Reading for Writing

The other day while contemplating what to write for the Mad ones, while shelving the last bits of my library on new (to me) bookshelves, I pulled a book off the shelf and put it on my desk as a reminder to myself. It was joined by friends, because I spent a pleasurable time on Friday shopping for books. You see, I have a brief moment in time where I own more bookshelf space than books. That, and I was a bad woman. I found out friend and editor D. Jason Fleming had not yet been to the three-story sprawling antique mall in our small city, so I took him there to show him the booths full of books. Muahahaha! Ahem. We had fun. Must do that again. It is great fun to shop with a fellow bibliophile.

Some of the books on my desk this morning. Old ones, new ones, and that one on the bottom is a magazine.

The book I’d intended to highlight in this post is a 1935 college text by John T. Frederick and Leo L. Ward, titled Reading for Writing: Studies in Substance and Form. As you can see with the opening paragraph above, it’s purpose was to provide models of good writing to the students.

I had intended, when I first thought about writing this post, to link a Project Gutenberg version of the book for those who wanted to explore it deeply. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. PG focuses on more popular books, so I think a lot of texts get left behind.

However, this is a very old example. What would you include in a modern up-to-date version? What writing is a shining example that you have learned from, or that you would recommend to students of writing? I like the idea of surrounding myself (quite literally, as I look around my office) with good books. Of course, simple proximity is not enough. I must also read them!

22 comments

  1. I highly recommend ‘How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy’ by Orson Scott Card.
    It’s part of a series of books about writing and I found that one to be very helpful.

  2. There are people that I delight in reading, but their virtues are not necessarily fashionable in the current age. I can recommend the following who have all been inspirations to me in the craft of writing (by example).

    1) Edward Gibbon — History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Whatever you may think of his actual history, it’s the footnotes that make it terrific — a combination of sarcasm, scathing remarks, and concise judgment. Getting a view of the workings of a master of a subject who has no trouble dropping the conventional reverence for his topic is worth the price of admission.

    2) Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) — He manages to carry his distinctive persona and voice in both his fiction and his non-fiction, and it’s interesting to see how he handles that. Here’s an example of one of my “Irritated Reviews” where he hilariously critiques James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer”. https://hollowlands.com/2015/03/learning-from-the-mistakes-of-others-4/

    3) Herman Melville. Yes, really. While I wouldn’t recommend the discursive nature of Moby Dick to a modern audience (or even a period one, though nerds like me enjoy it), it’s worth your while to study “Bartleby the Scrivener” and see just how he paints that portrait. I support his candidacy for “Best American Novelist”.

    4) Rudyard Kipling. Kipling has lesser virtues, but in some areas he’s unequaled. I lump him with Robert Browning in my own head — treatment, rollicking poetry, sympathetic point-of-view for all sorts of people.

    5) J.R.R. Tolkien. Not for the LOTR story itself (which is quite good in the books), but for his prose style (a master of the history of the language and its uses) and for his ability to contextualize not just language but historic continuity & interactions in cultures, artifacts, and even language itself. LOTR is a master class in how to reflect the deep roots of the language we use and its contingent history.

    6) Isak Dinesen. “Out of Africa” and “Seven Gothic Tales” demonstrate an intelligent and observant mind as a terrific storyteller.

    7) P. G. Wodehouse. Unparalleled master of a certain style of British humor. He is also a master of complex comic plots, sowing his plot threads widely and then letting them frolic into inevitable collision. I would bet that Terry Pratchett read Wodehouse (though I don’t actually know).

    8) Manly Wade Wellman. Out-of-Print and hard to find. Stories of weird set in the Carolinas. This is not my favorite genre, but he does an excellent job of situating the uncanny in a rural setting.

    1. Here’s an example of one of my “Irritated Reviews” where he hilariously critiques James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer”.

      Second the recommendation.

      One of my favorite lines in there:

      “The reader hates the good people in the tale, is indifferent to the others, and wishes that they would all get drowned together.”

      You don’t know how many modern novels I’ve found where that seems to be the only appropriate response.

