Eight writing manuals that are not an absolute waste of time

artMost writing books are a terrible waste of time, because they give you pretty basic Creative Writing 101 type advice about point of view, tense, plot structure, etc. and then combines it with a few workshop platitudes like “show, don’t tell”; “start strong”; “characters have to change during the story”, and then wrap it up with some canned advice like, “the most important thing is to write every day and read widely.”

If you don’t know that stuff, then maybe one of those books might be worthwhile. As I recall (this is way back in the dusty recesses of my memories from my last year of high school), I found Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction to be fairly useful. Oh, wait, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers was also really useful, actually. It’s all about how to cut words and make things cleaner. Well worth a read. And I thought that Donald Maas’ Writing The Breakout Novel was a fairly good overview of things you should think about when you’re trying to write fiction with commercial appeal.

Mostly, though, I don’t enjoy books that are about how to write. I am sure that there are some good ones out there, but I think that the craft of writing is something that you mostly get a sense for by reading books and then trying to do the things you’ve read. For me, the best writing books are the ones that give a sense of how to go about your life as a writer. Honestly, I can’t remember even a tenth of the actual advice that is in any of the following books, but each of them gave me this very vivid sense of a writer who’d developed their own systems and modes of writing. To me, these books are more like commencement speeches than handbooks. Their mix of advice and autobiography inspires you to go out into the world and find your own way of looking at it.

  • About Writing by Samuel Delany – The best writing book. This is my bible. For several years, I had it on my bedside table and whenever I was feeling down, I’d leaf through it. Delany’s intelligence is so vast and cool. It flows from whatever he is talking about. There is plenty of advice (good advice) in here about the actual writing. But there’s also advice on how to conduct yourself as a writer. The overwhelming lesson of this book is that if you want to write good fiction, you should be as serious and curious as Delany himself.
  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas – Typical acerbic wisdom from Nick. Half the book is about writing fiction and the other half is about freelancing. Mamatas is a contrarian, and in these essays he largely aims to explode myths propagating by other advice-givers. If you’ve been reading his livejournal for the last eight years, then most of these essays are probably already familiar to you. However, if you haven’t, then you absolutely need to get this book. His persona is pugnacious, but also literate and sensitive. He’s the reigning defender of the uncommercial side of commercial fiction.
  • On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner – The author of this book taught inside the academic creative writing industry for years (as did/does Delany, of course), and serves as a kind of voice from over there. Over there is a weird place, where they do things pretty differently. For instance (as I recall), his chapter on publication basically says, “Publication will come when you’re ready.” That advice is insane. But you know what else they do over there? Write some good fiction. Gardner’s advice is a bit more froofy and mystical than you’ll find in creative writing books written by spec-fic writers (although, by the standards of literary writers, it’s pretty hard-nosed and practical), but that’s okay. Sometimes you need a little froofiness.
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – Literally ten letters written to an aspiring poet by Rilke. Hard to describe them. They’re exhortations. They’re about finding the silence inside of you and learning how to feel your way to the point where poetry rises out of you. The letter format is wonderful, because it feels like he’s literally writing to you. It’s also beautiful that he took so seriously the aspirations of someone who really hadn’t produced anything yet.
  • What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – Almost no other creative writing book dares to tackle the topic “What kinds of things should you write about?” But Tolstoy goes there. Spoiler: You should write about stuff that’ll improve the reader’s moral and spiritual condition. The most insane performance in this book is when Tolstoy summarizes (and then dismisses) two thousand years worth of aesthetic theory. He also takes down ballet and the opera for being immoral, and then he rails about the millions of people whose lives are being blighted by art. This is brilliant stuff. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. After reading this, you will spend twelve hours absolutely convinced that Tolstoy was right. Of course, it’ll eventually wear off (thank God).
  • Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer – Advice about how to organize your writing career. In retrospect, I was perhaps a bit too early in my career when I read this book, since I didn’t really have any publications or any kind of profile yet. But it was mostly revelatory because it’s the only writing book that concedes that there is this thing, this “booklife,” as Vandermeer calls it, which threads throughout your writing career and which you need to nurture and manage.
  • On Writing by Stephen King – This book is half writing advice and half Stephen King’s autobiography of his life as a writer. The writing advice is take it or leave it; the autobiography, though, is gripping. Stephen King is the spec fic phenom of the latter half of the 20th century. How can anyone not want to get in there and figure out how he did what he did? In this book, he comes across a bit like a Stephen King character. Always slightly down-at-heel, but hopeful and self-educated. It’s a resolutely blue-collar image of how to produce literature.
  • Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury – This book is actually a bit depressing. I am not sure it’s possible for me to work as hard as Bradbury did. The story I remember most is that he’d sit down on Monday and write the whole first draft of a story. Then on Tuesday he’d write the second draft. Wednesday he’d write the third. And so on until Friday, when he’d write the fifth draft and then mail out the submission. That is insane.

