Books for the Writer

Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing.  Influence is fortunately a broad category.  It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration.  Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’  It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with. 

I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing.  It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to.  I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book.  The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on.  An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.  The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over.  After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed.  I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing.  The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book.  Honesty, applicability, and permission. 

Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for.  Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm?  On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer.  I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer.  That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve. 

The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here.  He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know. 

Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying.  Here’s stuff you can actually use.  This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there).  The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say. 

He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is.  Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples.  Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful .  Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it.  And that’s how it goes really. 

King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it.  It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style.  If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do.  I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available.  Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job.  After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer. 

Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail.  Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle.  He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction.  In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information.  For me not just a must read but a must own.

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Cathartic Writing: Where to Turn for Advice on How to Turn Your Personal Demons into Story Gold

Writing comes from a very personal place and many writers agree that the process is an isolated one. Tapping into our own experiences when composing stories can, at times, take us to some pretty dark places. Cathartic writing is a way to unleash pent up emotions while at the same time creating potential ideas for characters and stories, but how much of ourselves should we put into our writing? Is creating a character much like ourselves a good idea when writing a novel, or does it just lead to awkwardness and self-aggrandizement? Can we remain objective and develop a plot successfully if we are personally connected to the events?

Personally, I think all writers should put a little of themselves into their stories. In fact, I’m not sure there is any way around having some of ourselves enter into our writing. Writers have often heard the old advice: “Write what you know.” Cathartic writing, such as journaling or blogging, can often lead to some great ideas, but sometimes those ideas can get lost in the shuffle. Maybe they don’t come across as well as we would like because we are too close to the subject matter to be truly objective. Can exorcising our personal demons morph into a great story, or will it just come off sounding like an overly-exposed therapy session? Who can we turn to for advice on this subject?

My answer: Stephen King. Stephen King is one of those writers who explores his dark side resulting in some fantastic storytelling. I highly recommend his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book contains a lot of stories about his life and how those life experiences have shaped his writing. He is a man who successfully uses writing to overcome some of the personal demons with which he struggles. This book is a great guide for those writers considering using their cathartic writing to generate their own stories.

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Rules for Writing

I recently read an article in the Guardian titled “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction”. It was primarily a platform to promote Elmore Leonard’s new book 10 Rules of Writing. Of course, six of the ten Leonard rules I’ve been guilty of breaking.

But the article went to garner ten rules from 28 other authors, some familiar writers, others more obscure. There were a few comical tips, like Get an Accountant, or Abstain from Sex, but many of the authors shared common ground in their suggestions: read, a lot and widely; editing is important; get in the habit of writing every day; cut out all the prose that readers skip over; and read your work out loud to improve it.

Pretty basic stuff until one recommendation caught my attention. Hilary Mantel’s second rule was to read the book Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I bought it and was instantly engaged by the content. It’s not the typical how to write book. Originally published in 1934, it was out of print for a number of years. The edition I bought included a foreword by John Gardner where he pretty much said he thought it was the most important book to read if you want to write fiction.

A warning though – it’s scary. Frightening because she makes a bold statement fairly early on. If someone wants to write but can’t manage to complete the first two exercises she assigns, then give up writing. Yes, that’s precisely what she says – Stop writing if you can’t learn to write first thing in the morning, and at a preset time each day for a couple of weeks. It’s all about taming what she labels the unconscious writer.

 She goes on to give an insightful prescription on how a beginning writer can use those daily musings to gain a sense of direction. It’s based on understanding the strengths of your individual unconscious writer, the voice within.

 Find the article, and see which of the rules capture your imagination

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As a Writer, Know When it is Over

Stephen Crane, Author, Red Badge of Courage
Image by Tony the Misfit (Getting Back) via Flickr
The story, that is. Recently I finished a sweet little Regionalism novel about two sisters growing up in 1950’s Milwaukee. It started out well with clever anecdotes and interesting characters, but when I got to the end of the book (or what I thought should be the end) the author rattled on for another two whole chapters. Quite frankly, it ruined the story for me.
As writers we are told that our stories need to have a specific beginning, middle, and end but no one seems to know just where the end should go. Is it where the writer thinks it should be or where the reader needs it to happen? A more important inquiry might be whether or not we as writers can distance ourselves enough from our writing to see where the natural ending should come.
A great novel will end right where we as the reader think it should. Or at least we will be able to understand, given the rest of the story, why an author chose to end it where he or she did. A mediocre novel will end about two or three chapters beyond that point with no rhyme or reason.
And it isn’t just books that fall victim to this conundrum. Many of us have watched movies that seem to go on way past the logical stopping point. Maybe it is best to follow the old advice given to writers and artists: “Arrive late and leave early.”

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