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October 17, 2016
By Craig Teicher
These books about how to write fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and film let aspiring writers apprentice at home.

Almost as long as there have been writers, there have been books that offer instruction, guidance, and advice on how to write. From Plato’s Phaedrus to the letters and journals of great practitioners such as Emily Dickinson, John Keats, and Rainer Maria Rilke, and 20th-century monuments of the genre such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, writing guides have sat steadfast on aspiring writers’ nightstands, ready to inspire and instruct. Think of these books as kind of the homeschool version of M.F.A. programs.

Like most things having to do with creative writing, these books have become increasingly popular since the advent of the M.F.A. in the 1940s. Many famous writers, especially those who have also earned their living as teachers, have written books or lengthy essays on their craft.

Right now, with so many people across the United States studying creative writing in graduate and undergraduate programs, creative-writing guides are more popular than ever. Here is a look at some new and forthcoming ones, as well as a few of the classics of the genre.

New Books

Graywolf Press publishes at least one or two creative writing guides or collections of craft essays each year, either in its Art Of... series of topical volumes or in standalone books. This year’s most notable Graywolf entry is Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy (Oct.). Percy made a name for himself first as a literary writer, with his collection of stories Refresh, Refresh and a follow-up novel, The Wilding, but he then moved into popular fiction with the thrillers Red Moon and Dead Lands, as well as many comic books for DC; this book shows he has a capacious notion of what the writing of fiction can encompass.

These essays, which deal with a wide array of subjects, including genre fiction, writing about violence, and the finer points of creating fictional settings, started off as a series of lectures given at writing conferences and turned into essays first published in Poets & Writers.

Percy writes in a likable style that makes readers feel that they, too, have the capacity to write fiction. He’s got helpful tips on how to write characters who feel urgent and real (“The actor says to the director, ‘What’s my motivation?’ Your characters ask the same of you”), and how to balance “whimsy and logic” (“As an experiment, try changing one thing [about the world]. Just one. This is our world except for. Maybe gravity is increasing incrementally. Maybe it won’t stop raining. Maybe the sap from a certain maple tree makes a syrupy love potion”).

Percy crafts examples and suggestions with his own sense of imaginative whimsy. But his advice is also deeply grounded in the real world, as when he advocates writing about the realities of having a job: “Whether we like it or not, work defines us.... We have an obligation in our prose and poetry... to try to incorporate credibly and richly the working lives of our characters.”

Though Thrill Me is mostly targeted to writers beyond the very beginning stages of their practice, anyone interested in how fiction is made, and in how to make it, will find a lot here to spark their interest.

How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (Coffee House, Mar. 2017), edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, is an anthology of essays from Essay Daily, also edited by Monson. All of these pieces respond to other essays, dealing with, among other things, questions of craft and far-reaching inquiries into what exactly an essay is.

In his introduction, Monson, an accomplished and unusual essayist himself, proposes: “We are in the age of the essay... but we’ve always been. Maybe we just didn’t know it.” Among the contributors here are some of the big names in creative nonfiction, such as Phillip Lopate and Paul Lisicky, and many of the major proponents of the “new essay”—an ever-developing take on the form that seeks novel directions and structures for inquisitive prose—such as Ken Chen, John D’Agata, and Albert Goldbarth.

Readers will encounter all manner of probing writing here—“Is pedantry the mother of the essay?” Chen asks. Thinking about the memoir boom of the 1990s, Rigoberto Gonzalez notes, “Memory, it seemed, was considered such an unreliable resource because it was flawed and subjective.” Goldbarth thinks at one point about how writers do and don’t develop: “It isn’t surprising that core ideas remain stable in a writer’s life, even if over the years they appear in different guises.”

Less a practical guide than an anthology of think pieces, How We Speak to One Another will nonetheless send nonfiction writers eagerly back to their desks. And it’s a fun read, even for nonwriters.

Speaking of speaking, playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and anyone seeking tips for how to write conversation may want to look at Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Stage, Page, and Screen by Robert McKee (Twelve, out now). The author of Story, McKee is something of a screenwriting guru, and this is his follow-up to that bestselling text.

