The Best Self-Teaching Book for Creative-Writing Basics

★:  Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft (4th Edition) (Penguin Academics Series) (Paperback) by Janet Burroway, reviewed by  C. J. Singh  – See all my reviews

As expected, the fourth edition adds new short stories, nonfictions, poems, dramas and drops some of the ones in the third edition, keeping the overall page count of the book about the same. The new stories added are by Tobias Wolff, Jamaica Kincaid, Ursula Le Guin and others; new examples of creative nonfiction are from Michael Chabon, David Sedaris, and others. Also new are nearly half of the poems and dramas.

Some of the “new” additions are from the most widely anthologized, for example, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” That’s good for beginners: if you haven’t read them before, they are great additions; good for instructors: if you have read them before, they cut down your preparation time.

The expository sections of Poetry and Drama are expanded. Particularly helpful for self-teaching will be the first and final drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” and Patty Seyburn’s “Anatomy of Disorder.”

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A Unique Book on Editing

★ Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (Hardcover) by Scott Norton, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 4, 2009 (21 of 23 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers

 

In teaching courses on editing at UC Berkeley extension, I assigned various books that focused on grammar, usage, proofreading, copyediting, and publishing. I searched for a book on developmental editing. None. “The Chicago Manual of Style fifteenth edition, merely mentions the subject. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) is unique.

Scott Norton defines developmental editing as “a significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse” and observes that unlike copyediting it cannot be “demonstrated with brief examples. So I’ve adopted the strategy of creating extended narrative examples. Although fictitious and intentionally exaggerated, these ‘case studies’ reflect the range of authors, clients, and developmental assignments.”

The artfully constructed case studies Norton presents engage the reader throughout the book — from the first chapter, “Concept: Shaping the Proposal” to the final chapter, “Display: Dressing Up the Text.” Two examples of his creative case-study approach follow.

“Thesis: Finding the Hook” (pp. 48-67) begins with the developmental editor (DE) taking a first look at the book proposal and noting that the two coauthors, an anthropologist and a sociologist, both second generation Mexican Americans “had too much to say on their subject, and many of their theses contradicted each other” (p. 51).

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A Contemporary Classic on Editing Nonfiction Prose

★ : Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (11th Edition) (Paperback) by Joseph Williams, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 8, 2013 (11 of 14 people found the following review helpful.) – See all my reviews

 

Years ago, I attended a weekend workshop for instructors of college composition that was led by Professor Joseph Williams, the author of STYLE, visiting from the University of Chicago and Professor Richard Lanham, author of Revising Prose , visiting from UCLA. They presented lucid and witty summaries of their books, Lanham focusing on revising at the sentence level and Williams on paragraphs. Although their books have gone through several editions since, the core concepts remain the same. Both self-teaching books are on my amazon Listmania’s list “Expository Writing: Top Ten Books.”

While teaching Advanced Editorial Workshop, a ten-week course, at the University of California, I regularly assigned the earlier editions of STYLE as the main textbook. Each term, students rated the book as excellent. (The prerequisite to the workshop was a review course, with the main textbook “The Harbrace College Handbook.” Although STYLE includes a 22-page appendix summarizing grammar and punctuation rules, most readers would be well-advised to reread a standard college handbook, such as Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers’s A Writer’s Reference with Exercises. See my review on Amazon.)

Even a brief browsing of Joseph Williams’s STYLE would persuade most readers that it makes the much touted Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” look, well, elementary. Simplistic. If the seductively slender “Elements” — easily read in a day, no exercises to do — could deliver the claim on its jacket, by the end of the day there’d be millions of excellent writers.

The 11th edition of STYLE has been ably co-authored by Joseph Bizup. Among the enhancements Bizup presents are reordering of two chapters so that the trajectory is from clarity to grace instead of from sentence- to document-level. He has added many new exercises “grouped under the heading `In Your Own Word,’ that invite writers to work with their own prose” (p v).
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Part One, Style as Choice, focuses on different kinds of rules – – real, social, invented. Three of the many examples of invented rules presented are the usage distinctions between that/which; fewer/less; and who/whom. An invented rule says: “Use the relative pronoun `that’ — not `which’ — for restrictive clauses” (page 15). Williams traces the history of this invention and quotes several noted writers who disregard it. His discussion is included in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (See my review on amazon.)

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Teach Yourself Editing

★ : The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (Paperback) by Susan Bell, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 10, 2009 – See all my reviews

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The author of The Artful Edit, Susan Bell, a veteran editor of fiction and nonfiction books, teaches at New York’s New School graduate writing program. She notes: “Many writers hanker to learn about a process that lives at a hushed remove from the `glamour’ of writing: the edit. They want what most creative-writing classrooms are hard-pressed to give, which is detachment from their text in order to see it clearly. . . . Classroom critiques, while helpful, are limited. Too often they don’t give a systematic view of a writer’s work, and train him to develop a thick skin more than a sensible one.” This accords with my experience in an MFA program.

