It’s Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), which means the courageous—and maybe unhinged—among us have committed to writing an entire novel in 30 days. You’ll likely have less time to socialize, let alone read, while you embark upon this challenge. But if you can spare some time, you might want to read a book that will help you write your novel. So here is a brief list of short books exploring various elements of writing, and all but one clock in under 150 pages.
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1. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Sentences are the fundamental building block of writing, equally precious and essential to the stories we tell. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg works to eliminate pretension and fretting over sentence "flow." Instead, he asks you to assume you have something worthwhile to say and to prove that at the sentence level. This demands hard work and diligence, but it also helps lower the stakes. Just write some goddamn sentences...one at a time. And notice what happens when you do. Klinkenborg says, "Everything you notice is important. Let me say it a different way: If you notice something, it's because it's important. But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice, and that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice in a world where we're trained to disregard our perceptions."
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2. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by by Kitty Burns Florey
Since we're talking sentences, we should also discuss grammar. If you're anything like me, you learned sentence diagramming from a stern older woman. In Kitty Burns Florey's case, the teacher was actually a nun. Florey's brief book Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog plays two roles: manual and history. She traces sentence diagramming's rise from Brooklyn Polytechnic to its not-so-recent demise, laying out its basic rules and providing helpful examples.
They say the best way to understand your own language is to learn another; this book is for those who have neither the time nor the resources. And maybe you don't want to write grammatically pure prose. But don't you want to know how to break the rules in your favor?
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3. The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as it Takes by Joan Silber
A novel's building block is the sentence and its material is time. As Joan Silber writes in The Art of Time in Fiction, "All fiction has to contend with the experience of time passing. First one thing happens and then another: that's a story for you." Silber's book investigates five types of time in literature: classic, long, switchback, slowed, and fabulous. Her examples range from Márquez to Woolf to Baldwin, and her interpretations illuminate the temporal workings of a text with admirable economy and helpfulness. Here's Silber's introduction to an excerpt from Flaubert: "The tricky part is conveying the passage of years in such a short space. A lifetime has to pass in a thirty-nine-page story. One vital technique is to render habitual action as if it were a single scene." Consider this month a 30-day meditation on how long a novel takes, and let Silber help you navigate it.
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4. Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
We have sentences. We have time. What else? At least five other things, Italo Calvino argues. In his posthumously released volume Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino articulates his five cardinal qualities of literature: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. (He died before penning the sixth memo, ostensibly on "consistency.") At turns enchanting and infuriating, Six Memos will make you want to break his categories to disprove their insight and merit. Yet Calvino woos you with moments like this: "I would say the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magical."
If you take the time to absorb this book, you will never read or write the same way again. It's not that you will completely buy into Calvino's perspective, but that he will provide you with a rich new way of looking and thinking. What does it mean to read or write other than to learn how to see and how to think?
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5. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by Carl Phillips
Anyone who has ever sat down to craft a sentence has felt the same tug that means the giving over to risk. This is precisely the project of poet and National Book Award winner Carl Phillips's book The Art of Daring. Though Phillips confines his book to poetry, there is much about writing to learn. Here's a personal favorite from his chapter "On Restlessness": "And I saw that restlessness was neither the problem, nor the solution. Was just the fact. A force. And though it might eventually break me, I would not refuse it." To write anything is a small act of bravery in a world of much fear and cowardice. And like all things noble, bravery has its wages. So good luck, and keep writing.