BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXX: BIRD BY BIRD

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.

Is it okay to read a book that teaches you how to write by an author whose fiction you’ve never read? I hope so, because, on the recommendation of a number of people, I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott last October, and still have not yet read any of her fiction. I have quoted this book here, in a various contexts, a number of times since then, and it’s almost a year past due that I post this full-throated recommendation of the book.

Subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird covers a wide range of topics around the creation of fiction and the care and nurturing of authors themselves. It’s separated into five parts: On Writing, where you’ll find some practical, “how to” advice; The Writing Frame of Mind covers what I’ve called the essential trait of intellectual curiosityHelp Along the Way, which encourages us to find other people willing to lend a hand, or an edit; Publication—and Other Reasons to Write, stops thankfully short of getting too deeply into the business end of things; and The Last Class to wrap things up.

Anne Lamott’s voice is invariably accessible, realistically but not cyncially encouraging, often funny, and in general super-readable. She definitely takes on the role of a friend in your corner, a coach, a teacher—but not necessarily a cheerleader. Don’t expect to hear what she thinks you want to hear—or hear what you, indeed, want to hear. Bird by Bird is what good writing advice should be, which is never that.

Here are a few examples:

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

A friend of mine says thay the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.

If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.

Now go read it for yourselves!

—Philip Athans

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXX: BIRD BY BIRD

  1. I’m a big fan or bird by bird. Always makes me smile. A reality check on reading, writing and life.

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