Friday, 11 July 2008

Coffee Morning - Books

Good day, fellow racers. Continuing a theme from last week and inspired by Desert Island Discs, I invite you to help yourself from the selection of iced fruit juices, pull up a deckchair and generally enjoy the view (and never mind that ship sinking over there).

Although there are hundreds of ‘How to write a novel/play/bestseller’ books on the market, I find most of them to be tedious and uninformative. One or two have passed on some useful information, but on the whole they give the impression of having been written to fill a gap in the author’s finances. A lot of them are passing off ‘this worked for me’ as ‘this is how it should be done’, which is not very useful if you are not that person, don’t have their agent, and don’t write in their style or genre.

In addition, the whole writing business is becoming a tad incestuous and, as with some (though by no means all) of the creative writing courses, they are far too prescriptive and produce endless clones of what the author/tutor believes to be good writing/subject matter. You can, perhaps, tell that I’m not a great fan.

Yet, given our obsession with writing, books are going to be a major source of inspiration for what we do. So, with that in mind, can you think of four non-fiction books other than ‘How to write’ books that have helped your writing and can you think of four works of fiction that made you sit up and think: ‘I wish I could write like that; I’m going to write like that!’

To start things going, here is my non-definitive list (four books per category is way too short). They probably say more about me than anything else, but I have found them inspirational.

My four non-fiction are:

The Empty Space – Peter Brook. Although about theatre, it is essentially about going into a blank space and creating a story. Short. Insightful.

Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse. An interesting (and easy going) work of philosophy that looks at different ways in which people approach life and relationships.

The Comedy of Survival – Joseph W. Meeker. Considered the founding work for the field of literary ecology, this opens up new ways of thinking about some of the basics of literature.

Experience and Education – John Dewey. A concise statement of his educational philosophy, this little book explores how we grow as people (or are otherwise thwarted from growth) through various kinds of experience.

My four works of fiction are:

The Female Man – Joanna Russ. I love all her books, but this handles a multi-stranded moral narrative with sparkling language and apparent ease. Her non-fiction is also well worth looking at (as she taught literature and creative writing).

The Atrocity Exhibition – J. G. Ballard. There were a number of other ‘experimental’ works of this nature produced at the time. They were the flame fizzing down the touch paper, but Ballard was the firework display itself.

Shadow Dance – Angela Carter. As with no other author, I cried when I heard she had died. This is her first novel, one that trampled boundaries into the ground with such vivid imagery. And she just kept getting better.

The Nature of the Catastrophe – eds Jones and Moorcock. A Collection of Jerry Cornelius short stories by Mike Moorcock and others. Ballard was the firework display. This was the acid I dropped before I watched it.


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Not sure I can manage four and four, but I'll try for one and one. My non-fiction choice would be 'Impro' by Kenneth Johnstone; it's very helpful on narrative. I'm currently reading his follow-up 'Impro For Storytellers'. And fiction, well, actually one of the most inspiring writers I've read recently writes non-fiction, Jonathan Raban, Passage To Juneau, loved it, would kill to be able to write like that. Then for real fiction there's The Bone People by Keri Hulme, an astonishing and courageous book.

liz fenwick said...

Interesting........these days I don't read much non-fiction as my reading time is limited. Therefore I spend the time with books in my genre and about writing as currently on my can't live without is Donald Maass - Breakout Fiction Workbook.

It was interesting this past weekend in being with 150 writers how apparent it became that the writing process is different for all of us - from Jill Mansell writing in long hand sitting on her sofa with the tv to deep ploters. So as you say some writing books are only how someone else does it.

Of the recently read books the language and description in The Thirteenth Tale made me want to write more beautifully than I do. Kate H's The Self Presevation Society made me want to be able to handle serious issues with a lightness of touch.......I could go on but I won't as I have to finish my last conference post :-)

Kate.Kingsley said...