Hmm, that was significantly more books than I thought there’d be.

P.S. I know someone is gonna mention Elements of Style. Don't even get me started on Elements of Style. That book might be a fine guide to grammar and usage, but it's no good on style. I'll be damned if I'm gonna let some old (and dead) dudes tell me that I can't incorporate business and military slang into my writing.


    1. Sweet!

  1. Tracy says:

    The grammar advice in “Style” is Godawful – they can’t even identify a passive construction. http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

    1. Yes, someday we’ll take down that book! Although, actually, I do need to read a grammar book someday. After seeing the galley edits of some of my stories, I realized that I still don’t have a strong sense of when to use a comma.

  2. Eleanor Croy says:

    I like Stephen King’s “On Writing” but I’ve never read any of the others you list. Have you tried “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, or “Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life” by Natalie Goldberg? Reading a bit of either of those always helps me. Also,

    1. Eleanor Croy says:

      oops, didn’t finish! Also, the “Gotham Writers’ Workshop ‘Writing Fiction’ — The Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School” is super good IMO. 🙂

    2. I have read Bird by Bird, and I thought about putting it on this list. I liked much of it, particularly e section on envy, but something about it struck me oddly, and it’s never quite resonated in my mind n the same way as see others. However, I will definitely check out the other books you recommended. The Gotham writers one seems particularly interesting.

      1. Alice says:

        How about The Passionate Accurate Story by Carol Bly? It struck me that all your books were by men, and when I looked at my shelf most of mine were by women (though I have the Gardner, King, and Rilke). Not sure of the significance, just noticed and it made me look at my own list.

        1. Yes, I noticed that as well. I have read a few writing manuals by woman. I _did_ like Annie Dillard’s _Te Writing Life_ but obviously not enough to put it on the list. I’ll check out The Passionate Story. I’ve heard that Le Guin also has a good one, which I’ve been meaning to look out.

  3. debs says:

    Thanks. Just ordered Booklife from the liberrry.

    1. Nice. Let me know if you enjoy it.

      1. debs says:

        *whistles* Well the good news is that my private booklife is in good shape. My public booklife? Ha. I just don’t know where to start. But, thanks for the recommendation. Much to think about.

    2. I ordered About Writing by Samuel Delany. I couldn’t finish Dhalgren, but I’ve read a few essays by Delany, and the guy can sure get his ideas across. I figure the problem with Dhalgren is likely me. There’s some difficult stuff I can read with work (like Gene Wolfe), and there’s other difficult stuff I just can’t, even with work (like Delany).

      1. About Writing is the tops. Very accessible, but also infinitely dense and laden with meeting. If you want some more accessible fiction by him, his short story collection Aye And Gomorrah and his recent (non-genre) novel Dark Reflections are both great. Personally, I’ve never even attempted to read Dhalgren, so I sympathize on that one.

  4. lillian888 says:

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  5. Letters to a Young Poet is pretty excellent, isn’t it? I have trouble with writers’ manuals–and writing advice in general, although I kind of like Sherman Alexie’s and Zadie Smith’s articles on the subject–but Rilke’s Letters are fantastic. Hell, you really can’t go wrong with Rilke.

    1. Yes, they’re so short and so kind and so deeply serious. I loved them. Samuel Delany’s book gives a similar feeling.

      1. Good to know! I also like Starve Better, Mamatas is sort of vindicating in general when the short fiction scene often has a serious case of the BS.

