1. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Literature on Writing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Komposten, Nov 4, 2013.

    Just reading the occasional random thread here on the forum, I came across a couple of recommended books on the topic of fictional writing. Then I came across this other side of the coin: Threads where those books were argued against. So I started to think on the subject.

    One of the most recommended books I've encountered so far is Bickham's Scene & Structure, but some people have found it to be too formulaic, it follows the "rules" too much.

    So before I buy a book on writing I'd love to hear what you, the Community, think is the best books on the subject. And don't forget to mention why, as well as how the book approaches the teaching (Is it very deep and dull? Is it simple and maybe humoristic? Etc.)!

    Thanks in advance
    /Komposten

    (PS. I could not decide whether this thread should be in General Writing or Book Discussion. While it relies heavily on book discussions it is also a topic in writing resources and could thus be at home in both categories.)
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2013
  2. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    As a big believer in the adage, "You have to know the rules before you can break them.", the first book I recommend to writers is The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White. Not as dry as you might expect, but you'll learn a lot about, well, style. Pinckett's Practical Grammar is sort of an extension of Strunk and White, also written in a very readable style.

    Once you have the rules down, see if you can find a copy of A Writer's Chapbook, excerpts from interviews with famous writers of the day ('40s and '50's mostly) from The Paris Review, edited by George Plimpton. I've read my copy at least a dozen times.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    other than s & w and the how-tos on script format and basics that i recommend to aspiring screenwriters in my 'tools of the trade' list, i next to never recommend how-tos on writing...

    the books i advise would-be writers to read are those by the best [which does not = most popular!] writers of whatever it is they want to learn how to write...
     
  4. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    And how do I find those?

    For the record: I'm interesting in hints and tips on writing novels and short stories.
     
  5. sub rosa
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    sub rosa New Member

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    This might sound a bit off-the-wall to some. I used to be very choosy about which writing books I read until I was very choosy one day and ended up picking out what I initially thought was a real stinker. However, while reading through it and being appalled by what I saw as the writer's holier-than-thou attitude and writing rules that simply would not work in my life or with my faulty brain, I suddenly figured two things out: how I didn't want to write and, more importantly, how I didn't want to make people feel when they read my writing. To this day that book remains one of my absolute best teachers regarding my writing. Indeed, the majority of my greatest writing lessons come from the most unexpected of sources. This, combined with the fact that everyone is different and have different writing needs, is why I hesitate greatly recommending any one book, personally.

    Now-a-days, I read every single book on writing that I can. I don't mind if it is a memoir or how-to, rubs me the wrong way, is psychologically painful to trudge through, etc. Even while reading books of poetry and film scripts, I learn a lot of lessons that somehow my brain can correlate to novel writing. That is to say: if it's about writing, I will read it. I believe this has made a very positive difference for me and my writing.

    I understand most people have far busier lives than mine and want to be more selective about the books that they read. Still, I can't think of one writing book that I didn't learn something valuable from (even if it was an example of how I don't wish to write - which I think is just as beneficial as learning about the type of writing I do wish to achieve). So, in this way, I think that all writing books are legitimate and valuable in their own unique ways.

    I'm sorry for not directly answering your question, Komposten. I'm just trying to say that, in general, I don't feel that a person can necessarily "go wrong" with any writing book they choose.
     
  6. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Hopefully I will eventually get around to reading a lot of books on the subject, but right now I feel that I want a strong book to kick me off. Both being a full time student and not having a job limits both my time and money, so I want to invest that which I have with care and get as much out of it as possible.

    About your reading that which you don't ever want to do, and learning about it, I don't think that will work for all. Some people might feel that they are wrong and should go against their instincts to pursue what the book says is 'right'. To ensure that this does not happen to me I, again, want a good and well-recommended book before starting (even though even such a book could be nothing for me in the end).

    For now I believe it is better to read a book covering the basics of how a writer should do to catch the reader's interest, rather than only reading about how I should not do and have to guess the rest. :p


    Thank you for taking your time. Even though you did not answer my question directly your opinion has still been valuable.
     
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  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Then you should be reading the best novels and short stories you can find. There are many excellent ways to tell a story. How-to books will generally only deal with one way - the preferred way of the author of the how-to.
     
  8. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've been reading a thread on that very subject: "Is it possible to become a good writer without ever having attended any creative writing courses or the like?".
    My conclusion after reading all which have been said there is that you can learn quite a lot from reading the kind of work you want to do, but that kind of reading will not teach you everything. For instance there are apparently three things that you should tell a reader when jumping to a new scene, and which those are is not easily judged from analysing fiction. If I hadn't read that thread I wouldn't even know that there were three such things, and thus wouldn't even think of looking for them.

