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):
Carmel 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?