Saturday, May 28, 2016

Books on Writing: The Writing Life

The book I like is The Writing Life. It is not the standard “how to write” book but a compilation of 10 years of columns written in the Washington Post’s Book World. The book was edited by Marie Arana, who was the editor-in-chief for the Post.

I know this seems like a weird choice but the book is about writers; how they think and how they work, what advice they have for new writers. The chapters include titles like Looking for the Spark by Joanna Trollope, Guided by Voices: The Work of a Ghostwriter by David Chanoff and President in Search of a Publisher by Jimmy Carter.

Each chapter changes direction. Most start with an introduction of the writer writing the chapter. James Michener discusses how he didn’t write his first book until he was 40 and then wrote 48 books over the next 46 years. Muriel Spark discusses those letters that start (and end) with “The Editor thanks you for your kind contribution but regrets he is unable to publish it.” Carl Sagan writes “when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” He, of course, was talking about his love of science and how to write about science and technology in an accessible way.

This is an easy read. Each topic last a few pages, about the length of a Washington Post column, but well written. Writers discuss topics every writer thinks about because they are topics they have thought about. It is something you can read on the treadmill or riding a commuter train and read the complete chapter, giving yourself something to think about it the rest of the day. (Don’t worry, there are 55 chapters, so it will take some time to get through.)

If you like to ponder about what makes a good writer and how to become a successful writer….. this is a good book.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Books on Writing: Spicer's Picks

Several of my favorite books on writing, such as Stephen King's On Writing and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, have already been discussed here over the past weeks. My approach to writing differs somewhat from the "craftsman" approach mentioned by Kevin Killiany in "Kevin's Picks: Books on Writing". I like to believe mine is more holistic--embracing both the preeminence of craft and the mysterious, subliminal, sometimes magical nature of writing.

Stephen King puts it well: “At its most basic we are discussing a learned skill (writing), but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style... but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” Spanish writer Luis Buñuel writes: “Mystery is the basic element of all works of art.” And Jorge Luis Borges views writing as "Nothing more than a guided dream."

I'm not King or Borges, or Buñuel, or Steinbeck who famously said, “I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” But I'm in good company. When Joan Baez claims "...those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page” I feel the hairs raise up on my arm because this has been my lived experience. My very best stories come to me in an intuitive flash and these rare gifts invariably eclipse the ones that I consciously, deliberately and laboriously craft. It makes sense that the books on writing which I choose to read are eclectic rather than craft-heavy. Here are two of my favorites.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers is one writing book that I hardly ever see other writers mention. It's for those who are just starting out and it does an excellent job of dispelling the illusions with which most of us begin. Sellers is a teacher of fiction, poetry and nonfiction writing workshops and she brings a wealth of experience in coaching writers to the table. There are chapters on the state of mind you bring to starting something new, on balance, on tools for getting the work done, on reading, on the influence of parents on your work, on managing anxiety, on daring to suck, on mentors, rejection, workshops, ambition... In short, it covers everything beginning writers need to know about what they're getting themselves into. I'm glad I read it early on. Bonus: There are exercises at the end of each chapter. I admit I did very few of them.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War and Last of the Amazons) is all about breaking through the blocks to creativity, or put another way, about overcoming potentially paralyzing fears and doubts. Pressfield says:

"There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance."

He defines the many forms that resistance takes, shows how to combat it, then discusses the powerful psychic forces that sustain artists on their journey.

I've given away one writing book because I knew I was never going to read it again. That was Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays by Ray Bradbury. There are others languishing on my bookshelf: A Writer's Space by Eric Maisel, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and Letters to a Young Artist, also by Julia Cameron. I have no idea when or if I'll read them. I called a moratorium on buying books on writing, but given all the intriguing suggestions I've seen on the blog this month, my resolve is crumbling fast. Thank you Novelnauts for introducing me to all these resources!

