A slew of new books about writing

“Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn’t flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off.”—Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Kidder-Good Prose

As the owner of an entire bookcase crammed with writing manuals dating back to the 1940s, Dad’s as well as mine that begin in the 1970s, I’m leery of new acquisitions. Rearranging my books earlier this winter, I thought, “I should at least reread some of these before buying another.” But that’s not a formal vow. Hence I find myself tempted by a sensible-looking new one, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, to be published January 15, because I admire Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction narratives and I know his editor and now co-author, Richard Todd.

Theirs has been a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1973 when Todd, as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, began editing and encouraging Kidder, a brash newcomer trying to break into magazine journalism. Their new book reveals that the tables were turned in their relationship recently when Kidder edited a draft of Todd’s wry lament about America, The Thing Itself (reviewed). I’m eager to know more, to see the editor get his comeuppance, but I’ll have to read the book to find out what Kidder said because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature cut me off.

Having stumbled across Good Prose on Amazon, I found myself directed to four more forthcoming books on writing.

Essayist and essay scholar Philip Lopate will publish in February To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl blurbs the book, saying it “includes brilliant and helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them and their vexing questions in clear cultural context. This is the rule book.” Also in February, Lopate’s new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, will be published.

Goldburg-True Secret

Natalie Goldberg, author of the enduringly popular Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (reviewed) will publish in March The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language. It’s unclear how this book will extend Goldberg’s vision of writing because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” isn’t yet functional for it, but the description—which reads in part, “Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg’s revolutionary writing and life practice . . . ”—implies that this is a summation of her teaching methods.

Then there’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, by Stuart Horwitz, to be published January 29. The description says Horwitz’s method is “a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.”

Finally—and I’m sure there are more forthcoming writing books but I refused to look—there’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing (January 13) by Martha Alderson, author of the blog Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers, recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Briefly sagging in the face of this how-to cornucopia, I wondered why are there so many books on writing. The obvious answer is that they sell.

Which only begs the question: What is it about writing? On the one hand, I take comfort—as intended—in statements like “writing’s just bricklaying”; i.e. making meaning and pleasing structure from piles of inert material. And I know there’s merit in the metaphor’s veiled plug for discipline; something made, day by day, takes on its own life, makes its own plea for completion. I even ruefully appreciate the heartless corollary mocking those with “writer’s block”: There’s no such thing as plumber’s block.

Yet such analogies seem partly disingenuous and reflect only partly my own experience. Writing is different. (Isn’t it?) It’s an art as well as a craft. It’s concentrated thought. And it’s far spookier, and far less substantial, than bricklaying. Bricks are physical objects, and words are symbols, invisible until writers pull them from their brains as if snatching them from thin air, write them down, and accept or reject them. Love works better than discipline, for me. But lonely work it can be. Surely I’m not the only writer who has gone to the bookcase and pulled down a book, almost any book, to reassure myself that my sentences are not so very different from those that have found print.

Writing can feel so insubstantial. Which is why, if nothing else, books on writing offer scribblers something beyond advice: comfort. As my groaning bookcase might attest, however, be  selective.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.


Filed under NOTED, reading, REVIEW, working method

13 responses to “A slew of new books about writing

  1. Thank you for your intriguing post, Richard, and thanks for starting out the New Year on such an inspiring note. (And Happy New Year!).

  2. Have any of Brian Kiteley’s craft books found their way to your shelves? (The 3 a.m. Epiphany is a favorite of mine, and The 4 a.m. Breakthrough is in my queue for this month.)

  3. I know why these books sell: procrastination! My own bookshelves sag with such books, and it is because I decided to READ about writing instead of actually WRITING. This was a big mistake on my part and I think it stunted my growth as a writer. These types of books were interesting, of course, and I did plenty of highlighting and underlining and taking notes, but when I think about what actually made me a better writer over the years, it was not because I read about writing in a book. It was “butt in chair”–writing. That, and taking writing classes through The Loft in Minneapolis where I could work in a small-class environment with other writers and intelligent, smart instructors.

    I am still tempted to buy many writing books that I see, but I have to quell that temptation and I’m very choosy about which ones, if any, I buy. I also found that I learned more about craft by reading other writers who published best-selling or critically received books in my genre (in my case, memoir).

    • Excellent points, Rachael. My own breakthroughs usually have come from reading work like I was actually trying to write at the time. Surely writing books similarly only have a chance of helping a writer who’s writing—and a few have given tips that helped me. But lots of stuff happens when both the conscious and unconscious mind are working to figure out one’s book.

  4. deborahlucas706

    As always, I appreciate your blog and will be passing on the list of new How-to books to my writer friends. A note about the brick metaphor from a three year stint in Architectural school decades ago, if you begin with the design process (creative), move through engineering (structural), include months of revision, then into construction (publishing), the comparison of books to buildings works.

    • Hi Deborah. Thank you for your compliment and for extending the analogy. I just came across a great interview with Zadie Smith on The Rumpus where she talks about writing as just a slog, just work. I can count on blog readers and my own reading and second-thoughts to complicate my pronouncements as soon as I make them. Which is why I blog, I guess, to learn what I think, even if I rush it out there sometimes and feel foolish. Here is the link to the Zadie Smith interview:


  5. Pingback: (Not) Writing on Wednesday: Old and New Books on the Craft @ SusanCushman.com

  6. I think writing books sell well to people who, to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg, want to “occupy the writer’s space.” There are millions and millions of people who want to write a book (just look at Twitter profiles), but don’t understand the undeniable slog that being a writer entails. They romanticize the idea of being a writer and fail to see that it’s hard work. And you write miles of sentence with little or no pay.

    I like Rachael’s stance above: get your butt in a chair and f*ckin’ write, expletive mine, of course.

    Richard, I’m with you too: reading books I aim to emulate (not copy) helps me through. “Gatsby” is my go-to for first-person story telling.

    That said … I love writing books and have been waiting for the Kidder/Todd book for a couple years.

    Right now, I’m in an apocalyptic writing funk. Time to visit West Egg.

    • Thanks for a thoughtful, balanced take, Brendan. As for your (brief!) writing funk, my experience is that reading really does help—and of course Gatsby is ALWAYS appropriate for any high or low—as does just slogging on. You might follow the Zadie Smith interview link I pasted in above in one response. She inspires by admitting how hard writing can be, brute work. BUT she loves the work, she adds. And yet, it’s reading that’s the transcendent experience, in her view; writers are trying to give that to readers but don’t get it from their own work.

    • Expletive could be mine, too 🙂