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Useful Books on Writing

I have a rather analytical mind. As a result, I approach writing in a disciplined fashion (no “God-given inspiration” for me – I write the way I do because I choose to do so). Thus, the writing on writing that I have found particularly insightful or useful is more analytical, critical or technical in nature than many books out there on “the writing life”. If you want to find information about “the writing life” or on the process of submitting to professional markets and agents, then I suggest you take a look elsewhere. The Interwebs are full of info on that score.

However, if you’re interested in analytical reading and writing, then I think you might find these books interesting:

Title Author Comments
The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers Ayn Rand Ayn Rand’s philosophy and (enormous) ego are difficult to get past, but once you do this is probably the best book on fiction writing I have ever read. Her central thesis is that writing is a conscious act, and so a writer must consciously assemble the components of their story and their words to best effect. As a result, the book presents a comprehensive analysis of the components of fiction. It helped me conceptualize the components of craft, and gave me particular insight into plotting.
Morphology of the Folktale (Publications of the American Folklore Society) Vladimir Propp The closest thing to a mathematical definition of narrative ever devised. Detailed analysis of hundreds of Russian folk tales allowed Propp to produce an algorithmic set of rules governing folk tale narrative. Think of it as a “walkthrough” of how to write a solid folktale. Propp neither discusses style, nor tone: it is the events of the story that interest him. His work is limited to the Russian folktales, but as other ethnographers have shown that folk tales are fairly universal across cultures it remains incredibly insightful reading.  Since much of fantasy and horror originated in folk tales, I recommend this to anyone who wants to “look under the hood” of fantasy literature.
Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy Michael Moorcock An insightful criticism and analysis of epic fantasy, starting with the Gothic romances and proceeding through to (relatively) contemporary fantasy. This is a must-read for anybody interested in trends in fantasy literature, and epic fantasy in particular.
Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction Matthew Candelaria et al. A collection of essays on science fiction and fantasy from many of the leading thinkers in the field.
Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture Claude Levi-Strauss One of the defining works of the structuralist movement. A fascinating look at the symbols and elements that make up culture and myth, and how they are reflected in behavior and story.
Lectures on Literature


Lectures on Russian Literature

Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov seduced the English language, and his lectures offer tremendous insight into the works of other authors in this excellent collection.
The Educated Imagination (Midland Books: No. 88) Northrup Frye This book is addressed to literature educators and “consumers” (i.e. readers), and discusses the value that literature offers to society. From a writing standpoint, it is a fascinating look at literature from a philosophical perspective very separate from the day-to-day discipline of getting the next chapter or the next story done.
Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction Damon Knight An excellent, practical and down-to-earth guide from one of the most important editors and educators in science fiction (and an SFWA Grand Master in his own right).
World Building (Science Fiction Writing) Stephen L. Gillett An excellent little “technical” book for designing alien planets. Edited by Hard SF master Ben Bova and full of useful formulas, guidelines and practical suggestions this is a must for anybody who is not an astrophysicist, but does want their imagined worlds to be “realistic”.
Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Foundations of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

John J. Pierce Okay, I suggest you try to find these from a university library somewhere near you (good luck, they’re both kind of hard to find). These are probably the best, most concise, most insightful analyses of the major themes and trends in science fiction that I’ve read anywhere. Despite the fact that they’re “academic” in nature, they are highly readable and loaded with valuable insight that is relevant to anyone fascinated by the genre.
Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop Kate Wilhelm An excellent retrospective on writing and teaching writing from a very successful SF author (and the wife of Damon Knight whose own book on the subject is discussed above). Don’t let the title fool you: this book is more retrospective than educational, I found, but still of definite value.
Seven Nights (Revised Edition) (New Directions Paperbook) Jorge Luis Borges A fantastic little collection of seven insightful lectures given by Borges shortly before his death. They are packed with insight into literature and art.
The Uses of Literature Italo Calvino An exceptional collection of essays on literature, art and the process of literature by Italo Calvino, one of the foremost fantasists/magical realists of the 20th century.
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