~Liane Spicer

Friday, May 20, 2016

Kevin's Picks: Books on Writing

I’m glad this month’s topic was not “the best book on writing” because there is no such beast. No one can ever write about how to write because there’s no one way to write. All a writer can do is share the way they write. (Or “ways” – some of us approach different projects differently.) If naming one best book on writing is impossible, naming one favorite book on writing is next to impossible. No one else is me, therefore no one else is going to write a book about writing that contains everything I like and nothing I don’t. But there are many books that have things I like and have given me tools I use every day.

That use of “tools” is important. I view what I do as a craft, not as an art. Art is interesting, art can add grace notes to one’s life, but craft always has a greater impact. Which is more likely to be an integral part of your life, a Dali painting* or the absolutely perfect armchair for reading? I try to make every story that perfect chair. (*The question presupposes you cannot sell the Dali painting for millions of dollars.)

This blue collar craftsman’s attitude towards storytelling means there is a slew of writing books I decidedly do not like. Books that treat writing as though it were some mystical journey of self discovery, for example. I’ve been a crisis intervention counselor and mental health case manager for years; if your looking for a mystical journey I recommend Jung. (Actually, I don’t. Jung’s certainly mystical, but that’s about it. If you want your journey of self discovery to get anywhere I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy.) Nor do I have much patience with the notion writing is solely about following your heart. Unless you want to end up in a hot, dark, wet place getting shoved by your lungs every time you take a breath. That being said, you can exorcise (and exercise) a lot of demons through writing, but again that has more to do with therapy than writing. [And yes, before someone points it out, the energy of those internal demons can inform your writing; but as narrative impetus, not narrative element.]

Rather than produce a 3,000 word column analyzing what worked and what didn’t work for me from the myriad books on the market, I’m going to list the books I keep. Actually, I keep all my books. These are the books on writing I take down and reread occasionally – none is perfect, there are parts I don’t agree with in all of them, but on the whole worth your attention.
The ones that are in reach of my writing table, in the order my eye falls on them:

Lawrence Block. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Writing the Novel (1985 version, I know it’s been rewritten); Spider, Spin Me a Web. (There are more, I recommend everything he’s written on writing.) Gerald Weinberg. The Fieldstone Method. Cheryl Klein. Second Sight. (Writing children & YA fiction by an editor of the American editions of Harry Potter.)
Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer (More about understanding storytelling than a nuts & bolts how to.)
Albert Zuckerman. Writing the Blockbuster Novel (The useful parts are reading the various iterations of Ken Follett's narrative outline of The Man from St. Petersberg as he refines and focuses the story.) David Maas. Writing the Breakout Novel On the fence with this one. The intent is writing a novel that will sell because it stands out from the crowd while fitting into the market. Useful parts are about finding your own, original take on popular story tropes.) Ron Carlson. Ron Carlson Writes a Story All about the process and craft of writing a story. I don’t do everything the way he does, but I like his attitude and reading about how he writes is enlightening. I cannot write or speak about my own journey of becoming a writer without mentioning Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. These two physically beat sense into me (okay, metaphorically physically) and turned me from a dreamer into a working, published writer. Their sites are full of useful information on writing and supporting yourself as a writer. Go spend time studying their sites.
Kristine Kathryn Rush Dean Wesley Smith

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hey! I’ve Got Favorite Writing Books, Too!

So, the theme this month here at Novel Spaces is “Our Favorite Writing Books.” We’re already halfway into the month and a lot of popular choices have already been mentioned, which means I can reiterate at least some of the selections from my fellow Novelnauts, try to buck the trend in some way with unconventional choices of my own, or perhaps be “That Guy” and eschew the whole exercise because of some half-baked reason that sounded pretty good in the shower this morning.

Nah. I hate being “That Guy.”

Therefore, I perused the shelves in my writing office and decided on four quite different books that each focus on a different area of writing.