    Of course I still read as much fiction as I can, though I generally do it for entertainment rather than education.
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's certainly not hard to figure out... if you're a discerning reader, you want to know: 1. where it is; 2. what it looks like; and 3. who's there...
     
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've read a great many books on writing. I can't say I've learned a lot from (or had much patience for) the kind of step-by-step, paint-by-numbers guides with titles like Write a Novel in Twelve Easy Steps and Six Weeks to Better Fiction (I just made up these titles, but you know the kind of book I mean). They're boring, pedantic, and they destroy my ambition to write. They kill the artist within, so to speak.

    I'm much more interested in books that inspire as well as instruct. By far the best of these, in my opinion, is the set of volumes of the Paris Review's Writers at Work interviews. (These interviews are the source of The Writer's Chapbook, referenced by stevesh above.) These are interviews with many of the finest writers since the Review started publishing in 1953, from E.M. Forster to Ursula K. Le Guin, from 1954 Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway to 2013 Nobel laureate Alice Munro. This is the most inspiring stuff out there. It's not, of course, a collection of dos and don'ts, but there's plenty of instruction there if you're willing to look for it.

    Next to the Paris Review interviews, the best books on writing I've ever seen are John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. Once again, these are not collections of dos and don'ts. Gardner is not interested in helping you hack out publishable mush. He wants to help you become the best literary artist you can be - he wants you to write a masterpiece. He holds you to impossibly high standards, but that's okay; if you're not aiming high, you won't reach the stars. Gardner discusses basic principles, genre, symbol, imagery, voice, plotting, and so on. He wants you to understand these things deeply, not superficially. He doesn't blather about scene and sequel or hooking the reader in the first paragraph or three-act structure. He's not about insert-tab-A-into-slot-B. He's more about how to make it so that your story earns your reader's emotional response, and ultimately your reader's admiration and love. It's deeper stuff than most how-to-write books, but it's inspiring. And when you've finished reading Gardner, tab A and slot B won't be mysterious any more. You'll know what to do.
     
  11. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Minstrel pointed out a good book - The art of Fiction
    I like reading literary studies - books that analyze books. It's helpful to see a writer breaking down a book to examine
    the writer's style, themes, characters, symbolism. I don't have a list handy but one I liked was Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots.

    The trouble with a lot of how-to books is they're good for basic knowledge but they won't help you create your writer's voice,
    in fact a lot of tips are designed to blur it out. And the one thing that will get you noticed is your writer's voice.
     
  12. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I went to the library and paged through all the how to write books on the shelf, took some home, weeded down from there. I don't think anyone else's recommendations necessarily match my needs and vice versa. I found O.C. Card's series too basic but others love them. "Wired for Story" was good enough I bought my own copy. The author also has a blog.

    I was struggling with the hook and found "The First 50 Pages" was worthwhile. Also "Spunk and Bite" had some useful hints.

    A lot of the books I looked at had good sections, like ones on dialogue or setting. I found it useful to look for writing resources that addressed what I was currently trying to improve rather than reading whole how to books.
     
  13. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Call me a pretentious snobish academic snob, but I consider Virginia Woolf's essays from The Death of the Moth and Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet quintessential for serious literary begginers. :)

    Seven Basic Plots was a cool read. Gardner was very, very interesting too. And I think any Dictionary of Literary Theory you can get your hands on, where basic terminology of plot, sujet, focus, scene etc is explained, will come in handy. If you don't know the difference between a narrator and a focal character, learn it. And yeah, ze good ol' 3-5 part structure @minstrel - learn what it is, than do your own 7 part structure :)

    @Komposten
    It's extremely easy to check if this is really so - take any random book from the shelf. Seek out a scene. Seek out the goal. Check/uncheck. Repeat randomly. Figure the statiatics yourself. :)
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2013
  14. sub rosa
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    sub rosa New Member

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    No problem, Komposten. I totally understand your situation and feelings about this.

    Can I ask some questions? I hope I'm not bugging you, it's just that perhaps if I and others have more specific information on your needs and desires with your writing, we can more adequately pin-point a specific book or two that might be your best bet.

    1. In line with what GingerCoffee mentioned above, is there a specific area of writing you are having trouble with, like scene writing or plot development? It seems you want a general writing book, but some have stronger or weaker points in the various specific areas (for example, one might discuss scene writing strongly, but not be so strong on, say, character development).

    2. Are you looking for a book that is heavily structured or less structured? Do you prefer a book that is more philosophical or in a more casual/everyday tone? Do you have a preference between a book written by a single author or one that is a compilation of several writers?

    3. Is there a particular genre you are interested in writing in? Some of the general writing books cater more to certain genres than others.

    4. I see you are in Sweden, but you write terrific English. Are you more comfortable reading in English or a different language?

