by Daddy X
One of the most valuable reference books on food is the perennial Joy of Cooking. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you use their recipes, which are far more complicated than a cookbook should be. (They’ll have you sifting brown sugar.) Rather, I’m talking about the section: “Know Your Ingredients”.
Knowing the ingredients of a dish, and, depending on the ways these ingredients are prepared, combined, cooked and how they compliment one another in the finished product, is 95 percent of the cooking battle.
We can extrapolate this theory to our writing. To write effectively, we must first know the ingredients—parts of speech, phraseology, a good vocabulary and how punctuation separates words into categories so they make sense. Style guides, and other dedicated works on various aspects of writing, come in handy for this.
I have purposely not named the authors in several of the guides due to the fact that they are standardized works begun over 100 years ago, then adapted and revised by other authors over decades. Others have been compiled by numerous contributors, such as the literary department at the University of Chicago. If I acknowledged them all, this post would be a lot longer. :>)
You likely have your own trusted teaching guides. We encourage you to comment and put us hip to them. For instance, I’ve not read Stephen King’s On Writing, which comes with its own proponents. I would encourage somebody familiar with it to give an assessment
A few personal favorites to consider:
Elements of Style
The old saw. There have always been challenges to Strunk’s opinionated delivery. It’s not the last word on all aspects of modern writing by any measure. But it just may be the first writing guide a fledgling writer should become familiar with.
Without a working knowledge of the basic information you’ll find in this slim volume, you’ll likely not get far as a writer. You won’t play like Coltrane unless you can first play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Backwards. Perfectly. Instinctively, without the benefit of written music.
Same with writing. We crawl before we walk. Or run the mile. Or jump hurdles. Just as John Coltrane broke rules, we first need to know the rules inside out, upside down and backwards before we break out on our own.
There is a new edition, which takes into consideration modern conventions, but a copy found in a used bookstore will likely serve as well.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Shows by example how punctuation determines what the words in a sentence actually mean. A fun, clever, deceptively competent work that establishes an easily understood system regarding the nature, logic and nuance of punctuation. Indispensable.
I’ll simply repeat the author’s little yarn that serves to illustrate the concept of this book:
A panda walks into a café, orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the door.
The panda produces a poorly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant page, and, sure enough finds an explanation:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal. Native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
So it really does matter what little marks we put between our words. Like Count Basie said about music: “Notes are simply notes. Music is what happens between the notes.”
The Essential Writer’s Companion
This and the following work would be the most likely to keep near at hand while pounding the keys. (Useless for pounding one’s pud.) Both feature a quick reference guide on the first few pages, allowing you to find an easy answer to your question as to why a red line appears under your work. Basic and easy to use, but not very nuanced.
Barron’s Essentials of English
See above. If you have one, you’ll probably not need the other. Both address aspects of writing essays, papers, letters, aesthetics of the finished product and illustrate common misuses of parts of speech. Both use examples to illustrate these lessons.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers Brown/King
This is the book I recommend most often on ERWA Storytime. While the above works provide general information on the English language, Self-editing focuses on the craft of fiction writing in depth. POV, tense, dialog dynamics, tags and beats, active v passive, show v tell, internal monologue, general sophistication of voice, it’s all covered.
Probably the one style guide a fiction writer should read cover-to-cover once a year. Also includes either-or lessons, examples of misuses and exercises to drive home points. (I simply looooove driving home my point.)
The Chicago Manual of Style
If Elements of Style is the first word on the subject, Chicago just may be the last. Most fiction writers will probably never need all the information contained in this massive tome, considering the broad scope of the business writing areas. Having said that, Chicago is the go-to choice for most editors and publishing houses. If a writer could possibly read (and retain) all the information in this book, they would have everything they need to know about most aspects of general writing, journalism, publishing and book production.
I’m still working with the 15th edition, (published 2003) but I see they’ve progressed to the 17th, likely incorporating more advanced aspects of the ever-changing world of modern writing and on-line publishing.
