October 5, 2009
If you’re serious about writing a book, . . . you should read one hundred books like the one you are intending to write. I call this the Book 100. . . . Reading one hundred books can take a whole year . . . .
— Heather Sellers, b. 1962
American writer, teacher, and creativity coach
Heather Sellers has several titles in the “You can do it!” category of guides for people like me who struggle to stay focused and to keep on keepin’ on though our characters continue to speak in clichés, our descriptions seem overwrought, and we can’t think of any other way to end a story than to say, “And then a miracle happened and they lived happily ever after!”
The advice above is from Chapter After Chapter, her followup to Page After Page, a “Wise Guide” (her term for books about the craft and process of writing) that focused on helping wannabe writers develop the habit of daily page-filling. (She calls her blog Word After Word.) I have many such guides. Some of them are nothing more than book-length extensions of the kind of easy-breezy articles favored by Writer’s Digest: 10 steps to Pain-free Revision! 11 Novel Pitfalls! 12 Rules for Writing Dialogue! Some of them offer regimens for writing your book in thirty days and securing a publishing contract in thirty more. Others, like Bret Anthony Johnston’s Naming the World, offer solid exercises and strategies that I return to again and again, and without which I would make no progress at all.
Every time I pick up a new Wise Guide I have the momentary belief that it will fall open in my hands and expose the Secret that will strip away all my confusion and set me on the right path to achieving the goal I set when I was sixteen years old and confided to my favorite author, MacKinlay Kantor: to win the Pulitzer Prize like he did. But even as I reach for the book, even as I run my hands over the pages, I know that the best advice of all, the only advice that will ever work for me, was delivered by Ron Carlson in a lecture at Bread Loaf in 2004: Stay in the chair. (The lecture was published as Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Yeah, I bought it.)
Despite the certain knowledge that there is no magic formula or secret recipe for meeting my goals as a fiction writer, I continue to look for advice and direction. I have learned to pick and choose what I will follow from a Wise Guide and what I will ignore.
I find Heather Sellers’s dictum to read the kind of book you want to write to be sound, but her assessment of the time it will take to be optimistic for me. I read slowly, I think, about thirty pages an hour, and when I’m reading to learn, reading to examine structure and word choice and the way an author changes point of view seamlessly instead of jarringly, I take even longer. Fifty books in a year, one a week, is more realistic.
In committing to this year of writing fiction seriously, this year when I will take Perpetual Light, my novel begun in 2002, to an advanced draft, I’ve chosen fifty works of fiction, some classics, some contemporary, some story collections, that I think will, at the very least, keep the cadences and the mood of fiction uppermost in my mind. To this end, I went through my considerable collection of fiction, pulled the volumes I thought would contribute the most to this project, and took them over to my studio, where I set them up in alphabetical order, bookended by several of my Wise Guides. This accomplished at least two things. It got more than fifty books out of my house, where more than twenty-five linear feet of bookshelf space is already overfull, and it created an attractive display, seen at left, the kind of display that says, a serious, well-read writer works here.
I chose Katharine Noel’s Halfway House, which I finished just before I went to Bread Loaf, as Book #1 because it was so well-wrought and so compelling that I could not put it down. Then I read The Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood, whom I met at Bread Loaf and whose book of exercises, Creating Character Emotions, has long served as a Wise Guide. I followed that with The Member of the Wedding primarily because it is a book I knew a lot about (or thought I did) but can’t remember actually reading, and because I could read it in my studio and look up to see the landscape I inhabited when I was Frankie Addams’s age. I’m currently in Book #4, Antonya Nelson’s Talking in Bed.
With forty weeks left and forty-seven books to go, I’m a little behind if I intend to read all fifty books by next August. I set up a page on my site with all the titles arranged in alphabetical order. Visit The Fiction Fifty to see what’s on the list and to check when I’ve written about one of the titles.
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