BLN Classics Resources

I love writing books, but I also find that with so many available you can easily spend a lifetime wading through the dross to get to the good stuff. Here’s a list of my favorite books on writing. Early next year, I’ll add to this list. In the meantime, enjoy! – Jeff

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter – This book discusses hidden subtextual overtones and undertones. While that might sound dry, it’s actually a marvelous and exciting exploration of how writers create visible and invisible detail in their work, using examples from modern and classic writers.

Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form by Madison Smartt Bell – Bell examines twelve stories written by his students and by well-known writers, analyzing their use of time, plot, character, and other elements of fiction. In this workshop-in-print-form, Bell deconstructs elements of the stories to show what works and what doesn’t. It’s a masterful performance, but you may want to buy two copies, since the relevance of each chapter’s end notes to the overall effect means you’ll otherwise constantly be flipping between pages.

The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart’s Truth into Literature by Carol Bly – Bly discusses the role of the imagination, ethics, and your characters, and many other topics not dealt with by most writing books. Her observations pertain in the best possible way not just to technique but to very human aspects of the writing life.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French – This book is the closest thing to a semester-long creative writing course you’ll find, probably because Burroway uses it as the foundation of her creative writing classes. Invaluable for beginners and intermediate writers alike.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany – This thoughtful perspective from an underrated giant of literature features a few reprints from books like The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, but mostly collects previously uncollected nonfiction about writing. The letters, which I thought would be slight, turn out to be insightful, focused, and consistently fascinating. The interviews are sometimes a little long, a little too detail oriented, but still wonderful to read. The essays are, of course, magnificent.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner – An eccentric genius as a fiction writer, Gardner created this writing book aimed at beginning writers to discuss theory as well as the craft of writing. It contains a mixture of practical, specific advice, along with graceful observations about the writer’s life.

Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction by Damon Knight – Knight was known for his science fiction writing, but this guide is much more universal than that and steeped in the wisdom of fifty years of writing fiction. Perhaps more importantly, Knight includes diagrams of various plot structures. Early on, this helped me visualize my plots as diagrams and sometimes enabled me to spot structural problems as a result. His thoughts on “form” are also useful to beginning and intermediate writers.

Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden – Madden breaks fiction down into its components (like character, theme, setting, etc.) and then creates subcategories of possible problems you may be having in your work. He uses examples of these problems from the drafts of books and stories by famous writers, and then shows you how the writer fixed the problem in the final draft. Just being able to see an early paragraph from The Great Gatsby and compare it to the published version is invaluable, but Madden’s advice and commentary make this my favorite writing book of all time.

Word Work: Surviving and Thriving As a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers – Much of Rogers’ advice is for published writers, and in some cases published writers with books out. However, certain sections are relevant in terms of the psychology of dealing with rejection and the difficulties of the writing life. I much prefer Rogers’ approach to these topics than some of the more New-Agey writing books that seem to value mysticism over commonsense.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – A sharp jab at the ways in which women’s writing has been marginalized by men and by society. Chapters include “The Double Standard of Content,” “False Categorization,” “Isolation”” and “Lack of Models.” Fiercely autonomous and darkly humorous at times.

Writing the Other (Conversation Pieces Volume 8) by Nisi Shaw and Cynthia Ward – A guide to writing about people who are not of your ethnicity, gender, economic class, etc. The book discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters.

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi – This brilliant exploration of creative writing through the metaphor of the map makes you see craft and form from a different perspective. Chapters like “Projections and Conventions” and “A Rigorous Geometry” provide insightful analysis of various short stories and novels in the context of topography.

How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense by Carolyn Wheat – This unassuming book provides a great breakdown of the tropes and expectations of thriller and mystery fiction. While acknowledging commercial requirements for the two genres, it also provides ample space for individuality and the art of fiction. Even if you don’t write mysteries or thrillers, Wheat’s advice applies more generally to pacing, story, and plot.