Morning all,
Hhhhmm, non-fiction is a tricky one for me as I don't read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I guess I could include the running books I've read ~ I see a huge connection between silencing the voice in your head that tells you that you're tired and your legs hurt and no-one will know if you just stop for a little while, etc, and the voice in your head that tells you that what you're writing is rubbish, no-one will know if you put the pen down and watch Masterchef instead, and so on. Silencing the refrains of "you can't do this because you're not fit enough / talented enough" is, to me , the key to keeping running and keeping writing and getting into the "flow" that makes keeping on with it far more satisfying than not doing it.

Fiction that made me go "I want t do that!" includes both Pale Fire and Lolita by Nabakov ~ I remember being blown away when I realised you could have the narrator tell one story, whilst the reader could deduce another from their version of events, Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood (a 'life' isn't just the glamorous bits, its all the crappy & dull bits as well) and, at a young age, Wuthering Heights ~ oh to be able to convey such scorching intensity of emotion!

Hope the weather improves up here ~ I'm going to a wedding tomorrow and its pouring down right now :-(


What a wonderful mind opening question for coffee moring. I agree totally with your views on a lot of how to write books. Alas I a mid domestic duties ie facing greatest washing mountain in universe as school holdays are well under way here in France so may have to steal time later to answer this in depth. However , and I know this is sort of off point but I watched "stranger than Ficiton" on DVD the other night with Emma Thompson playing an author with writers block who eventually finds the inspiration she needs to kill off her main character. When asked how she found it she says , with a withering look, something along the lines of " like all good writing it appeared out like a bolt of lightening" or words to that effect. As one who writes as a result of just that sort of inspiration ie my ideas hit me over the head in the middle of the night and I have to write them or go even more crazy as the characters stomp about plaguing me all day if I don't I found this incredibly reassurring!

For non fiction books that have inspired I owuld go for the lives of female explorers of various ilks as their staying power and gumph have always driven me to try adn rise above the mundane and embrace life. ( goodness that sounds pompous!)

Caroline said...

The creative writing MA that I did was not too prescriptive and I really don't think that it is producing endless clones. I'd hate to think that my writing is a clone of my workshop leaders. I gained so much from my course and I finished In Search of Adam as part of the course. For me, it offered discipline and allowed me to justify the time spent writing.

I think that some writers really do benefit from creative writing courses, especially when combined with reading and a drive to write. I can't read 'how-to' books because they don't 'work' for me. I prefer to talk through writing and then go away and to write.

I've found inspriation for writing from Jeanette Wnterson, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Roald Dahl and the Grimm brothers.

Happy rainy Friday.


B said...

Graeme, I found this really interesting seeing as I see your name round the A363 and other OU forums quite a bit. Do you think that A215 (can't really ask about A363 yet!) suffer from the overly prescriptive problem?

I love Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, but that's probably the only one I've read.

And anything can inspire me to write OR intimidate me into thinking I am awful and should never write another word. It's more my own mood that influences that.

See some of you soon! :) Wish more of you could make it :(

B said...

(just realised that my first para could be read as accusatory. didn't mean it like that. sorry! i'm just really short of time and no more internet access til very late tomorrow)

Lucy Diamond said...

I am guilty of buying lots of How To Be The Best Writer in the World books....and then never actually reading them. How pathetic is that.
I have read a whopping TWO such books though, ages ago - Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Someone-or-other which I remember being great. And Bestseller by Celia Brayfield which was also good. Oh, and actually 'From Pitch to Publication' by Carole Blake is very helpful too. I followed her advice to the letter when starting out and very good it was too.

I've got how-to books by Stephen King and Donald Maass and David Lodge and James Frey all sitting patiently under my desk waiting for me to pick them up though. Trouble is, I'd rather read fiction any day...

Leatherdykeuk said...

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande was the most worthy 'how to' book I've ever read. As to non-fiction... I don't read a lot but I would perhaps go for Budo Mind and Body by Nicklaus Suino since the principles of samurai can be applied to writing. I'd also have to say I get inspired by books of marvelous things - cabinets of curiosities and collections of cigarette cards often spark a story or a subplot.

Fiction I wish I'd written - Espedair Street by Iain Banks, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Things My Girlfriend and I have Argued About by Mil Millington (though his other works were less inspiring)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Some fascinating stuff there, especially in terms of the places from which we draw strength and inspiration.

