A Worker's Writebook by Jack Matthews
Since the early 1990s, Jack Matthews has distributed a photocopied version of this 75,000 word writing guide to students in his fiction writing classes at Ohio University. This guide offers insight about how successful writers mold raw experiences into a story and how language helps you to do that. It offers lots of good examples and practical advice for getting a story idea off the ground; it analyzes several stories (including one of Matthews’ own) and offers several paradigms for understanding how stories work. Erudite, witty, idiosyncratic, serendipitous, mischievous, sesquipedalian, entertaining, introspective and colorful: these are adjectives which come to mind when reading this book.
Writebook touches upon some practical aspects of writing fiction (such as naming characters and writing speech cues). But Writebook focuses on helping the writer write more boldly and with more attention to the linguistic vehicles of thought. For Matthews, most stories fail through under-invention, not because the rules of narrative have been disregarded.
Chapter 2 (Taxonomies) and 3 (Structural Matters) cover various paradigms for plot and character development. These are worthy subjects and Matthews has interesting things to say (especially when he tries to analyze his story Funeral Plots with these same paradigms). At the same time Matthews recognizes that there is no magic paradigm or archetype capable of explaining what makes all stories successful – these are just guides. At some point you just have to trust writerly intuition. Writebook helps the potential storyteller to cultivate this intuition and be flexible enough to bend rules when necessary. Matthews writes, "Anything can be done if it's done in the right way, with style, panache and cunning."
Many writing books include a chapter or two listing literary cliches to avoid. For the most part, Writebook doesn't do that. Instead it goes deeper and analyzes why some metaphors succeed and others do not. The funny Parable of the Indifferent Ear provides a good case study about how linguistic inventiveness doesn't always translate into effective writing.
Literary insights from Writebook can be applied to drama, novels and poetry; but they are especially applicable to smaller forms like the short story (though Matthews' claim that a short story of more than 10,000 words rarely succeeds is sure to be controversial). Writebook introduces lots of new ideas and terminology: the non-sequential time opening, the Swamps of Antecedence, pointedness (which, as I understand it, is how stories gain enough momentum to escape the gravitational pull of the author), linguistic vehicles (the actual words which transport the thought) and why flat characters aren't always bad.
One more thing. Writebook is wickedly funny. I won't spoil any of the jokes; suffice to say that one of his former students said Matthews was "so damn witty" in the classroom that he reminded her of Groucho Marx. Writebook has serious and even lofty aims. But this is fun reading. Matthew's style is playful and pedantic; Matthews enjoys inventing characters on the fly to illustrate his points and adding qualities to them until you begin to wonder if Writebook is going to veer into becoming a novel.