Reading About Writing: A SciFi/Fantasy Friendly Guide

I almost always have a book about writing going along with my other reading. I consider them my vocational devotionals. Over the years I’ve read most of the standard how-to-write books, but there’s always more out there. This past year as I’ve been writing more and more, learning the craft, and working to improve specific issues in my writing. So, I have sought out books with more specific advice. Here is a sampling of the best of what I read in 2011. Some are non-genre specific, others are written by people who have worked in Science Fiction and Fantasy and so have some useful insights that you won’t find in more general guides.

Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint
by Nancy Kress
I like the whole Write Great Fiction series because they split up the different elements of writing and story crafting. This means each individual book has room to take a deeper more complete look at the topic covered. I picked this one up because I have gotten story notes on my work saying that readers were having trouble connecting with my characters or knowing how they were feeling. This book really came through with some practical and specific ideas that I could immediately put into practice. Nancy Kress is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author of short stories and novels, her most famous is probably Beggars in Spain, a near future story dealing with the social ramifications of genetic modifications. Clearly Kress is an experienced teacher, and well read. She uses both genre and non-genre examples in her books. I liked her teaching style so well I went on to read Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends (mostly for the “middles” part).

Starve Better
by Nick Mamantas
These essays are entertaining in the shoot-from-the-hip style that comes from expanded blog material. There is practical advice for both writing (short stories in particular), and for navigating the writing life. Mamantas is best known for his horror and dark fiction, but has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and a Hugo. He spent some time as the co-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a publication I would very much like to break into, so his insights into the editorial process there were especially interesting to me. Apparently, he stirred up some controversy a few years ago when he wrote about supporting himself by writing for a term paper mill, but I found chapter where he discussed it interesting and honest. It’s worth the paperback price. If you have a Kindle a copy is only $3.99.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Gerrold David
David has won a Hugo and a Nebula. His other claim to fame is that he penned the classic Trouble With Tribbles episode from the original Star Trek series, which was enough for me to check out this book. It’s out of print, so I did have to literally check it out from my local library. The second half is a little padded out with some rather extensive examples from his own work, but the first half of the book is worth the price of admission. In the first chapters he discusses the difference between (writing) science fiction and fantasy. He explains that, “the first issue in science fiction is believability, because Science Fiction is rooted in science,” On the other hand: “Fantasy is not the abandonment of logic. It is the reinvention of it … the creation of an alternate structure of logic.” Those two statements are a jumping off point for a meaty discussion about the similarities and differences in these two genres, and they really helped me understand what I need to accomplish when writing one or the other.

The Art of Fiction
by John Gardner
Absolutely required reading. I read it in college and just reread it this year. This book manages to be  a primer, but also to go beyond basic advice and touch on what it means to elevate your writing to something approaching art. Some complain about Gardner’s idiosyncratic style. While I have to honestly say I’ve never really connected with Gardner’s fiction, his personal style in this guide book is one of the things that makes it such a pleasure to read. The exercises are also worth the time. I’ve had more than one grow into stories in their own right.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor
By Priscilla Long
I am still doing the exercises in this one. This book is not genre or even fiction specific but everything in it applies to anything you might be writing. In the section about working with language, she suggests gathering a lexicon specific to whatever piece of writing you’re working on. I now have lexicons running down the margins of all my drafts, and have found the practice of gathering words specific to a given project both practical and inspirational (NOTE: this is NOT about opening a Thesaurus and copying down all the synonyms). There is a set of exercises geared to hone your ability to capture observations both social and sensory. She goes on to cover several ways to structure a piece of writing, and has a section on the art of sentences and paragraphs that includes, but goes beyond, basic grammar. Another thing I especially like is that while the exercises useful in their own right,  she stresses that you use the exercises on your current project. Because the point isn’t to fill a journal (and your writing time) with endless exercises, but to create and polish a piece of writing that you can go on to sell.

How Not To Write a Novel
By Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

“What do you think of my fiction book writing?” the aspiring novelist extorted.
“Darn,” the editor hectored, in turn. “I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call ‘really awful writing.'”
“But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!” The writer tossed his head about, wildly.
“It might help,” opined the blonde editor, helpfully, “to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!”

Some people find this sort of thing irritating. Not me. Nothing like seeing what NOT to do demonstrated so hilariously.

It’s time well spent reading any of these books as they’re all full of great advice and plenty of inspiration. Of course the magic dust of advice and inspiration only work if you’re actively writing, and wrestling with your stories to make them stronger.

Here are the next couple books the top of my 2012 pile. Here’s to another year of writing and of reading about writing.

Nascence: 17 Stories That Failed and What They Taught Me
By Tobias Bucknell

Since I am a writer’s group friendly kind of writer, I think this book may have something to teach me. I find the practice of critiquing other writers’ work (either in person, in a writer’s group, or in writing over the web) to be an excellent way to improve. While it’s important to be reading great short stories, but it is an entirely different experience to read a story that isn’t quite there yet, a story that is broken somehow, and to articulate — in a constructive and helpful way — exactly why it isn’t working (Kindle only).

How to write a Sentence: And How to Read One
By Stanley Fish
Because I enjoy reading Stanley Fish. And I love sentences.

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