I like reading about writing. I like catching up on what I didn’t take in school back when I had the chance. In 2013, I took a class from Mark Poirier at the Iowa Summer Writing Fest and he suggested I look into low residency MFA programs. Kristy and I looked into it and chose the path doing this on my own. I would go to writing conferences or summer workshops. I would find a writing community. I would read all the craft books I could find. A big part of my work would be learning. It still is. It always will be.
I love craft books. This list of favorites is my personal syllabus so far:
- A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Saunders puts his Russian writers lectures from Syracuse into book form. He says its from his love of the Russian writers, but I also believe there’s some of it being public domain offerings where he could put the full short stories into his book? Either way, I agree and disagree with some of the political criticism this book got, but looking at it purely for the joy of reading and crafting short stories, it is pure gold.
- How Fiction Works by James Wood
Grandiose title, but an excellent compressed spin through all the major elements of fiction with good examples and reading list.
- Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Allison
Deep dive into structural alternatives to Aristotle’s Poetics. Another excellent generator for the reading list.
- Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
A compressed almost reference guide of the shapes narrative can take followed by an A to Z section on various components.
Sometimes known as the screenwriting teacher, McKee’s books are actually dedicated to all forms of Storytelling. This trilogy is a DIY MFA of its own. If I had to pick one favorite it would be the dialogue book for the best examples of his theories and a mixture of dialogue with story fundamental too. But if you only read one, it would have to be the original Story one.
- Character: The Art of Role and Cast Design for Page, Stage, and Screen
- Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and Principles of Screenwriting
- Graywolf’s The Art of:
- The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani
- The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between by Stacey D’Erasmo
- The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As it Takes by Joan Silber
- The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter
- The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
- The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
- The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies
This is a great series published by Graywolf Press that includes even more than the ones listed here. Each one is a class of its own with in depth exploration of the topic at hand including samples and reading lists.
- Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing by Douglas Glover
Crazy title, but a great essay collection. The first two chapters are worth the price alone. The first is a class on novel concepts we used in a week long novel class at Iowa Summer’s Writing fest, and the second is one of the best essays I have read on short story theory.
- The Erotics of Restraint by Douglas Glover
Another crazy title, but another great essay collection. Again, worth it alone on the strength of one essay, here a 60 pager on the “Anatomy of the Short Story.” An even better coverage than the one in Copula Spiders.
- The Craft of Writing by William Sloane
Eight “lectures” documented by his wife after his death based on material he taught at Breadloaf.
- On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
I prefer this one to Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. He sometimes runs the risks of suggesting there is only one right way to do things and he knows that one way better than anyone, but On Becoming a Novelist has good material for the elements of a novel as well as the mental approach to committing to novel writing.
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Excellent scope including chapters on Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gesture. Dives into specific examples to explore different ways the greats have written before. Somewhat limited in terms of writers she uses for sampling, but definitely one that has changed how I read and revise.
- Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell
Great class on Design of Short Stories which encompasses , many elements in his context: Plot, Character, Design, Theme, Imagery, Point of View, Dialogue, Tone, and Time Management. Presents full short stories with notes and then discussion of each element after.
- Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
Good essay collection that covers a lot of the basics on Plot but with a few different twists and concepts. The overall main theme is similar to the title: keep it thrilling, keep it exciting, disappear as a writer and let the reader get lost inside the story. All conventional concepts possibly, forgotten or ignored concepts possibly, but Percy practices what he preaches and keeps this collection moving. Some concepts he knows lead to push back and I’m guessing he takes them too far to show that you can dial back from them, but if you start farther out, your dial back will at least be farther than it would if the standard wasn’t set as extreme. Some concepts he doesn’t quite take them from the abstract to the specific, leaving me as a reader kind of knowing what he’s talking about and kind of unsure. “Set Pieces” and “Feckless Pondering” are probably my favorite essays of the book.