Well, it took me long enough! But I did finally get around to finishing and reviewing my final three textbooks from last semester’s fiction seminar in the Accessible MFA. If you’re looking for books on writing craft and philosophy, check out the titles below to see if any of these sound good. (And by the way, all embedded links for these three books take you to Bookshop.org where your purchase supports independent booksellers. If you’re broke like me, most public libraries in major cities carry these titles, and smaller library systems can often get you an interlibrary loan if you ask nicely.)
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood
So yes, the title gives you a pretty clear idea this isn’t your standard writing craft handbook. And it’s not. Atwood isn’t interested in laying out the mechanics of plot, character, and sentences. Instead, this is like watching a very brilliant, very experienced child at play in the sandbox of literature.
A collection of musings on literary history and the writer’s function in society, Negotiating with the Dead focuses each chapter on a central question, such as how writers approach writing, whether fiction is inherently duplicitous, and whether art should serve moral purposes, beauty, economics, or something else. She is very much chipping in her two cents on a centuries-old conversation, so it helps to know a little of that conversation already.
A fair warning: It offers absolutely no help on the nuts and bolts of craft. But if as a writer (or devoted reader) you feel deeply concerned about the role of literature, if you are familiar with the New Criticism or even just William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” and if you know all about the ongoing debate between beauty and utility in the arts, then this may be just what you’re looking for. Atwood is a pro, and she knows what she’s doing and why—and she invites the reader to determine that for oneself as well. A book that offers readers a generous space to reflect on what literature is and why it exists.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
This is the antithesis of Atwood’s book. It’s all mechanics with no examination of why. In fact, that’s my main gripe with it.
So if you want a breakdown of the standard three-act structure, packed with examples and variations by genre—heavily influenced by film more than literature—Save the Cat! Writes a Novel delivers. If you want to explore the spectrum of structure that is possible in the novel, this isn’t the book. Most examples are taken from bestselling novels between 2010 and 2016, which tend to be forgotten after they’re adapted into films, so this guide is not only narrow but also aging quickly.
I was a little disappointed by the deep attachment to cinematic structure in a book purportedly about novels. Years ago, I got a lot out of the original Save the Cat! written by Blake Snyder, and I still think it’s the best of the franchise. Nowadays, I’m much more interested in the variability of novel structures, from Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five to Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation novels” like Flights to pretty much anything by Helen Oyeyemi (and this is only the tip of the iceberg). What writers can do with novel structure is virtually limitless, and to argue that the three-act structure is foundational is to fundamentally misrepresent the history of the form, which began with episodic adventures like The Tale of Genji, satires like Gulliver’s Travels, epistolary novels like Pamela, and loose collections of adventures like Canterbury Tales and Morte d’Arthur.
But hey. I get it. A lot of people have convinced writers that novels must compete with movies (you only have to consult your own habits to recognize this for the bullshit it is: when people want a movie, we watch a movie; when we want to curl up with a novel, we do that). But this half-baked notion of Books V. Movies tumbles further down the rabbit hole of shoddy logic when they argue that to make your book competitive, it has to hew as close to blockbuster movie structure as possible. I’m just warning you: This guide will help you do that, but yikes. Have you ever actually looked at business models? Nobody out-apples Apple by doing the exact same thing. That’s just now how competition works.
Anyway. Of course beginning and even intermediate writers need a way to learn structure, and a preplanned outline they can slot their characters into can be a good starting point. As long as we all realize it’s just a starting point. And Brody’s breezy, encouraging tone can make novel-writing approachable for even the most overwhelmed novice. User-friendly and well organized, it’s perfect for NaNoWriMo, beginners, those panicked by the word “plot,” and anyone else who likes a straight-shooting linear story.
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
Written by a literary theorist but focused on the function and form of the sentence, this book lands somewhere between Atwood and Brody.
First, though, a caveat: If you don’t like reading Adorno, Bakhtin, or Foucault, you probably will hate this book. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence is far more accessible than those guys, but he is still a literary theorist and so he comes at sentences like one. In fact, he made a big splash in 1980 with his essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One“ (also a chapter in a book he wrote on literary interpretation), so he’s been writing this way for a very long time, and it has worked out very well for him. So again, if you dislike scholarly work in the humanities, this book is not for you. It’s okay. You’re allowed. Life is short. Read what you love.
But if you’re not scared off by all that, cool. Here’s what I think: I enjoyed it. The first half I absolutely loved as he examined, in typical Fishian style, what a sentence is and the different structures he’d sort them into (better categories than the simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence structures from your English 101 class). He packed in the examples and analyzed the hell out of every twist and turn in the rhythms, structure, and word choice. He also suggests a number of useful exercises.
The last half of the book, however, seemed less analytical and practical, more a campaign for his favorite sentences in the English language to be inducted into a Sentence Hall of Fame (should we ever get such a hallowed institution). It was fine. Shrug. Watching Stanley Fish admire sentences can be fun in its own way, but it just couldn’t compare to the enthusiasm and practicality of the first half.
All in all, if you’re a humanities nerd and like literary theory, this will feel light and fun, and you’ll gain some terrific insights from the first half. If you’re looking for a primer on how to write sentences, you’re better off with the MLA handbook.