First up is one that’s already been mentioned a few times, Stephen King’s On Writing. What could I possibly add to the accolades this book has already received? It’s a wonderful little volume, spare in language and direct on advice (most of which really boils down to, “Why are you reading this when you could be writing?”). The book offers a glimpse into the life and process, mind and even soul of one of the most celebrated authors of the past fifty years.

Speaking of King, another favorite book from my writing shelf isn’t really a “How to” book in the true sense, even though reading it did give me a new appreciation for storytelling. The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script contains the original film screenplay along with notes and observations by writer/director Frank Darabont, who gives readers a tour into his process of adapting King’s original novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, for the screen. It is a wonderful chronicle of taking a powerful story and making it into what is commonly regarded as one of the greatest films of the 20th century.

Next, I’m going to slide over to something closer to the particular flavor of writing where I make a good deal of my living: licensed tie-in work. For a collection of wisdom, tips, tricks, and cautionary tales, we have Tied In edited by Lee Goldberg and collecting nineteen articles and essays highlighting the history, craft, and business of this oft-misunderstood field of endeavor. This volume contains the fruits of hard-won experience from some of the biggest, most enduring names in the field, many of whom are multiple award winners for their original prose or television and film writing. Some of the people contributing essays to this collection are authors I was reading thirty years ago, and who inspired me to want to write in the first place.

Finally, I’m definitely going to pull out an oddball choice, which earns a spot here just for its title: The Elements of F*cking Style, by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen. As explained by the authors in their introduction, their aim is put some fun into the learning of writing and grammar rules. Though presented as parody, the simple truth is that reading this delicious little time will make you take a long, hard look at the state of the written word, and give you a new appreciation for grammar and...yes...f*cking style as you write. Warning: Objectionable language and references litter this book. Proceed with caution.

I suppose I could just read the comments attached to this month’s previous articles and get a look at other people’s favorite writing books, but then I wouldn’t get to feel the same rush of attention and love from the audience that those other writers received. So, go on and repeat all of your choices and selections again down below. Thanks!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The One Book Every Writer Needs

 I came across “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print” by Renni Browne and Dave King in the local library. I loved the book so much that I went on Amazon and got a used copy very cheap. I’m not only going to tell you why I like it but also how to effectively use this book. 

First off, the chapters:
Show and Tell
Characterization and Exposition
Point of View
Dialogue Mechanics
See How It Sounds
Interior Monologue
Easy Beats
Breaking Up Is Easy to Do
Once Is Usually Enough

Even the most seasoned writer needs a remedial course on all these things once in a while. Beginning writers are probably clueless on many items, such as voice. This book concentrates on craft. Craft is hard to explain, it’s one of those “I know it when I read it.” But finely crafted writing elevates a book to a whole other level.

In addition to clear writing, great examples and even cartoons, each chapter follows with a “Checklist” that asks questions to make sure you have a clear understanding of what was covered. Then there are exercises and answers to the exercises in the back of the book.

While there is a tendency to sit down and consume a writing book as if it were a novel, I feel with so much info, nothing really sinks in. The most effective way to use this book is to read a chapter, go to your manuscript and check your first chapter to see if you covered all the points. Read Chapter Two, apply what you learn to your second chapter while also correcting what you learned in the first chapter. The more you put the ideas into your own manuscript, the more automatic it becomes.

Whenever I lecture to writing classes, I push this book. At this point, I should be receiving royalty checks for sales.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Favorite Books on the Writing Craft

My favorite books on writing?  That's a tough one.  Over the years, I've read many books on the craft and artistry of writing.  Part of my opinion of the book will depend on what stage in writing I was.  So, a book I might have dismissed when I first started writing, might be perfect for me now.  Or a book I thought was great when I knew very little might not seem very pertinent today.

But, I promised to give it a try.  Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir is a great read.  Part memoir and part advice for the writer, is reads as smoothly as you would expect a book from King to read.  The memoir is captivating and you can see from his early years where some of his books came from.
But his comments on writing are as to the point and lean as his writing is. He addresses plot, character and dialog.  And I found it very helpful when he pointed out specific writers who were adept at a particular aspect of the novel. 