BLN Classics Praise

“One of the things that sets VanderMeer apart is his embrace of technology and media. His online presence is considerable and includes a number of web sites, frequent blogging, a short film adaptation of his novel Shriek (including collaboration with pop rock band The Church), his Alien Baby photo project and even a project involving animation via Sony PlayStation.” —

“Jeff VanderMeer has written a fascinating book on managing a writing career, including promotion, use of new media, career paths, resources, networking, conventions, and — not incidentally! — balancing all of this with actual writing. Recommended for anyone who writes, wants to write, or has written and now wonders what to do next.” —Nancy Kress, bestselling author of Write Great Fiction

“Many books tell us how to write, but Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife tells us how to be an author…VanderMeer made me think, question my own path, and make plans for a more focused move forward.” —Mur Lafferty, host and creator of the podcasts Geek Fu Action Grip and I Should Be Writing

“Who better than VanderMeer, master of the blogosphere and online innovator, to guide us through the burgeoning, oft breathtaking realm of new media…Jeff helps you hunt down the vast advantages provided by social networks, blogs, podcasts, and the like. And the best part is the silly pith helmet is optional. If you’re a writer who knows how to use a computer, then this book is for you.” —Joseph Mallozzi, Executive Producer, Stargate SG-1

“Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife is a frank, revealing, riveting manual by a writer for writers, not simply on how to be a better wordsmith, but on how to be a better human being. I’ll be recommending it to all my writing students. I don’t know how to praise a book more sincerely than that.” —Minister Faust, the BRO-Log

“VanderMeer has struck a new sort of balance with the Internet: charming his dedicated fan base on the web, creating multimedia promotional tools for his books, and actively seeking out new readers like me in the digital crowds. One of my favorite writers.” —The Publishing Spot

“VanderMeer may be creating the dominant literature of the 21st century.” —The Guardian

“Jeff VanderMeer’s book will rock your writer’s socks off! I’ve long marveled at Jeff’s mad alchemist-like techniques of creation, promotion, and artistic survival through his artful navigation of brambly networks of writers, artists, musicians, historians, hatmakers,
bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, and fans. To steal a line from an Eddie Izzard stand-up act, ‘No one can live at that speed…’ VanderMeer lives at that speed and makes it look effortless — and fun!” —Leslie Ann Henkel, publicist, Abrams Books

“Jeff VanderMeer has written a smart practical jungle-guidebook for the wilds of 21st century publishing — its incredible pressures, joys, poisons, and, most importantly, the dangers of a false sense of control…Floaty creative types — prepare to be taken to task.” —Julianna Baggott, author of Girl Talk

“One of the most literary fantasy writers or fantastic literary writers we’ve got working these days, take your pick.” —Ron Hogan, Mediabistro’s GalleyCat

Booklife is to authors in today’s publishing climate what Writer’s Market was fifteen years ago: essential. A well-organized, lucid guide to social networking, blogging, and the art of being an author in the age of Twitter. Jeff VanderMeer’s advice on maintaining one’s focus in an era of unfettered public access to the artist’s private life comes from his own hard-won experience; he’s been a writer at-home-on-the-web since before most of us had websites. With excellent additions by Matt Staggs and others, Booklife is a worthwhile addition to any writer’s bookshelf.” —Michelle Richmond, NYT Bestselling author of The Year of Fog

“Jeff VanderMeer is everywhere. He’s in your house, frightening your cat. He’s on your lawn, and even John McCain can’t get him to leave. He’s applying the poisonous glands of his tongue to the paint of your vintage Chevy. He’s scaling the side of the New York Times building (they’ll arrest them when he comes down, but he’ll never come down!). He’s engorged in the Grand Canyon, entombed in Grant’s Tomb, and impaled on the Space Needle. He’s in the middle of the world’s largest ball of twine. He’s a roving mercenary who kills to earn his living (and to help out the Congolese). He put the bang in Bangkok and the joy in New Joysey. John Waters wanted to make a film about him, but was too disgusted. Harriet Klausner has never had anything good to say about him. Osama bin Laden considered endorsing him, but said even he didn’t hate Western culture that much. And now you’re taking him home with you.” —Matthew Cheney, the Mumpsimus

Just One Sentence at a Time: Brandvold, Monahan, & Piccirilli on Writing Full-time

Today’s round-up includes three very different writers: Peter Brandvold, Sherry Monahan, and Tom Piccirilli.  Each of them writes full-time, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Each lives life contract to contract, deadline to deadline, sentence to sentence. 

Peter Brandvold writes under his own name and his pen name, Frank Leslie.  His recent books include The Devil’s Winchester (as Peter Brandvold), Bullet for a Halfbreed (as Frank Leslie) and Longarm and the Crossfire Girl (as Tabor Evans).  Under any name or in any series, Brandvold is known for writing violent action particularly well.  His secret seems to be his great care in developing life-like characters.

Sherry Monahan is a freelance writer, editor, and genealogist who specializes in the Victorian Western migration.  She is a contributing editor at True West magazine, as well as the author of the recent Cary, NC and the forthcoming E.M.H.: The Aristocratic Ranch Wife.  In addition to freelance writing and editing, Monahan hires out as a professional researcher who helps people not only trace their ancestry but to also flesh out the details.
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