Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reading for Writers

In my column a few weeks ago on what I say to new(er) writers who ask my advice I wrote I steer them toward a few websites and recommend some reading. It occurred to me (shortly after reading Eugenia's column) that it would be helpful if I actually shared some of the websites and books I recommend in the coffee shop here.

I'm going to assume everyone here knows about this site, can track down their favorite authors' blogs, and knows where to find the main sites of their favorite genres. To those I meet in real life who don't, I say: "Search the web for sites related to authors you admire or communities of writers in the genre you're interested in." Really. I don't have a rolodex with me at the coffee shop. Beyond that… Anyone who knows me knows I always credit Dean Wesley Smith and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, with giving me the kick in the head I needed to get professional about my writing. I recommend their workshops to anyone who can afford the expense and time. For those of us who can't get to the Oregon coast this season, either of their sites is an education on the craft and business of writing. They're both worth studying in depth and visiting weekly (Only because daily would be a bit obsessive). Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A few months ago someone (I forget who) recommended I check out Cheryl Klein's website; I did and have since become a fan. Klein's an editor of books for children and young adults – some of which you may have heard; her more obscure titles include the American editions of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and HP & the Deathly Hallows. Not as extensive as Rusch's site, but full of useful information. And fun.

The first book I recommend writers read has nothing to do with writing. It is also the only book I recommend without qualifiers like "this might not be for everyone, but…" Larry Winget's It's Called Work for a Reason is about developing and strengthening your work ethic. The subtitle says it all: "Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault." Unless you're willing to make the commitment to work at your writing, nothing else will help you.

I have never found a book on the writing process that I agree with 100%. But I usually find something useful in every one. My favorite part of Stephen King's On Writing is page 83 where he calls my uncle a "heavy hitter." However, the most useful thing, the thing that made the book worth reading, was his journalistic epiphany, the moment he realized what "editing" meant. A lesson reinforced by some 1st-draft-to-2nd draft examples. But the real reason the book's on my shelf is page 83. It's bookmarked.

A book that has more to do with work habits than muse is Jerry Weinberg's On Writing: Fieldstone Method. Weinberg designed computer systems for NASA, he's an expert on the psychology of communication including conflict resolution and getting disparate groups to work together. To build a wall of fieldstones, the farmer searches out the stones, collects them in one place, sorts them, then considers each one and how to use in in making the wall she wants. His approach doesn't work for everyone, and not all of his approach works for me, but it's helped me in my juggling projects' components (a big issue for us ADD types) and "Dani's Decimation" – an editing technique – is excellent.

I also recommend Second Sight by Cheryl Klein. It's a collection of her speeches, training sessions, what-have-you, on writing and publishing from the editor's perspective. And it's a perspective I like: "I am extremely wary of the word 'feel' in a manuscript, as in 'Cheryl felt extremely wary.' If you're having to tell me what your character is feeling, that makes me suspicious hat I'm not feeling it too." Second Sight is full of true stories and annotated examples to illustrate each phase of the writing, editing, and publishing process.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass is almost an exercise in reverse engineering. He takes top-selling novels apart and explains the qualities that made them so successful. (There's also workbook) Maass presents a lot of good information, particularly in how to analyze a novel, and the workbook has many useful exercises, but his approach is not foolproof. And not everyone finds his approach – tailoring your work to the marketplace – palatable.
Another book with a superficially similar intent is Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel, a step-by-step analysis of how Ken Follett wrote The Man From St. Petersburg. Now out of print as nearly as I can tell, Blockbuster focuses on the process and choices involved in writing a novel, not writing to market.

I like Lawrence Block's collections of his Writer's Digest columns (Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Spider, Spin Me a Web; and The Liar's Companion as much for what he has to say about being a writer as for his writing advice. Much of which I actually follow.

And finally, sometimes I read books I hate. I almost always storyboard my projects. Graph paper with circles and arrows or index cards I can shuffle and spread on the kitchen table. I usually see key moments as mountains rising out of a dense fog. I know where they are and in which order I'll get to them, but the path from peak to peak is shrouded in mist. Lately I've been thinking I could benefit from more structure in how I go about my work. To this end I've been reading K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel. It's a difficult and at times painful experience – particularly given Weiland's oft-repeated opinion of folks who write as I do – but I'm taking my time and mining for things I might be able to use in my own work.

How about you? What books or authors have you found most useful in learning your craft?

8 comments:

William Doonan said...

Call me crazy, but I like Stephen King's book, On Writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

My favorite book on writing is "on writing well" by William zinsser. It's about nonfiction but is very good for any kind of writing.

KeVin K. said...

I like "On Writing" is as well, William. Between being overwhelmed that his wife isn't present to hear how much money he made selling Carrie to Bryan Smith getting no jail time for almost killing him, King says a lot of good stuff about writing. "And Furthermore, Part I" alone is probably worth the cover price.

Charles, a dog-eared and annotated "On Writing Well" is on my shelf. Indispensable.

With my list I was aiming for atypical titles, books not often suggested to neophyte writers.

old guy rambling said...

Steven King’s, “On Writing,” is still my favorite. I am also a Lawrence Block fan and have read all of his writing books.
One writing book that surprised me, surprised me I even read it, was Terry Brooks, “Sometimes the Magic Works-Lessons from a Writing Life.” I had never read a fantasy novel and was surprised how much I enjoyed his writing book. When I finished I bought his, “Magic Kingdom for Sale - Sold!” (Landover Series), and enjoyed it, although my fantasy reading ended with the three book series.
This ol’ cowboy went back to reading westerns, historical fiction and of course Lawrence Block, and I toss in a good measure of Lee Child.
Great post-interesting stuff, glad I found your blog.

KeVin K. said...

Thanks, OGR. Have not read Terry Brooks's book on writing; I'll have to check it out. (Literally; a quick query on county library's site says they have a copy.)

Liane Spicer said...

I'm also a fan of 'On Writing', inclusive of all the autobiographical parts that give context to his development as a writer. Most of your recommendations are on my list; I'll get to them eventually.

I have two other favorites that I would also recommend to a serious newbie: Steven Pressfield's 'The War of Art--Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles' which examines the internal obstacles to creativity and delivers that much touted kick in the pants. Heather Sellers' 'Page by Page' is also on my shelf, and the useful bits for me were the concept of 'composting', and the reality check on living the writer's life.

Captain Black said...

Nicola Morgan's Write to be Published is a very good, down-to-earth guide and reference for understanding the writing and publishing process. Understandably it's mostly UK centric but there's plenty in there for writers on all continents.

I got a great deal of learning from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It taught me how to get from raw material to something closer to being publishable.

For a more light-hearted approach to writing, Jane Wenham-Jones' Wannabe a Writer? books are worth a read and full of useful tips dressed in her amusing anecdotes.

I also have a great respect for Stephen King's On Writing.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

I like Stephen King's book, too. Two other faves are Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King. I re-read those all the time.