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Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie writers on writing

December 7, 2015

As I was writing my review of Carmel Bird’s Fair game yesterday, I was reminded that in addition to novels, short stories, and essays, she has also written a book on writing, titled Dear writer. I’ve dipped into it, but not being a professional writer – and having no plans myself to write a book – I must say I haven’t specifically sought out these sorts of books. Nonetheless, I thought it might be interesting to suss some out and share them with you – partly because I think they may have something to offer readers, and partly because it’s interesting to see who has chosen to write about writing.

Here goes (in chronological order of publication):

BirdDearWriterSpinelessCarmel Bird’s Dear writer (1988, republished 1996). This book comprises writing advice in the form of a series of letters. As Bird writes on her website, it’s been used by students and teachers, individually and in courses, as well as by readers “interested in the writer’s art”. An updated edition, Dear writer revisited, was published in 2013. This is the one I’ve been dipping into. In addition to her own advice, she includes advice from other writers, such as America’s Mark Twain and Australia’s Marion Halligan. In Letter 2 she discusses the use – or, non-use, more like it – of adjectives and adverbs. She says:

Perhaps you thought that you, as the writer, were the one who had to do all the imaging, and that the reader was to get every detail of the picture from your words. The reader of fiction takes pleasure in doing some of the work, and will more readily believe you and trust you if there is work to do. Strangely enough, the strength of fiction seems to lies much in what is left out as what is included …

Hmmm … I thought a book on writing fiction mightn’t be relevant to me but this, this is. I struggle with avoiding cliches, and particularly with trying to find fresh adjectives, but perhaps I should think about avoiding them altogether? Something for me to think about, as I try to describe in my posts the impact or value of a work.

Bird has also written Writing the story of your life.

Kate Grenville’s The writing book (1990) is, if can remember that far back, the first of these books to come to my attention. Grenville, about whom I’ve written several times, lists it on her own site. She says it has become a classic, being used, like Bird’s book, by individual writers and in writing courses. She shares some of her advice on this page. I particularly like this response to a popular notion:

‘Writing has to have a strong story.’

How interesting is it to have someone tell you the plot of a book they’ve just read? Not very. This means that plot alone isn’t what makes a book interesting. What makes it interesting isn’t what’s told but the way it’s told. In some of the best stories, almost nothing happens.

I think she’s right – and I have always said so! Plot is not necessarily the main or only point.

Grenville has written other books on the topic, including Writing from start to finish: A six-step guide.

John Marsden’s Everything I know about writing (1993, republished in 1998). For those of you who don’t know, Marsden is best known as a writer for children and young adults, including the bestselling Tomorrow, when the war began series. I’ve loved some of his YA books, including the unforgettable Letters from the inside. I found this advice from his book on GoodReads:

Use strong words sparingly – less is more. Minimise your use of qualifiers. Recognise words that are at the limits already (e.g. Boiling, delicious, evil), there is nothing you can do to strengthen them.

My family will tell you that one of my favourite mantras is “less is more” so, as I said of Bird’s advice above regarding the use of descriptive words, I love this.

As with Grenville’s book, you can find excerpts on Marsden’s own website.

Mark Tredinnick’s The little red writing book (2006). Of the writers I’ve mentioned here, Tredinnick is the one I know the least, that is, I know of him, but have not read him. He is a poet and essayist, and teaches writing, particularly “creative nonfiction” according to the GoodReads biography. He also edited Inkerman and Blunt’s Australian love poems. (You may remember that I reviewed their Australian love stories). Anyhow, Scott Downman, reviewing this book, says that it is pitched to “a broad audience who simply desire to write better”. Tredinnick says that he aims not to teach students to be writers but to teach them how to write. Summing up the book, Downman writes:

Tredinnick in the opening chapter urges the reader to not just tell a story but to make their writing sing: ‘In song, it’s how you sing, not just what you utter, that counts. And so it is with writing’

This, of course, is similar to what Grenville, above, said – the content is only part of the point.

Do you read books about writing? And if so, what are your favourites or, what are the most important lessons have you learnt?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2015 12:00 am

    Except for an old book of my father’s which is mostly about correct grammar, the only book of this type that I have is The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, which I really enjoyed. I blog to practice/refine my writing but I’m not sure about how-to books (or Creative Writing courses).

