Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read: 27 June, 2015

Bird by Bird is another book about writing, based in large part on the classes Lamott teaches (the conceit fades in and out, but by the end she addresses her readers directly as if they were students who had just completed her course). The style reminded me more of Writing Down the Bones, rather than Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, in that it was more of a pep talk, more about attitude, rather than the actual mechanics of writing. And pep talk it certainly was. In fact, if I were to summarize the thesis of the book, it would be: “Keep at it, don’t be discouraged, you can survive this!”

I enjoyed the book, and I mostly liked Lamott’s writing, but I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I had from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s book make me keep putting it down to go write, and I’m still using many of its prompts. Bird by Bird never really gave me that feeling. As I finished the final page, I did feel like I wanted to pick up my writing project and work on it for a bit, but it wasn’t the frantic feeling I got from Bones.

Still, I found Lamott’s writing to be interesting, if not truly engaging, and the book is full of little gems, little pericopes that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that this is a book that will stick with me, but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted.

Buy Bird by Bird from Amazon and support this blog!

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Read: 18 February, 2014

In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg takes a Zen-inspired approach to creative writing. And, indeed, her descriptions and advice use writing almost as a form of meditation – of being actively present in one’s life and environment.

I found it to be a very interesting concept, and it’s certainly inspirational. It took me days longer to read than it should have because I had to keep putting it down to go write for a while.

The approach was a little New Age-y for my tastes at time, but I only cringed a few times and the rest of the book made it quite worthwhile.

In terms of the kind of advice, there’s very little (almost none, really) attention paid to the mechanics of writing. Rather, Goldberg focuses on the mindset and habit of writing, the way to approach writing. In that way, it was quite different from what I was expecting, and had almost nothing in common with, say, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction (except in the advice to practice often and a lot). So I think it works really well for someone who either didn’t take to Burroway’s methods, or who would like to approach the subject from a variety of different angles.

Buy Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within from Amazon and support this blog!

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans

Read: 28 July, 2013

I enjoy reading “how to write” guides because I find them so informative – not in my own writing, but more in my reading. For some reason, they seem to speak to me more than the “how to read” guides I’ve tried.

These sorts of guides highlight things that writers should be paying attention to, and that translates well into what readers should be paying attention to. I feel that it gives me some insight into thought and planning that may have gone into whatever book I happen to be reading.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is quite a good book, presenting six steps (each broken down into a number of smaller considerations). Of course, following the steps won’t produce a good book, but they do highlight the things that a writer will need to think about to write in the genre.

I found it interesting, and I think that it does have some use for both writers and readers. And, while geared specifically towards fantasy and science fiction, plenty of the advice is applicable toward other genres.

Buy The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction on Amazon and support this blog!

Myths & Magic: The Complete Fantasy Reference, introduction by Terry Brooks

I went to high school in a small town with what was probably the second largest Wicca/occult shop per capital in the world (the largest being Salem, Mass.). Is it any wonder that I dabbled in that sort of thing as a teen?

Just to be clear, I never got into Wicca. I got into the awkward, romanticised version of Wicca that we see in movies like The Craft. I was angsty, and it was my way of rebelling.

Given the proximity of so many magic shops, I of course did a bit of shopping and picked up books – most of which I’ve since discarded because… yikes. But during my recent move, I re-stumbled on Myths & Magic as I was unpacking and decided to give it a good second look.

When I first read it, I didn’t really get what it was supposed to be. I just saw that it wasn’t teaching me how to make love potions or make my enemies sprout warts, so I shoved it in a corner. But re-reading it, I have no idea what it was doing in a magic shop, because that’s not what it is at all.

Myths & Magic is a superficial reference for writing fantasy. It covers everything from a brief explanation of how medieval European society worked, how different cultures around the world have understood and classified magic, and of various mythical animals. There are also checklists of things to think about regarding how a writer’s magic system works, and how the society is organized given the existence of magic.

The information really is quite superficial, and frequently sacrifices nuance for simplicity and clarity. But it’s not supposed to be a history textbook, it’s supposed to be an aid in idea generation.

I really quite enjoy this book, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who writes fantasy. It’s not an instruction manual, but it’s great for thinking through world-building with magic.

My only complaint is that the book lacks some amount of focus. Each chapter has a different author, each clearly tackling a different problem, and it shows. I think that the addition of a “checklist” sort of chapter at the end of things to think about would have been an improvement.

Buy Myths and Magic: The Complete Fantasy Reference from Amazon and support this blog!

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles van Doren

Read: 28 March, 2013

This book was recommended to me by a homeschooling mother, and I can certainly see why. It’s a wonderful little primer on how to read books in such a way that the reader is able to get as much from the experience as possible. It covers how to make notations in a book, how to write an outline, how to use external materials effectively, and how to engage in a conversation between reader and writer. It even has a section where it goes into the specifics of how to read different kinds of texts.