I can easily recommend it.
Donalss Maass put out an excellent book titled Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. This follows his two other "breakout" books:  Writing the Breakout Novel, and The Breakout Novelist: How to craft Novels that Stand Out and Sell. Honestly, I didn't read the first two.  But the workbook is a standalone. It gives you instruction on character development, plot development, and general story techniques. But, to me, its real strength is in the exercises he presents after each section.  They are carefully thought out to emphasize the points he has just made.  An excellent tutorial.
For your characters, Ann Hood's Creating Character Emotions is a tight, engaging book that will improve your characters.  I like that she gives both good and bad examples of the points she is trying to make. And then, she gives you some exercises to work toward a specific objective.  She takes each emotion and shows you how to incorporate it into your characters.  Not the newest book on the subject, but possibly the best.
Lastly, it is impossible to go wrong reading Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.  Vogler based his book on the work of Joseph Campbell.  If I put Hood's book on top for character, I put Vogler's book on top for plot construction. Now I know someone will say Vogler was aiming at script writers. Certainly he has an immense background in screenplays for all the major studios. But any writer can benefit from Vogler's approach.  If you haven't read The Writer's Journey, get a copy and start on it today.  You won't regret it.

James R. Callan

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Like most authors I have read many "how to" write books. They often have very good information in them. I was gifted with a copy of "Stein on Writing" by Sol Stein many years ago. I came by, again as a gift, Strunk and White's "Elements of Style". I have bought used books on writing and absconded with my fair share of loaners. Some of which still sit on my shelves and I keep telling myself that I will eventually return them to their rightful owners.

But I've only paid cover price for two books. One is Ken Rand's "The 10% Solution" and the other is "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer.

Wonderbook is a heavily illustrated guide to writing and engaged me as an artist and an author. But the thing I love most about the book, is that for every single bit of advice Jeff Vandermeer says, if this doesn't work for you ignore it.

Too many books on writing deliver absolutes and rules. Formula and even spreadsheets on work flow. I can't write by spreadsheet. I don't even use the same process for every book. I want options, and that's what Wonderbook offers. Along with wonderful advice form published authors, anecdotes, and ideas, it offers options for everything from prose style to length. It looks at and dismantles the three act structure, offering alternatives even to the most fundamental and unquestioned dogmas of fiction.

And every single page is illustrated. There are cartoons, maps, visual representations of outlines and processes. There are excises and prompts. It takes the author, aspiring or professional, through the entire  journey of writing beginning with what makes us write int he first place and ending with tips on editing.

Very few books have examined in depth the near subconscious deeps of were we get ideas and WHY we get them, and why they are unique to us. Wonderbook spends an entire chapter on just that. And it's a worthy self-examination for any author at any stage in their career.

Wonderbook, despite the illustrations is densely packed with information. More so than any advice book on writing I have ever read. the in-depth examination of writing plunges into near scholarly territory without ever becoming dry or dull. But there is a lot to unpack int he book. A lot to understand and examine. It benefits from re-reading in ways that most advice books don't making it an invaluable resource for authors and aspiring authors alike.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

My Favorite "Writing" Books

With the themed post this month on the topic of our favorite books on writing, similar to the great post by my talented fellow Novelnaut, Jewel Amethyst, from 5/1/16 called "Learning on the Job," I too believe that the best experience is reading. Absorbing novels written by other authors serve as lessons in pacing, dialogue, setting, twists and turns, just as watching TV, movies, and plays contribute to story in a writer's mind. I know that shows written by Shonda Rhimes motivate and challenge me. The experience of taking in another writer's works are invaluable and should be absorbed as often as possible. A great writer, without even knowing it, can teach a fellow writer greatness.

The following are books that I read early on in my career. Some were suggested by my very first editor, and some were suggested by other authors. While I took many classes to learn the craft, which is the goal, I also read a lot of non-fiction books on writing, as I was as hooked and hungry as could be.