    Sorry for all the questions, I just thought it might help having a little more insight into what you're specifically looking for.
     
  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    There are some books on writing that are good reads, but I think on par you'll gain more reading a lot of fiction if that's what you want to write.
     
  16. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Okay, bad example from my part. Though I must say that if I hadn't seen it mentioned on this forum I'd never thought of looking for it.


    @peachalulu @minstrel @Burlbird I will take a look at both The Art of Fiction and The Seven Basic Plots, and see if I deem them as something that would fit me.


    @sub rosa , I'll get back to you later when I've got more time.
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2013
  17. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    No problem, rosa. I totally understand this but I haven't really come up with a good way to tell you. These questions help immensely!

    1. What I currently seek to learn is scene writing as well as writing scene shifts.

    2. I think I would prefer the kind of book that is not strictly "do this, do that" but more floating to allow the reader to adapt it to their personal needs (if that makes any sense).
    Either philosophical or not would do, and I'd prefer at least some semblance of structure (being somewhat of a perfectionist). Worth noting is that an extremely structured book divided into sections strictly of one matter each would probably not be something I'd enjoy.

    Regarding one or several authors I think it might be better with several since that should give a bunch of perspectives on the matter. Single writers, however, would allow them to go into more detail about their line of thought. So in the end it does not really matter if I end up with one book written by three authors or three books written by three authors.

    3. My main interest lies in fantasy and sci-fi.

    4. My primary language is Swedish (since I live in Sweden), but a couple of years ago I changed my preference of language to English. Nowadays I do most of my writing English (unless it is a school assignment to write in Swedish), I read almost exclusively in English (fiction) and I even THINK in English most of the time.
    So to give a straight answer to your question: I prefer reading in English, and it is in English I wish to write.
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2013
  18. sub rosa
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    sub rosa New Member

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    Thank you for answering, Komposten. It gives me a clearer idea on how I might best try to help.

    I think there are a lot of books out there that would fit to your wants and needs, but with your mentioning that your main interest is in fantasy and sci-fi writing, I know there are books specifically geared towards helping writers of those genres, though I haven't read them, personally. Perhaps something like that would be a good starting place for you? I also know I have at least one book specifically about scene writing. I have searched for it, but cannot find it (we're in the process of remodeling our house and pretty much everything, including my sanity, is lost in a maze of boxes, currently). You had mentioned scene writing and I thought of it, though... So, books exist that target at least two of the things you're interested in.

    I'm not sure if this is true, but I can imagine it might be difficult to find a library or book store in Sweden with a nice selection of English writing books to look through before making a selection? If so, I'm in a similar situation, so I rely on online book stores for finding books in English. Have you looked into those? Some have customer reviews and the ability to read samples from certain books, two things which are really helpful for me if I'm looking for something very specific or want to confirm if a book recommendation is right for me.

    There's no "wrong" or "right" way to do this, of course, and I'm a firm believer that each writer knows ultimately what is best for their own writing life.

    I hope I've helped in even a small way and am not repeating things you already know. I wish you the best of luck!
     
  19. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    I dunno. When that author is an Honored Professor (an actual title) who taught one of the most famous courses on commercial fiction and sold seventy-five novels of his own, like Jack Bickham, I kind of think there might be more to it than, "This is how I do it." I do agree that lots of books in writing tend to have too much of, "Here read this scene from my work and then I'll tell you why it's so brilliant," but not Bickham's work.

    Komposten: Bickham's Scene and Structure, and his 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, are excellent. He offers no "rules" and in fact says that people looking for a set of rules are making a mistake. What he does is make clear why certain things work, like the things a reader wants to know on entering a scene and the use of a scene-goal. He explains big ticket items like how to structure scenes for maximum impact, and even little things like why "Susan smiled when Jack came through the door, "is a POV break."

    I personally like Dwight Swain's, Techniques of the Selling Writer, but that might simply be because I read it first, and it had such a dramatic impact on my writing. Swain and Bickham taught together and they pretty much say the same thing.
     
  20. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I usually don't borrow books from the library anyway, living with a "One does not borrow good books" policy (probably derived from "One does not (illegally) download good games"). I usually buy my books from one or two internet-based nordic bookshops, and they tend to have a lot of books on all kinds of topics in a great range of languages. If I can't find what I'm looking for there I go to Amazon.
    So at least that part is sorted. :p

    Well, giving a book up before even giving it a try could be shooting oneself in the foot, so I will add Bickham to my list of literature. Though I don't think it will be the first book I read, having had so many good suggestions already.
     