        1. Ugh yes, there is so much silliness, and you often don’t even realize it until he turns his lasers on and melts all that shit.

          1. I mean, I like (and have been to!) workshops as much as the next fellow, but people. People, seriously. Come on.

            1. Yes, such a cult of workshopping. I was glad, when I sold my first Clarkesworld story, that I’d never showed it to anyone before submitting it. At least I had proof that workshopping was not necessary. IThat’s saved me a ton of time since.

              1. This is turning into a charming little comment matryoshka, but: yeah. I made my first pro sales at the end of last year and in both cases I just kind of wrote the story and did a once-over for phrasing and sent the damn thing in. Sometimes I want feedback on a specific thing and I ask a couple people whose opinions I trust, but overall I find the more opinions, the harder it is to decide what to revise. It makes a person’s head spin. Or at least a neurotic person like me.

                1. Yeah, for me, the purpose of workshopping is less to make an individual story work and more to see what I should work on in general. I think of my workshop stories as sort of sacrifices to the workshop. The workshop kills them and in the entrails, I read lessons for how to better write the next story.

                2. > comment matryoshka


  6. > About Writing by Samuel Delany – The best writing book.

    My copy arrived yesterday and I’ve been reading it obsessively.


    I have never come across someone who is this analytical and rigorous in his thinking about the written word. This book is like crack.

    Also, I’m quite pissed at you. Yesterday morning there were two or three ways in which I knew my book was substandard, and the prospect of fixing them seemed relatively tolerable.

    Yesterday evening I could see a dozen ways in which my novel was substandard. The bar has been raised, dramatically, and now I have a ton of work to do.

    Damn you!

    …and thank you. 😉

    1. Haha, if you’re trying to bring it up to Delany’s standards then you definitely do have a ton of work to do.

      1. I’m not aiming for Delaney / Gene Wolfe / Michael Swanwick / Mieville (all authors who, IMO, generate Art). I’m aiming for “competent enough prose that someone who likes Heinlein and Neal Stephenson could maybe tolerate reading”. Still a freaking high target, and one I will miss…but one that intimidates me a bit less to even contemplate.

        One thing, btw, in Delaney that I loved – and hated – was his example of a flabby paragraph that presented the material out of order. He labelled this “A”. He improved it a bit, and labelled it “B”. He improved it again – “C”. At this point I smiled to myself. Those poor suckers writing quality A or B paragraphs! Why I – with a lot of non-fiction writing under my belt – knock off a C paragraph every time.

        …then I read “D”.

        And – holy crap – that was art. And the part that crushed me is that I can see how one improves from A to B to C…but I have no handle on how to turn my C writing into D. “Be born a genius with mad 7eet skillz”? So – ugh – now I’ve got a standard that I have no idea how to ever hit.

        Anyway – onward!

        1. Samuel R. Delany says:

          Morlock Publishing–take a look at the essay (in ABOUT WRITING) called “After No Time at All the String on Which . . .” You have to wrap your mind around the idea that writing not only tells what happens, it shows what happens. And to make it show, you have to work phrase by phrase, and use all your writing ingenuity. You have to read lots of writing that does just that–early Updike, Theodore Sturgeon, William Gass, Virginia Woolf, and Richard Hughes.

  7. Has anybody noted that all eight of these books were written by men? It kind of compromises your credibility. Other indispensable writing books are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose.

    1. I read Bird by Bird and somehow it didn’t resonate with me. I’ll check out the others sometime, though.

      1. d-day says:

        The only book at my local BN from the list that they had was Letters to A Young Poet, which I read last night. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll be ordering the Delaney book next.

        I read Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones when I was in college, and liked them both, but having gone back to them recently … they seemed kind of beginner level to me. I understand what they’re saying but, they don’t really explain *why* in a way that is rigorous enough to me. They’re not self-justifying on the text, and Goldberg and Lamott aren’t a Rilke or a Tolstoy, someone whose output gives their instruction credibility. While both books were really important to me at a particular time, for me they haven’t held up quite as well.

        I do, however, highly recommend Reading Like a Writer.

        1. Awesome! Dd you like the Rilke? Let me know how you like the Delaney book.

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