I think that it would be a fantastic foundational text for a high school level English class – whether in a classroom or a homeschool (or, even, to be read by an industrious individual looking for a little self-improvement). It’s not a book best read at once, but rather digested chapter by chapter over the span of, say, a school year. It’s a little dry, so if you’re planning to use it with students, be prepared to liven it up with fun exercises, conversations, and sample readings. But taken in smaller chunks, it shouldn’t be too painful, and I think it would be well worthwhile.

Buy How to Read a Book from Amazon and support this blog!

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Read: 2 October, 2008

Amazing. Just, amazing. It hurt to read Atonement because I didn’t want anything to change or for the characters to be hurt. But at the same time, I had to read on and find out how it would end. I had a couple late nights because I just couldn’t put the book down.

The major strength is the characterisation. Even background characters were given enough detail and depth that they feel like living people. By the end of the first chapter, I felt that I knew these people, that they were my neighbours or possibly even friends.

The other major strength was in the realism of the plot. Everything that happens is set up so that the reader knows that there is no possible way that a consequence can be avoided. Yet at the same time, I found myself hoping so much that something wouldn’t happen that I would almost convince myself that it couldn’t, making it not only surprising but also heartbreaking when the inevitable caught up to the characters.

If pressed to find a flaw, I would say that the exposition of the second, third, and fourth parts could have used some work. McEwan seems to want to plunge his readers into a story without a map or compass, making the first couple pages of each part a confusing and difficult read as I tried to figure out who the characters are, where they are, what’s going on, etc. This is acceptable at the very start of a novel, but going through it four times was three times too many. It isn’t terribly difficult to answer the whos, whats, and wheres in an interesting way and it would certainly help to ease the transition into each portion. As it stood, the start of Part Two had me put the book down until I had the courage to go through all the work of figuring out where the story was. By Part Three, I was more accustomed to McEwan’s trick, so I stuck it through. By Part Four, it was still unpleasant, but I was so close to the end and I just had to find out what happened to everyone.

It’s a fairly quick read, but not a superficial one. Be prepared to devote all your attention to Atonement until the final page is reached. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interests (though if you love psychology, writing, or history, especially World War II, that would be a bonus).

Buy Atonement from Amazon to support this blog!

Hygiène de l’Assassin [Hygiene and the Assassin] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 24 September, 2008

This is my second Nothomb book. My mother joined a French reading club a while back that read this and Stupeur et Tremblements. Once done, she sent me these two books to read. I read the first right away and then waited an eternity before getting to Hygiène.

It’s a great book. I love Nothomb’s writing style. She uses almost no narrative, the vast majority of the story revealed through dialogue. It reads almost like a play, except that the speakers are not named. Yet, because her characters stand out so strongly and so uniquely, I was never confused as to who was speaking. It’s amazing, also, that so much drama comes through in a story with next to no action. It’s like reading a battle narrative, on the edge of my seat, watching a sparring match in which one seems to be the winner, then the underdog turns the tables, then the initial winner gains an advantage, etc.

It’s a strange book. The first half introduce us to Prétextat Tach, a dying author being interviewed by a series of journalists. The second half is entirely different as one journalist is able to work her way beyond all Tach’s masks and reaches the dark past and insanity he hides. It’s sad, hilarious, and completely ridiculous all at once.

I don’t know if there are any English translations of this book. If there are, I highly recommend giving it a read.

I am at a complete loss as to how to label this book. I apologize for the absurdly poor choice I’ve made, but I see none better.

Buy Hygiene De L’Assassin (French Edition) from Amazon to support this blog!

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Read: 18 August, 2008

Overall, I’d say this book isn’t terribly useful. It didn’t present very much new information and I felt that I had read much of his advice before in a better form. In fact, the only part I was truly pleased with was his explanation of MICE. I also enjoyed the final chapter that brought down the all-too-common sense many amateur writers have that they can just sit around doing nothing and inspiration will come to them and make them great.

If you are considering writing for the first time (and, really, this book applies to any writing, not just Science Fiction and Fantasy) and have never before tried to learn anything about the craft, this book would probably make for a reasonably good starting point. If, on the other hand, you’ve been writing and reading about writing for a while, this book will largely be a waste of time.

That being said, it is a very short read (it took me about two hours to plough through) and something may resonate for you, so why not? Also, I really enjoyed the portion about MICE (found a little more than half way through the third chapter) and I would say the book is worth checking out from the library just for that part.

Buy How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy from Amazon to support this blog!

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway

Read: 1 November, 2007

I have read quite a few books on writing fiction and I must say that this is the only one that I have ever felt had any merit at all. Most books of this type give instructions, personal opinions, and leave it at that. I’ve often felt somewhat disappointed because I learned little from reading them. Reading this book, on the other hand, I frequently felt that I was learning a great deal.

The format for each chapter is an explanation first, then some short story examples, and then single and group exercises for readers to try. I found this format to be extremely helpful. The examples were well-chosen and referenced during the explanation sections and the exercises were creative and fun.

Usually, I would not recommend creative writing guides simply because they tend to be full of crap, but this is one that I urge anyone who is interested in creative writing to pick up.

Buy Writing Fiction from Amazon to support this blog while you improve your writing skill!