I read three excellent craft books in the past three months.
1. Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison
I rarely read craft books from authors whose prose I don’t already know and love, but I made an exception for this one because of all the recommendations from my Twitter author community, and now I’m curious to discover Alison’s novels.
“So often fictions that experiment formally do so at the expense of feeling. They toy on surfaces or are purely cerebral affairs, don’t explore human complexities. But the mostly unconventional narratives I’ve been discussing have dealt powerfully with core human matters.”
Her examples are varied and well-chosen, from W. G. Sebald to Anne Carson, Clarice Lispector, Gabriel García Márquez, Marguerite Duras, and many more.
Meander, Spiral, Explode is a craft book for any author who would like to write a story outside of the narrow restraints of the classical arc.
2. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
When the author of Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo poured his class on Russian short stories into a book, I felt compelled to read it and was unsurprised when it blew me away. Yes, Mr. Saunders, Dear Author, I most definitely found something in your work that will benefit me, and I thank you from the heart for having written so extensively, comprehensively, and lovingly about the art of storytelling.
Here’s Saunders on writing as a process of revisions: “The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t really matter what you start with or how the initial idea gets generated. What makes you you, as a writer, is what you do to any old text, by way of this iterative method. This method overturns the tyranny of the first draft. Who cares if the first draft is good? It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to be, so you can revise it. You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence. Where does that sentence come from? Wherever. It doesn’t have to be anything special. It will become something special, over time, as you keep reacting to it. Reacting to that sentence, then changing it, hoping to divest it of some of its ordinariness or sloth, is…writing. That’s all writing is or needs to be. We’ll find our voice and ethos and distinguish ourselves from all the other writers in the world without needing to make any big overarching decisions, just by the thousands of small ones we make as we revise.”
3. Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses
I’ve been following Salesses’ articles on editing for a while and love his approach to the art of revision, so when this book was released, I had to read it right away. Craft in the Real World did not give me as much practical advice as his articles have, but it taught me something far more important, that craft is not neutral or innocent. Essential reading for this day and age.
“Craft is the cure or injury that can be done in our shared world when it isn’t acknowledged that there are different ways that world is felt.”
“Make no mistake—writing is power. What this fact should prompt us to ask is: What kind of power is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean?”
“We risk something in each creation simply by creating a version of ourselves on the page. That risk is not for sale, but it is on display. If we care to write to a real audience, we should care what our persona implies about us in real life. The writer who claims the freedom to write from any perspective, say, should be aware that it takes an investment in that perspective on the page, and that this investment is open to critique in the real world.”