Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Safari or Zoo: Improving Writing Craft through Book

How does a writer choose (or learn) the best craft technique for a particular story?  CoriMcCarthy’s recent post, at Through The Tollbooth  In Defense of the Present Tense, touched on this topic, causing me to consider various opinions I’ve read in craft books about present tense.

Sarah feeding giraffe at Abuja zoo
When a writer detects a craft problem challenge in their work in progress (either while revising or writing), he or she needs to turn to craft. What can one do if one doesn’t have the answer or yet have that particular writing skill? One approach is to turn to books. 

For example, if a writer wants to learn more about present tense, she could read novels written in present tense such as Cori McCarthy’s book, The Color of Rain and Uma Krishnaswami’s book  The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic.  Both writers chose present tense for specific reasons because they feel present tense is the best way to tell their stories.  Or you could read a craft book that discusses present tense. 

African countryside in Nigeria
photo by Sarah Blake Johnson
The first approach is like going on a safari in Africa while the other is like visiting a zoo. I feel if the writer is, for example studying present tense, it’s ideal to read books in present tense as well as read about present tense.

Mammal in Nigeria
photo by Sarah Blake Johnson
1. The Safari: Become a detective. Examine several books and dissect the craft question at hand in that book. This is a great way to learn, especially as the specific craft question has not been pulled out of its element. To expand the books that you read, ask other writers about books that are good examples of a craft technique that you wish to examine as well as books that are a poor example. 
It may take searching to find what you are looking for. Or like in my photo of this mammal in Africa, you may discover something you hadn't realized was there. (I was first taking the photo of something else.)

photo by Sarah Blake Johnson
2. The Zoo: Read a book about writing craft. Reading some of these books is also helpful and can help a writer learn about craft issues they had never before considered. Also, not all authors of these books agree about craft, so a writer can learn of different opinions.

Here is a sampling of some craft books I’ve found useful.

The Basics
Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin
What's Your Story?: A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer
The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife and K.D. Sullivan

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Specific Topics
Character: Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
Plot: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Revising: Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein
Memoir:  Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman. 
Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from Vermont College of Fine Arts, lectures from VCFA MFA in Writing Faculty

One more craft book and the book that contains the best essay I’ve read about present tense: Alone with all that Could Happen: rethinking conventional wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss

(I also posted this article in Through The Tollbooth in June 2014.)
All photographs 

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