and more varied) examples. However, other readers will enjoy drilling down into a few poems along several dimensions. That’s a matter of personal preference, but the reader should be aware of it.

The book is less than 150 pages even with the back matter, which includes recommended readings and glossary of names and terms. It’s a quick read.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not too technical, and can be followed by a reader whether they’ve had an extensive education into poetry or not. It’s not doctrinaire about prosody, which appeals to my personal preferences. It provoked some intriguing insights, such as the flexible approach to accent as well as poetry as an art that uses the body of reader as its medium—their respiratory systems, vocal chords, and related musculature how these sounds are produced.

I’d recommend the book for poets and readers of poetry who are serious about the endeavor.

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5 Reasons to Write Poetry

We’re a week into National Poetry Month. I’ve posted a few poems with more to come, but here I’ll reflect upon the benefits of writing poetry. Some may point out that this is one-sided because the pantheon of poets is littered with opium addicts and suicidal depressives. I read a BBC article citing research showing poets were 20 times more likely to be institutionalized than the non-poet population. I maintain that those bards were broken from the beginning, and that there’s another side to the story.

 

5.) Poems are puzzles, and puzzles make you problem-solve. This may be more true of structured poetry than free verse, but a poem wrangles words into a relationship designed to create a desired outcome–often an emotional state. With structured poetry one faces a tight puzzle that’s constrained by syllable counts, the relation of stressed and unstressed beats, or rhyme schemes. But even free verse cuts away everything that dampens a desired resonance. That’s done by a series of strategic choices.

 

4.) Poetry aids emotional management. A study by UCLA researchers found that poetry writing dampens the activity of the amygdala (the brain’s bringer of fear) and, of course, gives the pre-frontal cortex something to do (besides creating catastrophic scenarios–which is its go-to occupation under stress.)

 

3.) Poetry helps build better prose. Some writers will be more concise and others will be more graphic, but there’s always a benefit to be had. I found a NaNoWriMo blog post that tackles this topic nicely, so I’ll just link.

 

2.) Poetry activates attentiveness. This is especially true of a form like haiku, which consists of natural observation unembellished by analysis or sentiment. However, all poetry styles require one examine the world intensely enough to see the old anew. This post may be of interest on the topic.

 

1.) Poetry can access the unconscious. As a practice, I often just put pencil to paper write whatever comes without intervening or directing my conscious mind. Yes, most of it’s crap.  Or not even crap–more like gibberish. But when I go back through these later on, phrases often jump out at me as interesting or evocative, and these often find their way into the heart of actual poems. This is a particularly beneficial practice when one is stuck.

POEM: Edits Awry

“Punch that word into proper position,”

the angry god of grammar cried.

It started surgically.

Teams tapped in pry bars,

popped out words,

and spackled in a space or a substitution.

Then they found rot,

and it’s all wrecking balls and dynamite from here.


[National Poetry Month: Poem #6]