Ivey: The Turkish Delight of the Writing Life

Books on writing are dangerous things. They hold a small but powerful trap hidden in their pages – the illusion that I am furthering my writing without having to come up with a single word.

The bait is doubly seductive. There is the promise of becoming a better writer. And it’s wrapped in the writer’s equivalent of Turkish delight – a book. I am weak. In the walk-in closet I converted into my office, my shelves bow under the weight of writing books, and I know I’m not alone. I recently talked with a woman who confessed that while she was still somewhat fearful of putting pen to paper, she had her own lovely collection of books about how to do it.

But we should not be entirely ashamed. Writing books have their place. Books like The Artist’s Way and Wild Minds helped me realized I really did want to write fiction. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and E.M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel helped me to take my efforts more seriously. I’ve read everything from the inspirational to the academic, books on grammar, literary criticism, structure and form, and the literary life. And I keep them all on the shelf.
But a few I keep closer, within an arm’s length of my keyboard.

Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. If I could only have one book in the world, this would be it. I can’t begin to describe what a heavenly book this is. Words fail me.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, two volumes. I covet the real, 20-volumne OED, but without the money or space, I’m incredibly grateful for this shorter edition. It even came with a DVD that enabled me to download it onto my computer.

Love Medicine, Beloved, The Shipping News, Cold Mountain. These are a few of my very favorite novels, but when I open them to random pages I am reminded that there is no pixie dust sprinkled on their pages — they are just made up of words. Even Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich have to occasionally write something as mundane as “she said.”

The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. As a novelist and former journalist, I lean toward the linear, the logical. The exercises in this book have led me to surprising creative places. And the truth is, while my favorite novelists sometimes use mundane words, it is rare. They write like poets — every word counts.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. Usually I’m not big on the “formula for success,” but this one very succinctly and convincingly looks at why readers care about certain characters, how plots pull them in, and why universal themes can add depth. It then gives concrete advice on how to achieve these goals. Maybe it should have all been obvious to me without this book, but no such luck.

On Writing, Stephen King. This is almost embarrassing to mention because it has become so ubiquitous, just like all of King’s writing. Is there any aspiring novelist out there who hasn’t read it yet? I own it both in paperback and audio, with King reading it himself. A gritty, funny, incredible reminder of the realities of doing what you love.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King. A very practical, fiction-specific handbook. I took several of their points and combed through my novel with them in mind. The changes, I think, definitely improved the manuscript.

Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See. This is one of my newest favorites. Among other great advice, she says that every day, five days a week for the rest of your life, you should send a note of gratitude to an author. I haven’t been that diligent, but on her urging, I reached out to a few of my favorite writers and told them “Thank you.” Including Carolyn See herself, who emailed me back! We’ve written to each other a few times now, and I am incredibly grateful for her encouragement.

These are just a few of my favorites, but I’m sure I could squeeze a few more into my office. Any suggestions?

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.

11 thoughts on “Ivey: The Turkish Delight of the Writing Life”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Currently reading: The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth, a 1961 doorstop. A sweeping review of many narrative issues, including the decline of the omniscient narrator.

    On a lighter note, one thing I remember reading from Carol See many years ago was that before getting published (or published in a big way) she went ahead and bought her NY outfit (or some part of it? A scarf? Not completely sure) for the distant day when she would meet her editor. That little detail — and all the sweet hope it implied — stayed with me. You may know the anecdote better, Eowyn!

    Another favorite of mine: How Fiction Works by James Wood (less comprehensive, more eclectic — and all of it written by a critic/reviewer with extremely firm opinions).

  2. Andromeda,

    I didn't know anyone still read Booth's book! I read it in grad school in the '80s and really valued it, still have it on my shelf (thoroughly underlined) but hesitate to recommend it to others because of its bulk (and not sure that it's contemporary enough.) He has a (thinner) companion book called The Rhetoric of Irony that I stalled out on but (always) intend to return to one of these days when I'm feeling particularly ironic.

    My indispensable is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, and a newer favorite is Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, a book best read in small pieces.