The very first book I read was Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. It was suggested even though the focus was screenwriting, but it masterfully covered aspects that I needed, such as setting, character arcs, inciting crisis, climax, etc.

I understand that Robert McKee also has another book called Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen. I love that term, "verbal action."

Also, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is excellent. He has some very unusual opinions about writing in general, i.e., to plot or not to plot, and how many drafts are necessary. He is relatable, and the book is respectful, quick, witty, and smart.

Lastly, the series of books by James Scott Bell are invaluable. I've read three of them, being Plot & Structure, Character, Emotion, & Viewpoint, and Description & Setting. As far as I know, he has three more: Dialogue, Revision & Self-Editing, and Conflict and Suspense.

I hope this list helps some of you. The best experience is to just sit down and write, though just as I discovered when I finished my first book (by the seat of my pants) in 1998, I needed to show the editors that I had what it took to craft a story, even if just the basics. One thing I knew was that I had the passion.

Our writing gets richer with time, and we learn what to do, and most important, what not to do, as we go along, though things like symbolism, endings, making characters 3-D, and more, come from study, reading, and a willingness to listen with our ears, our eyes, and then show the results of all of that with our busy, gifted fingertips.

Happy writing!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Learning on the job

This month is a themed month on Novelspaces where each novelnaught blogs about a common topic. Blogging on the first of the month means I set the tone. So when Liane presented me the list of topics I tried to steer her away from the topic that I knew everyone would like, “favorite books on writing.” I even suggested another topic that I thought would woo the other voting members away, but to no avail. Favorite books on writing won hands down.

So why was I running away from blogging about books on writing? You’ll probably think this is an oxymoron, but I don’t read books on writing. I can see your faces right now all distorted with disbelief. A writer who doesn’t read books on writing? How does she improve her craft? That’s a fair question, to which I respond, “I learn on the job.”

“Huh?!” you ask. I can see the blank looks on your face. Let me give you an example. I had been writing poetry and short stories for many years. When I entered graduate school I was faced with the task of writing my research for publication. Of course having written fiction I delved into long flowery prose. My professor looked at me and asked, “What the hell is this, a mystery novel?” He then said, “Cut out everything five prime of the verb.” (He was a geneticist so in laymen’s term, remove every clause in front of the verb.)  As we proceeded with the editing he advised me to “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell what you told them.” From that I learned that technical writing is very different from fiction. It is succinct, to the point and information driven rather than prose driven. In fiction we build suspense and steer the reader in a certain direction, in technical writing we just tell you the facts and how we perceive them; you can interpret them how you want.

In writing fiction, I was just loosely aware of POV and the importance of telling the story from a particular point of view. I would write like I was the omniscient God knowing what every character is thinking, feeling, and doing at all times. When my first book got accepted for publication I was assigned a wonderful editor: Monica Harris. In her first edits I would see little notes saying, “pov”. So I called her up, and we spent a few hours on the phone, both her and my kids screaming in the background, discussing points of view and the importance of not switching pov in the middle of a story. I again learned some important lessons on writing and I learned them on the job.

After years of writing romance I decided to dabble in children’s literature. Was I in for a surprise! As great as I thought my writing was, when I gave the manuscript to a focus group of kids to read, they could not get through it. So it was back to the drawing board, editing it to death. Children’s book author and publisher and former novelnaught, Carol Mitchell helped me make it readable for kids. And of course my co-author and a child herself, Lynelle Martin, ripped it apart and made me take out every big word, rephrase every rigorous sentence, and remove everything too “sciencey” for kids to understand. Several things I learned about writing fiction for children include letting the protagonists be slightly older than the target age of the readers and making sure that they solve their own dilemmas. Again I learned on the job.

I haven’t read any books on writing recently, yet I am constantly working on developing my craft through practice, through suggestions from editors, through reading blogs, articles and of course other novels by various authors. So my favorite book on writing isn’t a book after all. It is experience, and that you can only get by leaning on the job.