    • ian darling permalink
      December 8, 2015 12:19 am

      I read The Art Of Fiction too and enjoyed it a lot. Especially good in that both readers and writers would both get a lot out of it. Lodge examines passages from fiction writers that provide opportunities for discussion on a wide variety of aspects of writing and reading fiction. It is an excellent little book. Also liked Stephen King’s On Writing.

      • December 8, 2015 7:21 am

        Ah thanks Ian, another The art of fiction reader. And, as I was writing this post, I was thinking of Stephen King’s book which I did buy when it came out as a gift for my son. I never did manage to read it myself, but I remember it had good reviews.

    • December 8, 2015 7:19 am

      Ah yes, I have The art of fiction too Bill. I often dip into it. It’s a wonderful collection of ideas about different aspects of fiction, isn’t it?

  2. December 8, 2015 8:18 am

    I do enjoy the occasional book about writing. I find them useful even though I have no intention of writing a book. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is really popular and for good reason. I also very much enjoyed Stephen King’s book On Writing. Ursula Le Guin has a book on craft rather than the nuts and bolts that is really interesting too, The Wave in the Mind I think it is called.

    • December 8, 2015 9:13 am

      Thanks for all these, Stefanie. I had come across Lamott, and knew of King’s book as I did buy it, but didn’t know about Le Guin. Good to add that to the list.

    • Carmel Bird permalink
      December 9, 2015 12:30 pm

      I think the books listed on whisperingums are not really ‘how to’ books about writing, but are books by writers musing on writing for the benefit of other writers.
      And I agree that the books by Stephen King and Ann Lamott are similar, and excellent.

      • December 9, 2015 1:48 pm

        Thanks for commenting Carmel … that’s an interesting distinction to make. I wonder if there is a distinction between what the writers intend, and how some readers, at least, read them? (Which is probably the age-old question about writer’s intent versus reader’s perception!)

  3. December 8, 2015 10:31 am

    Last weekend I listened to an agent describing her experience on the receiving end at a ‘speed pitching’ event (where authors pitch to industry players, with a three or five minute time limit). “They all just described their plots,” she said, rolling her eyes. I read Grenville’s book when it first came out but clearly that important point about plot escaped me then. It seems crucial now – thanks for pointing it out.

    • December 8, 2015 6:07 pm

      That’s fascinating Michelle. I can see how in 3-5 minutes that would be the temptation, but I must say I get bored when people start to tell me the story of a book. Hmm, I wonder if I do that myself? I hope not, but maybe I do!

  4. December 8, 2015 7:50 pm

    Somebody gave me one by Stephen King, but I’ve never even opened it! I’ve also got Grenville’s one, and half a dozen others that I have never read either.
    I think I bought them when I was doing a Professional Writing Diploma which I abandoned when they insisted I had to do ‘writing non-fiction’ which turned out to be learning to write for tabloids.
    If/when I write a novel, I’ll write it first, and then I’ll have a look in the books to see what mistakes I’ve made…

    • December 8, 2015 11:11 pm

      Fair enough Lisa. I bet they are really useful for some people, but could be quite the dampener or show-stopper for others. I expect you have a pretty good idea of what makes a good novel.

      • December 9, 2015 10:27 am

        And it’s all too easy to spend too much time reading about how to write instead of actually writing. Ask me how I know…

  5. Glen Hunting permalink
    December 8, 2015 7:55 pm

    I first read “Dear Writer” when I was about 18 or 19. Originally I had a second-hand 1st edition, which I later replaced for a then-new 2nd edition. The text itself meant a lot to me then, and it still does.

    Another one from a little earlier in my life was called, simply, “Writing Fiction”, which was written by Garry Disher. It belonged to the library of the high school I attended. Because I borrowed it so frequently over two or three years, and because no-one else ever touched it, the librarians eventually gave it to me when I finished Year 12.

    • December 8, 2015 11:14 pm

      That’s a lovely story Glen — what great librarians they were. It’s great to hear, too, that these books have been of value to you.

  6. Tom Cunliffe permalink
    December 9, 2015 4:56 am

    Fascinating. I agree with all the tips you list above. Plot may not be all that important if the writing is good and plot alone is not enough. Also! Yes! The reader likes to complete the picture range than being spoon-fed everything. It is the same with great art – a few brush strokes can suffer far more than a detailed drawing can do. Nice article Sue

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