The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org

New How-To, Same as the Old How-To

This here by Paul Collins is fascinating for anyone involved in learning or teaching the craft of creative writing. The gist is that the cliches of how to write fiction (e.g., show don’t tell, write what you know) were invented in a book published in 1895, How to Write Fiction. It was written by an anonymous author who claimed to be a well known novelist. In fact the author was Sherwin Cody, a 26 years old whose only previous publication was a chapbook of poetry. (Proving once again that fiction writers learn everything they really need to know from the poets.) Since then, one hundred and fifteen years of “how to write fiction” books have mostly served to reiterate and refine the truths that Cody first pointed out.

I’m not a fan of how to write books. I do love Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter. But Baxter’s book reads less like a straight how-to and more like a series of wandering meditations on neglected aspects of narrative and craft. In general, I find that I get more inspiration out of reading a good novel or collection of stories than from studying the strictures of a how-to book.

But maybe I’m wrong! Or maybe I just haven’t seen the right book. If there’s a how to write book that you love, let me know in the Comments section…

About Nick Arvin

Author of The Reconstructionist + a couple other books.

2 comments on “New How-To, Same as the Old How-To

  1. andreadupree
    December 9, 2010

    Charles Baxter’s is my all-time favorite. The rest that I’ve used do, as you well state, wrestle with the poet’s original points. Janet Burroway’s pretty much put together the book I would have put together on craft–referring to Baxter, John Gardner, Aristotle, all the biggies, and even excerpting them at times. I use that in the university classes I teach, but not the Lighthouse classes. (It doesn’t help that since her publisher discovered so many university classes using it, the book went from $12 to $85.) In my Lighthouse class, we use contemporary published stories or we’re even known to use a collection of classics (ask us about Chekhov!), which is, in the end, where I think most of the lessons of writing are found.

  2. megnix
    December 13, 2010

    I pick up Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop every time I’m stuck, particularly the section that breaks down the gray matter of revision into a step-by-step process. This book taught me that I was only “polishing” my prose, never truly revising it. Even though it’s a book for fiction writers, I use his advice for writing nonfiction, same as the novelists look to the poets.

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This entry was posted on December 9, 2010 by in Uncategorized, Writing.

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