    2. I think the modern writers we can use to absorb good writing from are few and far between. The classics that have stood the test of time are more reliable. Easy to find now, too.

      1. David Drake ranks there. Though his subject are not for the faint of heart, he has a mastery of what needs and what does not need to be said that I can only hope to learn.

      1. Hmm. … though writing pastiche with varying degrees of awareness helped.

        I will observe that writing pastiche of Lord Dunsany, the “First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” as LeGuin put it, helps like nothing else though the pastiche is always terrible

  3. Three cheers for Manly Wade Wellman. His stuff is available online, for free, and the dialogue and atmosphere are unparalleled. His narrator (Silver John) is handled wonderfully: we never find out many details about who he is, and yet we come to know him.

    1. Wellman was incredibly prolific, and (not being a Lovecraftian) I find it’s specifically the “Silver John” stories that most resonate with me re: language, traditional custom, vivid rural setting.

      I’ve always had a hard time sorting out the “John” stories from the rest of his bibliography, but here’s a good reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_John .

      On the one hand, we have the whole Silver John set in a fancy expensive edition. On the other hand, it’s buried somewhere in our 2000 boxes of books in storage. Sigh… One of the Silver John novels (After Dark) is available in Kindle, and I’m picking that up as a duplicate.

  4. Barbara Tuchman – how do you take real people and events and turn them into a story? How do you capture an era in two paragraphs (the opening of the Guns of August)? Geoffrey Parker is another historian who takes a lot of threads and draws them together into a story. How do you handle complex plots on an epic scale? Really good historians might have some answers. (Yes, they cheat – they already have the story. But they also find a way to take a known take and make it new and different [folk tales and fairy tales, anyone]?)

    Conrad Richter “The Sea of Grass” – a short novel where the landscape reflects the characters, and vice versa. It influenced Elmer Kelton and others.

  5. “The Prince of Storytellers Tells His Own Story” is an essay by E. Phillips Oppenheim which you can find on Project Gutenberg Australia. What he writes will sound very familiar and charming to some of you highly prolific pantser writers.

  6. Forgive me for being pedantic, but…

    Project Gutenberg emphatically does not only do popular books and writers. To be certain, since their inception in 1971, they have hit the public domain books everyone would expect; but they also have books by western author George Washington Ogden, who doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia page, and the one book of whose I have published has yet to sell a single copy; Victorian historical adventure writer James Grant; Ray Cummings, nobody’s favorite pulp writer; and many others. They also take their time getting to actually-popular books and authors at times. I am quite grateful they haven’t uploaded a new Max Brand novel since 2010 (though they have uploaded three short stories by him in the past few years), and are only just now getting to Doc Smith’s Lensman books (conversion work just started on Second-Stage Lensman a week or two ago).

    PG is limited in its resources, mainly the time of volunteers. And though I don’t know their internal decision systems at all, I imagine that volunteer interest in any given book or author is part of their criteria for what gets done when.

    Another probable factor in that book not being on PG is that it is derivative, a collection of writings from elsewhere. For example, I noticed John Henry Newman in there, an essay that is probably from The Idea of a University, which is already on PG, and an essay by Arthur Quiller-Couch, who has fifty works on PG already, including On the Art of Writing from which that essay hails. To me, it would make a lot of sense if they choose to stick to original publication of any given piece of writing, at least until they get most works digitized.

    Of course… the fact that they have so many of the original works suggests that pulling the selections would do a lot of the heavy lifting in publishing this book… but I already am seven months behind in my publishing schedule, so… perhaps next year. (Plus, I have yet to put out any non-fiction, despite having at least half a dozen titles in the queue.)

    (And I should get massive bonus points for not swiping that issue of Planet Stories while you weren’t looking. It’s got a Brackett and a Poul Anderson story in it!!!)

    Browsing was fun, though. Even if I have to resist the temptation of going to that evil place, now that I know where it is. 😀

    1. You know, I contemplated handing you Planet Stories when I dropped you off. Christmas is coming! And it was great fun to do that with another book lover. We should do it again sometime.

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