  3. Thanks so much, Andromeda and Nancy — now I have a new, or not-so-new, title to look for. I am not familiar with Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction. I'll definitely check it out.

    I also really enjoyed James Wood's, and found it particularly interesting to read after having read Forster's Aspects of the Novel.

    I just love all the different types of writing books out there — inspirational, how-to, technical, academic. Some, like Carolyn See's, have this friendly sense of camaraderie that makes me feel a part of something beyond my own manuscript. Others, like perhaps this Rhetoric of Fiction, put me back in the classroom again, challenging myself. Oooh, it's so much fun, isn't it?

  4. Erin Anais Hanson

    The very first book that was assigned for my MFA was "Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction" which I have now re-read in whole three times and in-part dozens. Inspirational but still loaded down with concrete direction and advice. I've even gifted copies of this book to fellow writers.

  5. Eowyn,

    I aggree that Stephen King's On Writing is one of the best. I buy that book for my adult students in my workshops. Also, I made the teens in my writers' group read it too. I've read it at least four times.

    Also, I keep a copy of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Puncutation by Lynn Truss. Want to know which error writers make most often? The use of an apostrophe after the numbers when referring to years. A ton of people write 1960's rather than 1960s. It's everywhere, even in your favorite newspapers and novels.

  6. Erin — that's funny. When I first saw the title with "writer's workshop" in it, I was sure it was one I had on my shelf. But it's not the same book. The one you're referring to looks great. I'm putting it on my wish list.

    And Vivian — glad to hear there's another King fan out there. His book is such a testament to perseverance, and writing because you love it. I also got a kick out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am usually resistant to grammar/punctuation guides. Not because I don't think it is important, but because I find them kind of boring, all about following the rules, and sometimes elitist. But her book actually made me laugh, which was a pleasant surprise. (I'll be waiting to hear cries of protest from all those writers out there who love grammar guides:))

  7. For grammar and usage guides I refer to my fave gal, Karen Elizabeth Gordon. She's wicked smart with a rollicking sense of humor.

    The three that are currently on my desk:

    The New Well-Tempered Sentence
    A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager,and the Doomed

    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
    The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

    Torn Wings and Faux Pas
    A Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer's Labyrinth.

    You'll never laugh so hard while reviewing grammar and usage.

  8. For a warm and encouraging read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Maybe not the "deepest" end of craft but it always makes me want to write more!

  9. Therese — OK, I might have to break down and check out those titles. They do sound kind of funny, which gives me hope.

    And Erin, I loved Bird by Bird, and I still have my worn copy on the shelf. It's one of those that helped give me the courage to start writing fiction, and one I refer back to when I've got the blahs. Great book to pass on to friends, too.

    Thanks all! My mission is accomplished — I have some new writing books to go buy.

  10. Colleen Patterson

    Who can resist writers on writing? After years as a business writer as well as other professions, in my old age I am combining my addiction to detective fiction and my fantasy that I too might give the genre a try. Now it is just for fun, you understand. Not something one would take seriously, of course.

    The best so far: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by the tough, uber-talented Patricia Highsmith. Thank you for everything, Patricia.

    Wriing Vs Editing. Writing Mysteries, Edited by Sue Grafton, a handbook by the
    Mystery Writers of America, with famious writers as contibutors, zip from Ms.Grafton as to how she goes about her craft so sucessfully.

    Stuff on the Mystery Writing Bookshelf Not Yet Read:
    Janet Evanovich, How I Write
    Larry Beinhart, How to Write a Mystery
    Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel
    James Frey,How to Write a Damn Good Mystery
    Gillian Roberts, You Can Write a Mystery
    Chris Roerden, Don't Murder Your Mystery

    I understand the purpose of this communication is to avoid duds, and encourage good stuff. Sorry I have not previewed most of the immediate above. But I look forward to whatever you and others may think and have to offer.

  11. Hi Colleen,
    I've just read an interview of Patricia Highsmith, because of your comment. I like her already.

    Though I don't write in her/your genre I'm going to check out Patricia's Plotting and Writing Suspense.
    She sounds like a woman to listen to. Thanks for the tip.

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