Monday, January 3, 2011

Good Writing Books and Websites

Well, it has been awhile since I posted, almost a year in fact, but I can honestly say I have grown as a writer( or at least a reader about writing!) I must have read about fifteen books on writing fiction and children's fiction, five screenwriting books, printed and read at least a couple of ink cartridges worth of web pages, listened to twenty audio books and read at least twenty-five YA books, not to mention the hundred or so children's picture books I looked at.

I once watched a You Tube video about a guy who got an offer of publication after having sent out one, only one, query letter. He said the secret was that he didn't send anything out until he had read forty books about his craft, how to figure out the proper agent and publisher who might want his book, and what the market presently was for each genre or subject. I said to myself, "OK, if it is all about preparation, and knowing your craft and market, I'll do the work." I now feel ready to go.

NaNoWriMo has been an enormous help, with their four page character motivation sheets and their scene synopses, that they so kindly shared, and Lia Keyes, from SCBWI, provided names of great screenwriting sites like Marilyn Horowitz's and Alexander Sokoloff's. I can honestly say I learned more from these sites than from anything else, and envy anyone who has been able to get an MFA in both screenwriting and creative writing. And I have benefited from sites that suggested outlining as opposed to writing from the seat of one's pants.

But what about the books I read....Which books might benefit other readers? Not being a published author, myself, none of this rambling is meant to criticize any author, only to say this is what worked for me at certain stages.

On Screenwriting
  • Best of the best is Sandra Scofield's The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. Want to know what a beat is, pulse, where to begin a scene, how to open one and what makes a good opening line? This is your book.She believes that seeing your scene helps you to write it and that screenwriters are just more visual.

  • Another book highly recommended to me was Jack M. Bickham's, Scene and Structure. I have to say it is not as easy to comprehend as the former. It talks about establishing the goal in a scene, the structure of the scene, all-dialogue scenes, all-action scenes, and I must say sometimes I found it hard to follow, but as I said, it has been highly recommended.

  • Getting Yourself Ready to Write
  • There is nothing quite like Natalie Goldberg for teaching a budding author how to open up and what to focus on. She talks about relaxation techniques like slow walking, the benefits of writing somewhere public like in a cafe, how her own personal life impacted her work, how Buddhism helped her find the quiet within, how other authors' work impacted hers, how writing can save one's life. I'd like to read her Thunder and Lighning again and her Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. I especially liked how she advised using her loneliness, writing is such a solo activity, as an impetus to express herself and communicate with others. I also especially liked her Wild Life with all of its writing exercises; they would be good shared at crit group meetings.

  • Stephen King's On Writing, also has been widely hailed. I personally found the book difficult to read because he relates how his own tough childhood in the 1950's effected him, and these were my difficult times as well. It was only at the end of each chapter that I found the kernel of the writing craft that I was seeking. To me, his autobiography sometimes got in the way. I got the sense of how difficult writing is from both Natalie Goldberg's and Stephen Kings' books, and at the time I was reading them, I think I needed a little more encouragement.

  • Which brings me to Annie Lamott's One Bird at a Time and Jane Yolen's Take Joy. The former speaks about quelling one's self-critics, the doubting part of oneself that says good writing can't be done except by those exceptional few and the secret of focusing on just one paragraph at a time, having faith in the process, believing that themes and the important parts of a story will somehow surface on a page. But then, faith is one of the thing that Annie Lamott sells very well.

  • Jane Yolen's book, written in 2003, opens with one of my favorite poems by a monk, Fra Giovanni, from Medieval Times...."The gloom of the world is but a shadow, and yet within our reach is joy. Take joy!" I try to tell myself that Ms. Yolen, probably the most prolific author I know of, can say this, because she has written so many fairy tales and myths, not realistic YA fiction, but I think no matter what one writes, the process of finding the answers within oneself can be as hard as giving birth. Both of these writers' books are ones to be read late at night when one needs a boost of encouragement.

  • Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, I thought might be dated, as the first copyright date was 1938. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was just as timely now as then. Her main advice was to tell the truth and only write about what one wants and loves. I earmarked practically every page. She believed everyone had the creative spirit and had something to say.

  • If you want to know what other contemporary writers have to say about how they work, deal with frustrations and the joys of writing, a former editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, Marie Arana, has put together a volume of fifty writers' biographies and essays they have written in her book entitled The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Authors included are Jimmy Carter, Erica Jong, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Halberstam. I especially enjoyed reading about the latter, as he grew up in the house behind me and had some unique insights.

