Books about the craft of writing

This has come up in conversation for me a couple of times in the last week, so I thought I'd pop it in here.  The part of writing that you can learn from a textbook is called craft.  Perhaps it should be called The Craft in the same way that black magic is often called The Art.

Craft is to writing what theory and technique is to music.  Craft means not only how to put words together so they work, but also things like scene structure, story structure, character development, how to handle point of view, techniques like mirroring and so forth. With good craft alone it's possible to write an acceptable story that flows smoothly and that anyone will read.  A story that works.

Craft isn't everything.  That story might be ultimately unsatisfying if you haven't covered off the other two essential elements: voice and storytelling.  Nevertheless, I find it odd that more people who want to write don't invest heavily in learning this stuff, because anyone can do it.

If you're the sort of person who learns well from books, then there are piles of texts about writing craft.  I'm dubious about most of them.  The only ones that I'd recommend, and this is very much a personal opinion, is the series Elements of Fiction Writing. I like it because each book in the series is written by someone with real practical experience.  Also because I agree with most of what they say!  Here they are:

Plot, by Ansen Dibell

Description, by Monica Wood

Conflict, Action & Suspense, by William Noble

Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress.  (Great  book for teaching basic structure.  That's Nancy Kress the SF author.)

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card.  (A very great writer.  He knows his stuff.)

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham.  (The best book of the lot, in my unhumble opinion, and very advanced.  My favourite "how to write" book.)

But having said that, I strongly believe anyone can learn craft by reading good books and thinking about how they worked.  Most writers do just that.  I did that.  It's like musicians who learned their craft by listening to great songs and picking them apart to see how they were put together.

I'd suggest taking your favourite books, then go through each one, mark out the scene boundaries, and ask yourself what each scene does, why it's there, which characters are in it, how each scene leads to the next, and so forth.  A lot of this is very technical and analytical.  If you do it enough, you'll discover standard patterns in any given genre.  Everyone knows, for example, that there are common techniques across every murder mystery, but few can explain them.  Writers learn the techniques well enough to actually use them.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent, Gary, thank you! Lots of good stuff here.

Gary Corby said...

I've read your books, Vicky. I know you know this stuff!

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Thanks, this is interesting stuff!

Gary Corby said...

You're welcome, Brigid. Welcome to the blog! (If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time you've commented.)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I have a number of those books--the series is very helpful, and as you said, all the writers have practical experience.

And I bet someone could become a millionaire if they wrote a how-to book about that slippery thing called voice!

Gary Corby said...

Right, that'll be my next book then.

Colin Smith said...

I too look for "craft" books written by people who clearly have lots of experience. That's why I read Stephen King's ON WRITING. I consider that to be the best book on the subject I've read so far. However, I haven't read any of the titles you've listed, so I will have to add them to my TBR pile.