  21. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    To be perfectly honest, Bickham was actually honored a title of Professor. :)
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll go along with the recommendation to read as many good examples of your chosen genre as you can, but I'd widen it. Read bad examples, too, and read way way beyond your chosen genre: fact, fiction, the lot. But always read critically, looking for what works, what doesn't, why, how the author gets particular effects, what effects they get, and so on. There are a few reasons for not limiting yourself to good examples of your genre:
    • It's often easier to identify why something didn't work than why something did. If something irritates you, you'll know it!
    • If you've experienced for yourself something causing problems then you know it really does cause problems and is not just theoretical or space-filling (which too much advice in creative writing manuals seems to be).
    • If you've experienced for yourself something causing problems then you are more likely to internalise it in your own writing.
    • Most genres will sometimes involve you in writing outside that genre, and you need to be able to handle that. For example, I've lost count of the number of crime novels I've read that included newspaper reports written in an utterly un-journalistic style (usually written in the same style as the rest of the narrative), which really jars.
    • Pulling ideas from all over the place can enrich your writing. I first encountered the advice to read way beyond one's genre from Terry Pratchett, and in his books I've spotted references to stuff from King Kong to Thucydides' The History of the Peleponnessian War"
    What I think you might find useful is some basic books on literary structure and criticism, because it's all very well being told to read critically but not easy to do it if you don't know what you're looking for. Find something that explains things like narrative voice and point-of-view (you probably have some idea of those things already, but a good text should help you organise your understanding and take it further). You don't have to know terms like "in media res" to write well, but it's useful to be able to recognise the technique and have it available in your tool kit.

    I'm not going to say don't read style guides such as Strunk & White (although I have a dim view of that particular book), but read them as critically as everything else. "Is this rule actually right?" "Is there any meaningful way to apply this rule?" (Some "rules" I've seen are little more than "write well", and if you knew how to do that you wouldn't need the rule). "Does applying this rule actually make my writing better or worse when I try applying it?" "Do the writers I enjoy follow this rule?" "If they don't, would I be likely to enjoy their writing more if they did?" Don't bother with what people (including me) tell you to do; test, and see what works.
     
  23. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I guess it all comes down to whether or not I can make myself do this. Just finished reading a book where the MC's wife was murdered close to the end, and I swear fiction has never brought me so close to tears before! But I'd started analyse why it brought me to tears I believe it would spoil the moment.
    Now, of course there are billions of other things to study so maybe I'll try this out when my next shipment of books are delivered.

    As for "basic books on literary structure and criticism", that is one of the things I'm looking for. Going into the depth way too much leads to the writing and rules shaping the author, and not vice versa.

    I will definitely bear your advice in mind as I settle down reading writing-books, and other things for that matter, I hope that it works as good for me as it does for others.
    Thanks!
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, that is a danger -- "cutting the throat of the nightingale to see how it makes its song". I usually let myself get immersed in something (if I feel it's any good), and then go back to it to take it apart. Perhaps that's another reason to include bad writing in your reading list :) Or enjoy the moment, but then examine it afterwards. For my degree I had to do a lot of close readings of texts, often of my own choosing. I tended to choose stuff that I already liked, and doing that meant I found more and more in the texts without loosing the initial enjoyment. It does take time at first, but I suppose you get a feel for it.

    One of the main books I used for that was Mick Short's Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose. I'm not sure it will do what you want, though. It's an undergraduate level linguistics text, so I don't know whether that's the level you want, and, like most texts at that sort of level, it's got a rather specialist focus (it only considers the language; it doesn't really say anything about structure).
    Yes, I think that can be a danger with taking too much notice of writing "rules". I can think of a couple of books I really hated that I suspect were so bad because the writers had stifled their natural voice and were writing in a horribly unnatural way just to conform to supposed "rules". It's fine telling writers to make it as simple as possible, but unless they have developed a good ear they're in danger of making it a lot simpler than that. If you can get sight of a copy of Ronald Carter's Investigating English Discourse: Language, Literacy and Literature (do you have access to a good reference library?) there's a great chapter on "Is there a literary language?" which will introduce you to things like polysemy and semantic density. Don't worry about the terminology: that's for the academics. But they describe things that I'm confident you will find in all the texts you really enjoy, and they're there because the authors (probably subconsciously) resisted the temptation to simplify them away.

    For other aspects of writing -- structure, characterisation, plotting and so on -- most of what I have is buried in lecture notes, so I don't really have anywhere to point you. Hopefully somebody else will be along presently with some ideas.
     
  25. LeighAnn
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    I've read just about every book on writing that's out there. I like to read, and I like to read about writing, so I'll even read the ones I don't agree with or think are stupid. Probably my favorite is "Things Feigned or Imagined" by Stenson. What I like about it is how it shows you how to use the techniques he talks about instead of just telling you. I like many of the others mentioned here, but Stenson is my favorite.
     

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