I don't think all CW courses or How-to books are bad/prescriptive. Some certainly are. Biased as I am, I do think the OU have been very good at avoiding this - although some tutors are better than others - perhaps because they have an open admissions policy.

Debs said...

I love the idea of sitting in a deckchair with a lolly.

I have to hang my head in shame as I don't read much non-fiction as any free time is spent enjoying my never-ending tbr piles of fiction.

Like others I enjoyed Dorothea Brand's Becoming a Writer and Stephen King's On Writing as it was interesting to read about him as a person and glean useful snippets at the same time.

As for fiction that inspired me, the first books I read by Katie Fforde, Highland Fling and Christina Jones, Tickled Pink and then their subsequent novels made me wish that I could write inspired characters and give such a brilliant sense of place as they do.

Debs said...

I love the idea of sitting in a deckchair with a lolly.

I have to hang my head in shame as I don't read much non-fiction as any free time is spent enjoying my never-ending tbr piles of fiction.

Like others I enjoyed Dorothea Brand's Becoming a Writer and Stephen King's On Writing as it was interesting to read about him as a person and glean useful snippets at the same time.

As for fiction that inspired me, the first books I read by Katie Fforde, Highland Fling and Christina Jones, Tickled Pink and then their subsequent novels made me wish that I could write inspired characters and give such a brilliant sense of place as they do.

Anonymous said...

I'll have a tomato juice please, with a little Tabasco sauce added. Later on I'll have a full-blown Caesar.

My own feeling is that "how to" books are okay when you are first starting out. After all, you have to learn from somewhere, and until you meet a load of writing blog friends, a textbook is as good a place as any. Later on, as you progress, it's important to take the "rules" with a pinch of salt. The publishing industry is quite non-deterministic in nature, so rules don't necessarily help.

My four inspirational non-fiction books are:

1. Various texts on software development methodology. I nick these ideas and use them in my fiction writing methodology.
2. Music! Okay that's not a non-fiction book, but it's very influential on my writing. A good source of titles too.
3. "On Writing" by Stephen King. This may bend your the about not including "how to" books, but there's also good stuff about the author's life as well. Very inspirational. It seems Debs agrees with me on this one.
4. Umm, can't think of a fourth. Sorry.

My four "I wanna write like that" fiction books are:

1. "Pandora's Star" / "Judas Unchained" by Peter F Hamilton. The ideas are simply mind-blowing.
2. "The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart. Eye-opening and a cracking read.
3. "Twisted" / "More Twisted" by Jeffery Deaver. Really good short story collections.
4. "The Duelling Machine" by Ben Bova. I read it when I was a teenager. Got to the end and immediately started it again!

Another cracking topic. There'll be none left by the time it's my turn to host the coffee mornings :o/

ChrisH said...

Another really interesting opener - I only wish I was sitting in a deckchair with a lolly!

First choices are linked; revising for school exams gave me a serious Mills & Boon habit, the perfect antidote to all that cramming. An interview with the M&B writer, Mary Wibberley with the marvellous title, 'Think Pink and Earn a Mink' led to me buying my first 'how to write' book, Mary's 'To Writers With Love' and my first and doomed attempt to write a M&B. Not as easy as I thought!

So far as fiction goes, I take something from every title I read - even if it's 'I NEVER want to write like that,' so it's hard to pin down four titles therefore I've gone over on my non-fiction.

In addition to the above I'd pick Laura Thompson's magificent, heartfelt and poetic book about greyhound racing simply entitled, 'The Dogs'. Her writing is inspirational.

For his unravelling of symbols and the strange connections he unearths, I'd choose Iain Sinclair's enthralling 'Lights Out for the Territory'.

The 'Week-End' books are a series of evocative, almost elegaic, charmingly illustrated anthologies which speak of a gentler age. I've tracked down five of them and if I had to pick only one it would be Gordon Winter's 'The Horseman's Week-end Book' - don't know why it does it for me but it does.

ChrisH said...

Oh, And the Donald Maass Workshop book.

K.Imaginelli said...

I'll have to check out the Donald Maass workshop book.