Bell cites editing practices of several established writers such as Tracy Kidder’s The Soul Of A New Machine, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

The second and third chapters (nearly half of the book) present a detailed analysis of the editing process of several drafts of F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It’s a good choice of novel as most readers are likely to be familiar with it. Moreover, the editing back and forth between Fitzgerald and the publisher’s editor, Max Perkins, is well documented in books such as Scott Berg’s “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”

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A Fast Method for Revising Good Writing into Great Writing

★ Revising Prose (5th Edition) (Paperback) by Richard Lanham, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted March 12, 2010 (55 of 55 people found the review helpful.)  – See all my reviews.

Years ago, I attended a weekend workshop for instructors of college composition that was led by Professor Richard Lanham, author of Revising Prose , visiting from UCLA, and Professor Joseph Williams, author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace , visiting from the University of Chicago. They presented witty and lucid summaries of their books, Lanham focusing on revising at the sentence level and Williams on paragraphs. Although their books have gone through several editions since, the core concepts remain the same. Both self-teaching books are on my Amazon Listmania’s list Expository Writing: Top Ten Books.”

In the preface to “Revising Prose (5th edition)” Lanham notes: “Writing may have been invented to keep bureaucratic accounts….As the world has become bureaucratized, so has its language….Revising Prose was written as a supplementary text for any course that requires writing. Because it addresses a single discrete style, “Revising Prose” can be rule-based to a degree that prose analysis rarely permits. This set of rules — the Paramedic Method –in turn allows the book to be self-teaching.”

In each of the five editions of “Revising Prose,” Lanham added fresh examples and exercises to its core content: the Paramedic Method comprising eight steps as follows.

1. Circle the prepositions;
2. Circle the “is” forms;
3. Find the action;
4. Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb;
5. Start fast – no slow windups;
6. Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling;
7. Write out each sentence on a blank screen or sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a “/”;
8. Mark off sentence length with a “/.”

Basically, Lanham’s Paramedic Method advises you to delete prepositional phrases and “is” forms and replace them with active verbs.

Below are four brief examples and a test-yourself exercise from the book.

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Teach Yourself the Craft of Editing

★ : The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (Hardcover) by Carol Fisher Saller, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 2, 2009 (62 of 63 people found the review helpful.)  – See all my reviews.The Subversive Editor

While teaching courses in editing at UC Berkeley extension, I always assigned The Chicago Manual of Style and Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (5th Edition) for the introductory course. For the advanced course, we studied Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (ninth edition). As noted in my detailed reviews of the two latter books, most students found them excellent. I’m sure they’d be just as enthusiastic about The Subversive Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. In fact, I’d place this book near the top of the reading list for anyone interested in learning how to edit. Saller, a senior mansucript editor at the University of Chicago Press, also edits “The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A.” Written with charming wit, her brief book presents numerous tips. For several samples from the book, please read on.

Introducing her book, Saller writes: “Although people outside the Press address us `Dear style goddesses’ and assume we are experts on everything in the `Manual,’ most of the time I feel more like the pathetic little person behind the curtain in `The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s only because I’m surrounded and protected by knowledgeable and generous coworkers that I can assemble the authoritative front that appears in the Q&A” (p. xi).

From the Q&A: “Q/ Oh, English-language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing?” (p. 31). “A/ In formal writing, we allow a question mark and an exclamation only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no” (p. 43).

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Excellent Copyediting Tutorial on the Current Chicago Manual of Style

 : The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (Paperback) by Amy Einsohn, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted August 17, 2011 (35 of 37 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews.

While teaching UC Berkeley’s courses in “The Professional Sequence in Editing,” I regularly assigned selected exercises in this book’s earlier editions as preparation for more complex exercises in class. The students’ evaluations of the book were always favorable.

Copyeditor's Handbook: Einsohn

This edition presents a fast-track introduction to the many changes in the Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition, 2010. I particularly appreciate the handbook’s references to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. (See my review of this great usage dictionary on Amazon.) Ever since its publication in 1989, I have regularly enjoyed reading MWDEU’s scholarly entries. These 2300 entries, often witty, drawn mainly from literary sources are a refreshing contrast to Garner’s stridently prescriptive injunctions in the Chicago Manual, drawn mainly from journalistic sources.

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Self-Editing Your Novel Manuscript

★ The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel: A Step-by-Step Guide to Perfecting Your Work (Paperback) by Robert J. Ray, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted February 16, 2010 (23 of 24 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel makes an excellent companion to Ray’s The Weekend Novelist (TWN). But, what if you haven’t read TWN? You still could follow this book — thanks to its 11-page detailed glossary. The book also includes a witty rewrite-in-progress of a draft — a draft that had been completed without its author having read TWN.

