My favorite books about reading and writing fiction

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in the Scottish countryside, reading passionately. When adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer came from my latest book: a nun, an outlaw, a queen, or an explorer. Not until I was in my twenties did I realise that I wanted to be the person behind the covers of a book, not between them. My early stories, written between waitressing shifts, were bafflingly bad. Gradually I began to understand that the fiction I loved was driven by a hidden machinery. I now teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and have been lucky enough to explore this idea with many talented students.


I wrote...

The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing

What is my book about?

“A smart, unpretentious guide to ‘writing the life, shaping the novel’ …. Would-be writers will find this book both useful and inspiring, while general readers can simply enjoy Livesey’s keen insights and engaging prose.” Kirkus Reviews

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

Margot Livesey Why did I love this book?

Salesses reminds us that “craft is a set of expectations,” and I love that he makes me question those expectations in fruitful ways. Jane Eyre does get to marry Rochester but at some cost. Salesses writes with warmth and wit about the western canon and about other literary traditions. I finished the book with a terrific reading list and new thoughts about my own writing and reading.

By Matthew Salesses,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Craft in the Real World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This national bestseller is "a significant contribution to discussions of the art of fiction and a necessary challenge to received views about whose stories are told, how they are told and for whom they are intended" (Laila Lalami, The New York Times Book Review).

The traditional writing workshop was established with white male writers in mind; what we call craft is informed by their cultural values. In this bold and original examination of elements of writing—including plot, character, conflict, structure, and believability—and aspects of workshop—including the silenced writer and the imagined reader—Matthew Salesses asks questions to invigorate these familiar concepts.…


Book cover of Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature

Margot Livesey Why did I love this book?

As a boy, Baxter stood at the window of his mid-western home and looked out at the empty street. He went on to fill that street with stories. In Wonderlands he talks about how those stories were made in terms of craft—he writes vividly about requests, lists, dreams, ghostsand the events in his own life that shaped his fiction, including a long period of failure. An deeply companionable book.  

By Charles Baxter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wonderlands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Searching and erudite new essays on writing from the author of Burning Down the House.

Charles Baxter’s new collection of essays, Wonderlands, joins his other works of nonfiction, Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext. In the mold of those books, Baxter shares years of wisdom and reflection on what makes fiction work, including essays that were first given as craft talks at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

The essays here range from brilliant thinking on the nature of wonderlands in the fiction of Haruki Murakami and other fabulist writers, to how request moments function in a story.…


Book cover of Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

Margot Livesey Why did I love this book?

This book of essays is part master class, part memoir. Febos writes with laser intelligence about her journey from addict to sex worker to academic. How do we write about our most intimate moments? What happens when such writing is misunderstood, or dismissed? I grew up in rural Scotland, where no one ever talked about sex or longing, and I was dazzled, and inspired by Febos’s examples of what could be put on the page.   

By Melissa Febos,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Body Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

AN INSTANT NATIONAL BESTSELLER

Memoir meets craft master class in this “daring, honest, psychologically insightful” exploration of how we think and write about intimate experiences—“a must read for anybody shoving a pen across paper or staring into a screen or a past" (Mary Karr)

In this bold and exhilarating mix of memoir and master class, Melissa Febos tackles the emotional, psychological, and physical work of writing intimately while offering an utterly fresh examination of the storyteller’s life and the questions which run through it.
 
How might we go about capturing on the page the relationships that have formed us? How…


Book cover of Steering The Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

Margot Livesey Why did I love this book?

Le Guin is a star in fiction’s firmament but in this book she’s also a wonderfully modest practitioner of the art of writing. She discusses the sound of your prose, naming characters, repetition, and point of view. I found her chapter on crowding and leaping especially helpful. Crowding is when you follow Keats’ advice to load every rift with ore; leaping is when you skillfully leave things out—two invaluable skills in fiction, and in life.  

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Steering The Craft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the celebrated Ursula K. Le Guin, "a writer of enormous intelligence and wit, a master storyteller" (Boston Globe), the revised and updated edition of her classic guide to the essentials of a writer's craft.

Completely revised and rewritten to address modern challenges and opportunities, this handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing.

Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and…


Book cover of (Don't) Stop Me if You've Heard This Before: and Other Essays on Writing Fiction

Margot Livesey Why did I love this book?

Peter Turchi is an amazing guide to writing which is to say he is an amazing guide to reading. This book explores fiction in terms of power dynamics, imagery, digressions—think Tristram Shandyand story-telling, (among other topics). Turchi argues passionately for the pleasures of close reading. I especially love his chapter on characters who tell storieswhy do they tell them, what if we want them to shut up?    

By Peter Turchin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked (Don't) Stop Me if You've Heard This Before as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In (Don't) Stop Me If You've Heard This Before, Peter Turchi combines personal narrative and close reading of a wide range of stories and novels to reveal how writers create the fiction that matters to us. Building on his much-loved Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, Turchi leads readers and writers to an understanding of how the intricate mechanics of storytelling-including shifts in characters' authority, the subtle manipulation of images, careful attention to point of view, the strategic release of information, and even digressing from the (apparent) story-can create powerful effects.

Using examples from Dickens, Chekhov, and Salinger,…


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The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

Book cover of The Truth About Unringing Phones

Lara Lillibridge

New book alert!

What is my book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket.

Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father. The Truth About Unringing Phones is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.

The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

What is this book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket. Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father.




The Truth About Unringing Phones: Essays on Yearning is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.


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