Old books on how to write stories?
July 27, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

After enjoying a 1920 screenwriting book by the flapper humorist Anita Loos, I am wondering what other pre-WW2 writing advice books might be fun and interesting to read. Any suggestions?
posted by steinsaltz to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm nuts for the old etiquette books. I have one from the thirties that is a real hoot. You learn a lot about social mores and simple housekeeping.

The Etiquette of To-Day is a reprint of a 1918-1920 book and I'm buying it as we speak.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:03 AM on July 27, 2012

Sorry, missed the part about writing. It's sill fun though.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:06 AM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: Etiquette is good too!
posted by steinsaltz at 8:19 AM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: (but mostly i'm interested in charming and good writing advice)
posted by steinsaltz at 8:20 AM on July 27, 2012

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage gives lots of charming and witty advice on the writing and speaking of English. The article on split infinitives still cracks me up. You will have to wade through a large number of purely factual (though still moderately interesting) entries, but it's worth it.
posted by ubiquity at 8:26 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: How about Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, circa 1938?

From the Brena Ueland Wikipedia entry:
Ueland published two books during her life. The first was If You Want to Write: a Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938. In this book, she shares her philosophies on writing and life in general. She stresses the idea that "Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say." Drawing heavily on the work and influence of William Blake, she suggests that writers should "Try to discover your true, honest, un-theoretical self." She sums up her book with 12 points to keep in mind while writing. Carl Sandburg called If You Want to Write "the best book ever written on how to write." It was republished in 1983 by the Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minnesota, and then picked up by Graywolf Press, for which it remains their bestselling title.
posted by bcwinters at 8:31 AM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer:
To write a sprightly play you must have a good digestion. Sprightliness resides in the stomach.
From How to Write a Play, a little book gathering letters on that topic from Sardou, Dumas fils, Zola, and pretty much all the other leading French playwrights from the era of the Well-Made Play.

Write It Right, by a peeved Ambrose Pierce, is an interesting survey of turn of the century usage errors.
posted by Iridic at 8:32 AM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks. I should add I was thinking more along the lines of plot and story than grammar, though grammar is OK.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:33 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: If you have not read Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, do so now.

It's a good-sized essay rather than a book and more "how not to write" than "how to write," but it's funny and still relevant.

The classic is E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, first published in 1927.
posted by Jeanne at 9:13 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: How to Write Short Stories by Ring Lardner is a hoot.
posted by marxchivist at 9:39 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: Going way back, there's Aristotle's Poetics. Not quite a hoot, perhaps, but a quick, requisite read for any writer. Just prior to WWII, there's Write That Play, a 1939 guide by the wonderfully named Kenneth Thorpe Rowe. I've read it and don't remember much of it, though supposedly it's recommended by Robert McKee.
posted by bassomatic at 12:25 PM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: The Fiction Factory, by William Wallace Cook, he of Plotto fame.
posted by THAT William Mize at 1:53 PM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: John Gallishaw's _The Only Two Ways to Write a Story_ enjoys some notoriety thanks to a science fiction writer, A. E. Van Vogt, having adhered to it mechanically with interestingly frenetic results.

Georges Polti's _The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations_ also comes to mind.

Neither are really well-informed from a contemporary point of view, but the results of trying to use them could still be fun.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:23 PM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: Not written that long ago, but the Backstory series of books are great. Interviews with screenwriters from way back, each book covering a different period of time. Here's the first one which covers the 20s and 30s. Note that they're not "how to" books but lengthy interviews with people who wrote in that period. The most recent one, Backstory 5, covers the 90s.
posted by dobbs at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all these. Coincidentally, at a library book giveaway I just came across "How To Write A Plot" (1939) by Jack Woodford. I took it home because the first thing I read when I flipped it open was, "If one more writer comes up to me claiming he doesn't know how to write a plot, I'll bash his skull in." He turns out to have been this notorious proto Hunter S. Thompson-type character who was a big influence on Ray Bradbury and other pulp writers. Highly recommended.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:22 AM on July 28, 2012

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