The only nonfiction I read is writing how to books, so I'll list the 4 that I continually go back to: Heather Seller's Page by Page and Chapter by Chapter, Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, and even though it's not a book, I like to pop into Meg Cabot's Diary blog for her humorous spin on the writing life.

As for fiction, I would say that I've been most influenced by the following: Laura Shaine Cunningham's Beautiful Bodies, Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Susan Minot's Evening (love the way she describes love scenes), and Fiona Walker's French Relations (love her sprawling narratives propelled by sexual tension)

PS~~I did a blog post on the revision process & would love your feedback as I try to untangle the woolly ball of yarn that is my novel (thanks to zinnia for the fab metaphor!)

NoviceNovelist said...

Great Topic - thanks Graeme.
I can't think of 4 as I'm in the middle of spring cleaning the kitchen and my brain is addled with cleaning fluids!!!! I only manage to read non-fiction related to writing at prsent so my vote goes to From Where you Dream by Robert Olen Butler. I like his style - almost like he is beside you having a yarn.

As for fiction - too many to name but currently I'm a bit in love with Anita Shreve's A wedding in December. She makes it seem so easy to reveal strong narrative through the unpicking of relationships that on the surface seem so straightforward but aren't.

Clare Sudbery said...


1. I'll cheat and say Story bby Robert McKee, even though t is kind of a how-to book, but then again was written mostly with screenwritrers in mind. I just think he speaks a lot of sense, although don't agree with everything he says. A lot of "ooh yes, I see that" moments for me when reading it.

2. I actually very rarely read non-fiction. I've only read 3 how-to books on writing, and barely any other non-fiction, so I'm going to struggle to come up with four books that have inspired me as a writer. Um...

Well, I had a rare splurge of non-fiction reading last year, and read An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, who was the real-life hotelier behind Hotel Rwanda. It was an astonishing read, and definitely inspirational in terms of getting insight into the good and bad things human beings can do. I suspect it will have an impact on some of my fiction writing at some time or other.

3. Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh - about an American sociologist who spent a decade making friends with, and spending a hell of a lot of time with, a crack-cocaine dealing gang leader in Chicago in the 80s / 90s. Busts a lot of preconceptions, is fascinating, may also find its way into my fiction material.

4. Tricks of the Mind, by Derren Brown, and also a whole host of other books I read about mentalism (mind magic, not the art of being mental) whilst researching Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex, my latest novel which is about a stage magician specialising in mind magic. I'd rather not reveal the names of most of the books I read though, utterly fascinating though they were. None of them have ISBN numbers and they're only really supposed to be available to practising magicians and fake psychics. Suffice to say, I learnt a lot.


1. Carry Me Down, by MJ Hyland, which I'm reading at the mo. Definitely an "I want to write like this" book.

2. Fearsome Tales for Fiendish Kids, by Jamie Rix. Am reading this to my son at the moment. I've made a note of it, and when I start writing my first full-length kids' book, I will read it again. Beautifully written, exactly the kind of thing I want to write at the mo.

3. Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things. Beautifully written, wonderful suspense.

4. Anything by Toni Morrison. Because of the lyricism. Was influenced by these as a young adult, and have never forgotten.

Oh God, but there are so many more as well: Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster, anything by Jim Dodge, The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin, White Merc With fins by James Hawes, Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me by Martin Millar, Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, various books by Angela Carter, Kate Atkinson, Alice Walker, Margaret Attwood...

...but I'm cheating now.

Interesting that I said the other week that there is no book that inspired me to write. I always feel lacking when people ask this qu... "What book changed your life?" or "What book inspired you to write?" cos there never was one single one of those, and as a child I just loved books, I didn't view them as inspirational. But as an adult there have been tons of books that have made me think "This is brilliant, I'd like to write like this" so maybe the qu has just been phrased wrongly.

Leigh said...

Non-fiction:'s a while since I read any non-fiction, but I very much enjoyed Watching the English by Kate Fox - because she turned an otherwise dry subject (anthropology) into one that made me laugh.
Fiction: anything by Neville Shute; anything by Dick Francis; Anyway you Want me by Lucy Diamond (this is not a shameless blogmate plug - I really enjoyed this book); and (this is going to sound really nerdy, but) anything by Plato. I swallowed up Plato in my twenties and found his insight into human relationships eye-opening.

wordtryst said...

