Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Read Before You Write

You want to write, but where do you turn? Unless you're still a student, and can afford to get help at the MFA level, finding writing courses is difficult. Colleges offer them, for a price. Workshops offer them, for a price. Even writers offer them, for a price. But there are alternatives.

Going to college in the late 60s, I had no idea there even was such a thing as creative writing courses (turns out, there was). So I picked an English/general lit major, with a dual bachelors in social sciences. It was good preparation for a career in journalism. How was I to know that fiction writing would fill my creative pores many decades later?

I decided "all the facts, ma'm" just wasn't enough in my life, and fell out of love with my career field (though I appreciate what I learned in it). Since then, I've spent a lot of time self-educating. I've been to workshops at Grub Street and immersed myself in all the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative has to offer—for free, no less! But very importantly, I've collected books to help me ferret out the secrets of good writing.

Perhaps some are born to write perfectly. Shakespeare, whoever he was, and Chaucer. But these days, even writers of great repute and ability spend time learning from their peers. Often enough, too, they write about their craft to help those who will follow. John Gardner, Elizabeth George, Anne Lamott, Marge Piercy, Ray Bradbury, Bill Bryson ... literally dozens! Writers cannot resist writing about their love for books and writing. They'll share wisdom on grammar, style, and various elements of crafting a story or book, so take advantage of what's available.

Many good books on the craft can be found at Thayer Memorial Library, where our programs are based. Librarian Joe MulĂ© is amassing a healthy collection of books for writers—novelists, historians, poets, essayists, etc.; you'll find them in the nonfiction section, in the 800s (as in any library). You may also request a book there, and it is most often obtainable shortly, even if the library has to buy it.

Read before you write.

If you want to write short fiction, read anthologies. If you want to write a certain type of fiction, read authors in that genre. Same goes for nonfiction, which also requires vast amounts of research through reading what others have already explored about your subject. You're not trying to copy, but to build a cushion of knowledge for when you put that well-prepared seat into a chair, to type.

Here are some books in my home library that I've found indispensible, in no particular order—I've put an asterisk by the title if I know it's also on the library shelves. But remember, more are always available.

Josip Novakovich, "Writing Fiction Step by Step"
Elizabeth George, "Write Away"*
Jeff Gerke, "Plot versus Characterl" "The First 50 Pages"
Heather Sellers, "Page after Page"
Ray Bradbury, "Zen in the Art of Writing"
N.M. Kelby, "The Constant Art of Being a Writer"
Stephen King, "On Writing"
Linda N. Edelstein, "The Writer's Guide to Character Traits"
Jessica Page Morrell, "Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing"
John Gardner, "The Art of Fiction"*; "On Becoming a Novelist"
Julia Cameron, "The Right to Write"*
Goldberg, "Writing Down the Bones"*
Pat Schneider, "Writing Alone"*
Anne Lamott, "Bird by Bird"*
Laraine Herring, "Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice"
Marie Arana, ed., "The Writing Life: Writers on How they Think and Work"
Donald Maass, "Writing the Breakout Novel"
Robin Hemley," "Turning Life into Fiction"
James V. Smith Jr., "You Can Write a Novel"

This isn't all, but it's a good start. The library's collection also includes these notables: Sutherland, "How Literature Works"; NTC Dictionary of Literary Terms; V. Klinkenborg, "Several Short Sentences About Writing"; L. Dale, "Shimmering Images"; Strausser, "Painless Writing"; Welty, "The Eye of the Story"; S. Burnham, "For Writers Only"; R. Peter Clark, "How to Write Short"; Goldberg, "Old Friends from Far Away" (memoir writing), and much, much more.

So slate a day at the library and review some of these offerings, buy some so you can underline at will, and, above all, read the best of what's out there.

Ann Connery Frantz writes about book clubs and authors for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. She is a freelance editor, a fiction writer and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative.

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