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So You Want to be a Writer? Essential Books On Writing

By Rebeca Schiller

It seems that just about everyone aspires to write The Great American Novel. It’s an ambition I’ve always had ever since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until six years ago that I glued my butt to the chair and wrote. I’m currently working on a novel that addresses lefty politics. This work-in-process has been through several rewrites, and in each version I’ve learned something new whether it was from a colleague in a critique group or from reading.

I read quite a bit. I have favorite genres like historical espionage (I’m partial to those), contemporary fiction that addresses social issues (right now I’m on the financial crisis kick), politics, and spooky thrillers (sans vampires and zombies). I also have quite a collection of books on craft that I study and reread often. Below are a five of my favorite books that have helped me through my series of rewrites:

The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long

The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life distills 20 years of teaching and creative thought by the well-published author Priscilla Long. The Writer’s Portable Mentor helps writers understand and incorporate the regular practices of virtuoso creators; provides a guide to structuring literary, journalistic, or fictional pieces or entire books; opens the door to the sentence strategies of the masters; provides tools for developing a poet’s ear for use in prose; trains writers in the observation skills of visual artists; and guides them toward more effective approaches to getting their work into the world. Says Maya Sonenberg, Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Washington, “I have never seen anything quite like Priscilla Long’s book. It presents a true alternative for the advanced writer.”



Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks

The vast majority of writers begin the storytelling process with only a partial understanding where to begin. Some labor their entire lives without ever learning that successful stories are as dependent upon good engineering as they are artistry. But the truth is, unless you are master of the form, function and criteria of successful storytelling, sitting down and pounding out a first draft without planning is an ineffective way to begin.

Story Engineering starts with the criteria and the architecture of storytelling, the engineering and design of a story–and uses it as the basis for narrative. The greatest potential of any story is found in the way six specific aspects of storytelling combine and empower each other on the page. When rendered artfully, they become a sum in excess of their parts.

You’ll learn to wrap your head around the big pictures of storytelling at a professional level through a new approach that shows how to combine these six core competencies which include:

  • Four elemental competencies of concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot)
  • Two executional competencies of scene construction and writing voice

The true magic of storytelling happens when these six core competencies work together in perfect harmony.

Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

Here’s a useful book for the novice writer battling the fears and insecurities that attend when she contemplates her first novel. Highly successful as the writer of a dozen novels of suspense (A Place of Hiding, etc.) and a teacher with significant experience, George reveals that those same fears and insecurities still bedevil her. She quickly moves beyond that to a consideration of the craft of writing-mastering the tools and techniques that a writer needs in order to create art. While George illustrates her points with passages from both her own works and those of numerous writers she admires (Martin Cruz Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris), this remains more of a how-I-do-it book than a how-to-do-it book. Thus George will typically discuss an aspect of writing, such as creating the landscape of a novel, illustrate it with examples from various writers and then show how she approaches it. The result is an informative, instructive and idiosyncratic examination of the structure of the novel and of one writer’s rigorously disciplined approach to creating one. George makes clear that writing is a job and that mastering the tools and techniques of the craft can go a long way toward making a writer successful. Finally, she advocates self-discipline, or what Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One) calls “bum glue.” As George puts it, “A lot of writing is simply showing up… day after day, same time and same place.” Both aspiring writers and fans of George’s novels should enjoy the author’s insights into the creative process.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

King could write a phone book and make it not only a best-seller but also gripping reading. So expect his fiction-writing how-to to be a megahit that reaches plenty of readers besides wanna-be novelists. It is riveting, thanks to King’s customary flair for the vernacular and conversational tone, and to the fact that he flanks his advice with two memoirs, the latter recalling his near-fatal 1999 stint as the victim of a bad driver. The first memoir, “C.V.,” concentrates on his life as a writer, which began in childhood. It took some time to publish for money, but ever since Carrie garnered $400,000 for paperback rights, he has been the Stephen King. He loves to write, though he emphasizes it is far more work than play. Loving it is essential, though, and having a good “toolbox,” full of vocabulary, grammar, and the usage and mechanics prescribed by Strunk and White’s perdurable Elements of Style, is next most important. It is invaluable to read a lot, and the key to novel writing is following the story–not a plot that can be charted or outlined, but the developments natural for the characters, given the situation they are in. For himself, King says, good health and a good marriage have been crucial, never more so than during his recovery from the accident. Good advice and a good, ordinary life, relayed in spunky, vivid prose, are the prime ingredients of what must be considered not at all the usual writer’s guide.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Lamott’s ( Operating Instructions ) miscellany of guidance and reflection should appeal to writers struggling with demons large and slight. Among the pearls she offers is to start small, as their father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was agonizing over a book report on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Lamott’s suggestion on the craft of fiction is down-to-earth: worry about the characters, not the plot. But she’s even better on psychological questions. She has learned that writing is more rewarding than publication, but that even writing’s rewards may not lead to contentment. As a former “Leona Helmsley of jealousy,” she’s come to will herself past pettiness and to fight writer’s block by living “as if I am dying.” She counsels writers to form support groups and wisely observes that, even if your audience is small, “to have written your version is an honorable thing.”



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