I bought a couple writing books, but that was after I'd completed a couple of manuscripts. I found Stephen King's On Writing quite helpful, and I bought The Elements of Style on his recommendation. Also Heather Sellers' Page After Page which is particularly good for building confidence and keeping a grasp on the realities of the writing business. Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is one I've had for just a year or two and it's good for recognizing what ails me when I don't want to write, or when I feel my work is crap.

Can I say that any book has had a direct effect on my writing technique? No, except Stephen King's which made me more mindful of dialogue tags and using adverbs with restraint. Many books have impacted me, however, and may have influenced my work in one way or another by helping to form my world view, which in turn informs my writing. The ones that come to mind, and which may or may not be relevant to the question, are:

Non fic: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson; The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris; the Gerald Durrell books for environmentalism, humour, memoir and pure entertainment; Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

Fic: The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I found the writing in both these books depressingly perfect, as in, Damn, I'll never be able to write like that! The Women's Room by Marilyn French; the Erica Jong books for honest exploration of the female experience.

Many more.

sheepish said...

Sorry I haven't left much in the way of comments recently but I do always pop by to read everyone elses. And very interesting they are too. Such good topics too.
When faced with having to choose i tend to panic and end up not putting anything so today I shall say the first things that come into my head instead of wringing my hands and not making a comment.
Non fiction how to write Stephen Kings On Writing just such a no-nonsense book and interesting stuff about his life too.
Colin Thubron Shadow of the Silk Road just an amazing travel writer.
Fiction oh wow how difficult is this, here goes in no order
The Virgin Blue Tracy Chevalier I just love this book and have read it many times.
Lord of the Rings Tolkien I like little hairy people and I have met several ents.
the Bone People Keri Hulme incredible
Islands in the Stream Ernest Hemingway a real genius and of course all the rest that are too numerous to mention. Now I am tempted to change my mind but I won't. So I'll be off now for my second Martini and Tonic. Well it is 6.30pm in France and Friday evening.
Have a good weekend everyone.

Lucy Diamond said...

Oh Leigh...I'm going to buy you a drink tomorrow for that. Mwah!!

DOT said...

What is Literature by Jean-Paul Sartre is an existential take on the function of writing and, unlike most of the other stuff he wrote, is brief and very readable.
However, as an exponent of existential writing and someone who I believe is a master of brevity I would pick Albert Camus, The Plague, perhaps, being my favourite.
Recently I blogged on Adam Thirwell, ‘The Last Flippant Writer,’ an introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Vintage, 2005, a very approachable analysis of Kafka's style that opened my mind to what a story could be.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Ooh. I put a second comment up yesterday evening thanking folk for a wonderful response, but it seems to have gone down with the ship.

So... er... thanks everyone for a wonderful response. Some thought provoking stuff there (and a huge list of books to add to the pile).

Annieye said...

Up until last year I was just a random hobby scribbler. I found Stephen King's On Writing quite informing whilst being an interesting read anyway. Carole Blake's From Pitch to Publication has some good sound advice whilst not telling you how to actually write.

I think 'Penmarric' by Susan Howatch was probably the first book I read that gave me the 'wow' factor. Ken Follet is a master of the art of writing, in my opinion. There's not been one of his books that I've not enjoyed; and they are all quite different.

I've been trying to iron out some of my 'ignorance wrinkles' just lately: it's definitely restraining me in my writing. So I think I'll give the How To books a miss for a while - at least until I've completed my second book!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Sorry I'm late. I don't read much in the way of writing-help books. The only ones that had any effect on me were The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction - both by Ayn Rand. Other than writing books, By Myself by Lauren Bacall inspires me to keep going no matter how hard life gets. I love the history books by Daniel Boorstin, who reminds me to look back in order to understand today.

As for fiction, there's always been Ayn Rand inspiring me to write as good as she did, Fahrenheit 451 inspiring me to keep reading alive by writing books of my own, and the newer authors like Allison Brennan inspiring me to write the best I can so I can see my books on the shelves along with theirs.

sexy said...
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