How to Write a Dirty Story by Susie Bright
Though the books mentioned above contain all you need to write effectively in the English language, those that bring up sex at all will advise to keep it behind closed doors. This, obviously, is antithetical for those of us who write erotica.
Ms. Bright has gone out of her way to show us how erotica writing differs from general fiction writing. From conception to submission of the finished product, we’re exposed to her vast first-hand experience. No pun.
Beyond delving into the literary elements that make for effective erotica, unlike the other books noted, Susie includes process and how it relates to the craft. For instance, she offers advice in avoiding libido burnout when, for hours on end, day after day, we’re writing about sex. She admonishes writers of all stripes to make sure to eat well, to exercise regularly, even get up and take walks outside every few hours, both to get other perspectives and to get the blood (and other juices) flowing. You’ll be surprised how many new ideas come to the fore while walking outdoors.
Reading for your own pleasure
You’ll notice that many of the above guides and reference works include before/after examples to illustrate their respective lessons. There’s no reason to limit the concept of learning by example to reference works.
Of primary importance in my antiques business is recognition. Recognizing the good from the bad, genuine from fake, is essential. Same with writing.
Read the best writing, fiction or not. The weekly NYT Book Review is a good start. Pulitzer and Nobel prizes in both fiction and non-fiction are announced every year. Pick and choose from whatever your interests may be; the possibilities extend back for years. Reading the best stuff, whether fiction or not, allows us to recognize and appreciate the best. And to perceive at a gut level how and why the best differs from the lesser.
Take for example T. C. Boyle, who has received as many literary acknowledgements of any living writer. Whether novel or short story, Boyle’s the kind of writer whose range of subject matter encompasses something for just about everyone. In my opinion, his prolific masterpieces are the very pinnacle of literary arts. I don’t think he structures any two sentences alike. His command of longer sentences is enviable— structured, complex, yet easy to read. Unless you are already a literary scholar, Boyle will add to your vocabulary every sitting.
Donna Tartt is another. The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer a couple of years back and may be the most perfectly constructed novel I’ve ever read. Norman Mailer made Harlot’s Ghost, his 1400 page fictional (?) treatise on the CIA read like a breeze. It was quite easy to go through 40-50 pages in a sitting, not because it wasn’t sophisticated or complex, far from it, but because of the fact that Mailer’s prose flows effortlessly.
I’m sure you have your favorites. Please comment on them below. Let’s hear about your go-to authors and your take on why they write so well.
If we become accustomed to reading the best in every type of writing, we’ll not be satisfied with anything less in our own work.
We can use these wonderful books as further examples to improve our work, just as we would the examples in the style guides. How our favorite authors successfully compile their work. How they vary (or not) the length and construction of sentences. How their paragraphs and themes weave together. How they approach and allow for vocabulary, POV, modifiers, characterization, atmosphere, time and tense. How and when to use our knowledge and finesse to break the rules, because, after all, isn’t breaking rules what the best writers do?
As a chef in the restaurant business, I was expected to go out and dine in competing restaurants, basically researching other chefs’ ways to make food taste good. Luckily, when I first started in a professional capacity, I worked under a chef who would make me taste a dish then tell him not only what the ingredients were, but how they were prepared, what type and level of heat was employed and whatever presentation would offer the best appearance on the plate. It’s not like the finished product I created from these sojourns was stealing an actual recipe (which literary parallel would be plagiarism) but rather some version that comes of one’s individual take on the corpus of information previously absorbed.
Now, when I have a main ingredient, whether vegetable or meat, fish or fowl, I’ll consult several cookbooks and see what recipes they offer featuring that ingredient. Then, knowing what I already know about a myriad of ingredients, I’ll close up all the cookbooks and do my take on what I’ve absorbed.
See? Writing is a lot like cooking. Joyful—as long as you know your way around the ingredients.