In rewriting, Ray focuses on restructuring, not mere copyediting (aka line-editing): “The key to rewriting your novel is not line-editing, the key is fixing the subplots. If you fix the subplots, then the manuscript will shape up” (page 7). The assumption here is that the writer has already structured the main plot with care. Ray suggests many restructuring exercises such as making separate grids for each subplot. Throughout, he presents structural analyses of a number of novels to illustrate craft concepts. The novels include:

literary contemporaries such as,

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler,
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys,and
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje;

literary classics like Pride and PrejudiceJane Eyre, and The Great Gatsby; and a few genre novels like Gorky Park and The Eye of the Needle.

Ray also comments on the screen adaptations of novels and suggests the “Rewrite mantra: to find story secrets, study good films” (p. 35). In both editions of TWN, the short list of recommended books for novel-writing include Syd Field’s The Screenwriter’s Workbook. Field’s pioneering book, “Screenplay,” popularized the three-act structure (based on Aristotle’s “Poetics”) and added two plot points, which he defined “as any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction.”

The second edition of The Weekend Novelist begins by noting: “Writing a novel in the twenty-first century is made complicated by the world of screens. It wasn’t like that always….Screens have changed the writing world. When the writing world changes, the writer must change.” To learn the new complications in the craft, I studied both editions of TWN.

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HIGH-IMPACT TOOLS for WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION

★ Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling (Paperback) by Donald Maass, reviewed by C. J. Singh  on  amazon.com, copy posted October 21, 2012 (17 of 19 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

In the opening chapter, Donald Maass introduces his book’s basic premise: In the 21st century “high-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fictions,” transcending the dichotomy (pages 2-3). Maass equates “high-impact” with a novel’s inclusion on the New York Times bestseller list: the longer it stays on the list, the higher its impact.

The second chapter’s title “The Death of Genre” proclaims assimilation of commercial or genre fiction into literary fiction: “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (page 13). As examples, he cites Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate — a literary and thriller; and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union–a literary and murder mystery.

However, the dichotomy flourishes in MFA programs in American universities. “Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven….Many, perhaps most, teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre.” That’s a quote from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition), the most widely used textbook in fiction-writing courses. (See my review on amazon.) This dichotomy first arose from early twentieth century modernist and mid-century postmodernist literary movements. Recently, the excesses of postmodernism have led to a reaction for which literary theorists have not yet found a label and are calling it post-postmodernist literary works. (See my note at the end of this review for a brief exposition of these movements.)

Maass’s subsequent chapters present tools for writing high-impact fiction. Some of these tools are similar to those in his earlier books such as The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques. (See my review on Amazon.) Can this book be comprehended without reading his earlier books on craft? Yes.

The third chapter, “The Inner Journey,” presents excerpts from several novels such as Joshilyn Jackson’s Gods in Alabama published in 2005, and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, published in 2009. Can these excerpts be understood without having read the novels? Yes. Maass skillfully presents synopses of each novel excerpted.

The fourth chapter, “The Outer Journey,” focuses on plot, citing excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, published in 2005, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, published in 2009.

The fifth chapter, “Standout Characters” cites examples from Markus Zasuk’s The Book Thief, published in 2005 and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, published in 2009. Also Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, cited in the previous chapter, underscoring high-impact novel’s requirement of both plot- and character-driven writing.

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The Architecture of the Lie That Tells a Truth

★ Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (Hardcover) by John Dufresne, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted January 22, 2010 (55 of 58 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
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In the main, John Dufresne’s new book, aptly subtitled “A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months,” comprises novel-focused insights of his earlier book, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction (2005). That book was highly praised for Dufresne’s amiable voice and wit. The new book sustains both very well and is complete in itself –without a prerequisite reading of his previous craft book. Dufresne, a professor in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at Florida International University, is the author of several acclaimed literary novels and includes brief examples from these published works. The book sequences the twenty chapters by weeks in the suggested twenty-six week writing schedule.
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The opening four chapters cover the first four weeks, assigned to finding the subject and the principal characters of your story. Here’s an example of his lucid expository writing: “I usually begin my novels with a character, someone who intrigues me for some reason or other…. I find a person, and then I give that person some trouble, and then I ask that person what she wants to do about the trouble, and then put more obstacles in her way — writing a novel is taking the path of most resistance” (pp 71-72).
The fifth chapter introduces plotting. Dufresne cites the widely used screen-writing plot diagram: “We might borrow a technique from screenwriting and establish four important scenic moments and use them as a scaffold for building our plot: the opening scene; the plot point at the end of Act I; the plot point at the end of Act II; and the end of the novel” (p 111). Plot point is explained as “a twist that sends the novel off in a new direction.” (The screen-writing plot diagram was first adapted from Aristotle’s Poetics by Syd Field in his pioneering books, Screenplay, published in 1978, and The Screenwriter’s Workbook ).