Dialogue takes a hyperpractical approach to his subject, breaking down the differences between dialogue in various media, going in-depth on the purposes of dialogue, and troubleshooting what can go wrong. To illustrate his points, he uses examples ranging from Shakespeare to 30 Rock.

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Ten Speed, out now) is probably the most practically minded book in this roundup. Cron, author of Wired for Story, proposes this new book as the answer to the question, What’s the biggest mistake writers make? She uses psychology and other sciences to explain what makes an utterly compelling story and how to write one.

“That’s the scary thing about story,” Cron writes. “We’re bewitched and affected by stories every minute of every day whether we know it or not.... Most of us are completely unaware of the hardwired power story has on us.” Opening with this kind consideration of what generally makes stories work, she moves on to practical advice about outlining, building a plot, and creating believable characters.

According to Cron, a novel “starts when life will no longer allow your protagonist to put off going after that thing he’s long wanted, regardless of how much his misbelief—and, as we’ll see, his biology—suggest he sit this one out.” Novice writers looking for a step-by-step guide to how to build—or fix—their novel might find a lot of useful information in here, though the focus on brain science might seem antithetical to those with more romantic notions of the creative process.

The Old Standbys

"Of course, the genre of writing guides has its classics, the books teachers and students return to again and again for trustworthy advice."
Of course, the genre of writing guides has its classics, the books teachers and students return to again and again for trustworthy advice.

There are probably more “classic” books about writing fiction than about writing any other genre, because there are more people writing fiction than anything else. But one book is mentioned a lot: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardener.

Gardener (1933–1982) is probably most famous for his novel Grendel. He actually wrote three books on writing and was a legendary teacher at many universities, but The Art of Fiction is his seminal writing guide. Gardner was a literary novelist, and he addresses writers interested in writing serious literary fiction. That’s not to say that authors of mysteries and romances won’t find helpful strategies in this book, but Gardner is principally concerned with helping others make great art, not sell books.

Gardner’s voice is likable and accessible, if, at times, a bit high-minded. Though he does not believe that all aspects of the writer’s craft can be taught, he contends that hard work and the will to stick it out through the process of writing a book win over talent. “Fiction does not spring into the world fully grown like Athena,” he writes. “It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original, if not profound.”

For poets, The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo is a kind of mythic text. Hugo published poetry prolifically between the 1960s and the 1980s, and he became a famous teacher of writing at the University in Missoula–Montana. The Triggering Town, a slim but powerful book, collects lectures and essays that grew out of his pedagogy.

Early on, Hugo writes: “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.” That is a challenging task he sets for himself, but his ability to accomplish it is what makes this book so great. He urges aspiring poets to honestly seek out those things—be they particular landscapes, personal memories, surrealist inventions, or anything else—that get their imaginations revving, and to mine those sources for a lifetime’s worth of poetry. For Hugo, those sources are beat-up Midwestern towns and fishing, and his prose feels as down-to-earth as those obsessions, though his insights are transcendent.

Hugo’s advice applies as well to prose writers, more than a few of whom turn to this book simply because it makes them want to write.

There are also lots of books about how to write a memoir or personal essay. But many teaching writers cite Philip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction as a good place to start.

One might say that Lopate is Mr. Personal Essay. He has played no small part in popularizing the genre and developing and propagating the pedagogy around it. This book devotes chapters to major issues in the writing of autobiographical nonfiction, such as the ethical concerns when writing about real people, and how to end an essay.

In one particularly memorable chapter, Lopate discusses the necessity of creating a character out of oneself in much the same way a novelist would: “How do you turn yourself into a character? First of all, you need to have—or acquire—some distance from yourself. If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal essays.”

This is a practical book, but readers may come away from it with a different sense of who they are, through envisioning how they might write about themselves.

These guides won’t entirely take the place of the years of study and feedback available to M.F.A. students, but an M.F.A. certainly isn’t a prerequisite for becoming an accomplished writer. Writing guides can be a kind of cheering section, a portable classroom that will help writers keep their minds and hands moving until their books are done.