If you’ve been following the Liar’s blog entries regarding the question, “what book about writing would you recommend for writers,” you get the distinct sense that writers are somewhat reluctant to read about writing. Or at the very least, we read about writing so we can reject what we’ve read when we do our own writing. There are two main rules about writing that drive how I approach it:
1. I’m a storyteller first so every word, character, setting, syllable, and cheesy writing device has to serve the story and move it forward even if I have to ignore standard structure, style, and rules of grammar.
2. In order to effectively ignore standard structure, style, and rules of grammar, I need to first understand them.
Most of the books that are my favorites have been mentioned by my fellow Liars. Jon McGoran cites Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which I’ve relied upon as well. I’d add the Chicago Manual of Style as another practical source for grammatical guidance. Although I’ve never taken a class with Merry, classes like hers have helped me understand how to better use the mechanical power of sentences and paragraphs to tell the stories rattling around in my head. A book that I’m using right now, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass was recommended to me by Jonathan Maberry and is quite useful. It’s these books and classes that we chafe at (or is it “at which we chafe”) that give us the power to harness and direct the passion that drives the need to tell our stories.
Understanding good storytelling on an intuitive level requires reading, watching, and sharing stories as much as is possible in our busy lives. I love to watch a good movie with the sound turned down to see how the images tell the story. As Marie suggests, Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces are must reads that expand understanding of archetypical characters and stories. Spending time with voices that resonate for each of us is essential. For me, watching reading, and performing Shakespeare always stokes the flames of my imagination and provides inspiration. Finally, I like to read the work of writers that I know. Understanding the connection between the author’s voice on the page and the actual voice of the author is a true learning experience.
The simple clarity and power of a truly well written sentence taps into the very essence of our collective humanity. It reminds us of our frailties and fills us with hope through a deeper understanding of ourselves. Kelly suggests The Great Gatsby as a book that “leads by example.” I couldn’t agree more. The last three paragraphs of the book (five and a half sentences in all) are a marvel of storytelling and as good a primer for writing as any book I’ve ever read.
Keith Strunk is the author of Prallsville Mills and Stockton of the Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series. He is co-founder of River Union Stage, a professional Equity theater based in Frenchtown, NJ.
Keith’s post is part of an ongoing series, where Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing. Check out prior posts, and look back daily for more comments from members of the Liars Club. Better yet, subscribe to this site.