Exploring the art of prose


Five Craft Books Off the Beaten Path

By Katharine Coldiron

Writers at all stages of their careers need help understanding where they’re going. Sometimes, when a writer gets stuck, a craft book can help unstick her. Many craft books offer general information about how writing works, or how to structure a novel or short story in an overall sense, while others zero in on particular aspects of the craft. Graywolf Press’s excellent “Art of” series, for example, focuses on particular topics in short books: Charles Baxter on The Art of Subtext, Mark Doty on The Art of Description, and so on.

The same general books come up over and over again in conversation whenever a writer asks for writing reference recommendations: Bird by Bird, Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing. All of these books have merit, of course, but there are plenty of craft books out there that rarely get recommended, some of which offer more memorable or practical advice than the giants of the genre. Here are five craft books off the beaten path.

  1. Plotto, William Wallace Cook

The first book on the list is also the weirdest. If you ever wanted to assemble a plot the way a chemist assembles a formula, Plotto will teach you how. It offers hundreds of interlocking elements to help a writer compose a plot that’s familiar but also unique. Each plot has an A Clause (the Protagonist Clause), a B Clause (the middle of the story), and a C Clause (the ending). The book allows the writer to slap these clauses together, like a child’s three-part board book with different animals’ heads, torsos, and legs, and wind up with an entirely new creation. This book was first released in 1928, so the material can be slightly dated, but this is part of the fun. It’s a great book for inspiration, even if the writer feels awkward about assembling a plot so mechanically.

  1. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, Steve Almond

A tiny secret weapon, this book has less than eighty pages, and is only available from the Harvard Book Store. It’s also a reversible book: one half consists of essays about writing, and the other is flash fiction, and the book must be flipped and reopened in order to read its other half. The essays on writing are invaluable. In tone, they are grumpy, thoughtful, determined, and insecure, and in content, they are years of hard-won writing lessons in extremely compressed form. Some of the essays invalidate other writing reference books on this list (which, after all, is what writing reference books do best—contradict each other); for example, “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” But if you still can’t come up with a plot, start with Plotto and work backward to a character with those deep fears and/or desires.

  1. The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass

Maass writes largely to an audience of commercial fiction authors with this book, but that does not mean that literary and nonfiction writers will learn nothing from it. This book truly teaches how to build a manuscript from the ground up, from word to sentence to paragraph to chapter to novel. It’s practical, detailed, and energetic. It’s a particularly good book for writers who have written a manuscript that they can’t get accepted and don’t understand why, or for writers who have talent but no toolbox. Maass is a superstar literary agent and author, and this book offers his proven expertise in how to make a manuscript great.

  1. Who’s Writing This?, ed. Daniel Halpern

Originally published in 1995 and reflecting the literary trends of that year, contributor-wise, this collection of 55 very short essays by 55 different authors offers an enormous amount of variety and wisdom. Immortals like Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag are here, but so are midlisters like Diane Johnson and Cecil Brown. Every writer was asked to reflect on the relationship between the author who writes and the person who occupies the same body as that author. The book was inspired by the short essay “Borges and I,” by Jorge Luis Borges, and each mini-essay in the book comes with a sketched or otherwise created self-portrait of the author. This collection is strange and self-contradictory, illuminating and soothing.

  1. Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, Lee Klein

A compendium of the rejections written and sent by Lee Klein while he edited Eyeshot, this book is extremely funny, and no other book offers such useful information about the process by which stories come to be rejected. Sometimes the stories are easy to reject (“This is juvenile. No.”), and sometimes they are less so (“…but then, very sadly, I couldn’t really get into the rest. You’re trying to write a little too hard”). Klein remains as authentically present as he can for every author he’s turning down. This book offers hope for the oft-rejected that it’s not necessarily you, and it’s not necessarily the publication, but it might be that those two elements just can’t meet in the middle.

Honorable mentions:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King

Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood

Fruitflesh, Gayle Brandeis

Bringing the Devil to His Knees, ed. Charles Baxter & Peter Turchi

KATHARINE COLDIRON’s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.