My first attempt at writing was in the area of a memoir, so I wound up reading alot about this genre. I found memoir painful to write, even though there was much I wanted to say about my experiences in the women's movement. I was surprised to find how often the Pulitzer was awarded in this area...nothing like aiming for the impossible! I later switched to fiction writing.

Some good books:

  • I began with Russell Baker, but found his style was not exactly contemporary, but his Growing Up and The Good Times taught me the importance on dealing with short periods in a life and centering the story around major influences, like the influence of his mother and wife in his life.

  • Jane Gould's The Writer in All of Us: Improving Your Writing Through Childhood Memories was my obvious next step, and she spoke about prewriting steps like meditating and clustering. This is a good book for an adult workshop on capturing one's memories to write down for posterity.

  • Natalie Goldberg also wrote a book about memoir, Old Friend from Far Away: the Practice of Writing Memoir. This book was extraordinarily helpful with its exercises, again a book I earmarked alot. She teaches how to focus and speaks about how food is often at the center of her writing. Childhood memories of favorite foods and books often figure in her work.

  • Maybe that is why I also liked Annie Dillard's An American Childhood and The Writing Life. Finding a second hand book Erica Jong had signed for Ms. Dillard in my public library and realizing that she lived, taught and wrote in the next town also helped. But, I loved how Annie Dillard described her early childhood in Pittsburgh in terms of the books she read and the discarded objects she found on the street that she thought were treasures. I loved her voice. No one writes with as much detail as Ms. Dillard.

  • I had discovered Louise DeSalvo a while back, an Italian American writer and a college professor who was featured in a little known book about her ethnic group called The Dream Book. I knew that being Italian had a lot to do with being the person that I am, and until I discovered this author, had not found any other women writing about my experience. Her book Writing as a Way of Healing and her books are very transformative.

  • Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser and containing essays on the craft by Annie Dilliard and Frank McCourt, was also an excellent source on this subject.
Writing and Revision in General

  • Among the books that were either given to me at literary conferences, or highly suggested were Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel: A Workbook which is probably today's bible for beginning a novel in the middle of the action, for shortening the amount of the description of setting at the beginning of the book, and just adding it in dribs as one goes along. A good first workbook.

  • Alice Orr's No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells was also well earmarked. She gives good ideas for creating compelling characters and the importance of a great opening sentence.

  • Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile discusses and illustrates showing versus telling, choosing a point of view and the importance of conciseness.

  • Another book by Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), discusses putting passion and emotion in a book,the importance of letting the characters think in a book, the importance of not lecturing and being certain dialect is correct.

  • Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon discusses timing and pacing and the five stage structure.
  • Renni Browne, a former senior editor, and Dave King, also talk about editing in their Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.
Children's Picture Book and YA Writing

I finally found my niche in Children's Writing. It made sense; I had been a teacher on every level from pre-school to college and I could say what I wanted to say in this format.

  • Because I like to know the history of a genre, and because I am also a librarian, I first read Literature for Today's Young Adults by Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen.
  • William Zinsser, who has written about just about everything, wrote a book entitled Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children in which Jean Fritz, Maurice Sendak and others discuss how they go about their work.
  • There are a number of books that deal with the number of pages in a children's book, how to create a storyboard, writers' guidelines, and the difference between picture books and chapter books. Among them are Tracey E. Dils You Can Write Children's Books, new young author Cynthea Liu's Writing for Children and Teens (very clear), Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books (highly recommended at an SCBWI convention). One of my favorites is Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on-Guide from Story Creation to Publication. Others are How to Write a Children's Book and Get It Published by Barbara Seuling and Writing and Selling the YA Novel by K. L. Going, more aimed at the YA set.
  • Want to know about book publishers and magazines for children? Writer's and Illustrator's Guide to Children's Books: Publishers and Agents by Ellen Shapiro.
It's Not Over Until the Fat Lady Sings

Writing and revising may be the easy part. There is still pitching and marketing.

  • Want to find an agent? Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye by New York agent Katharine Sands, is one of the most popular ones.
  • Interested in doing your own publishing and marketing? Then you need to read The Book Publisher's Handbook with case studies, by Eric Kampmann.
Good Luck!


  1. What a wonderful list!!! And what a shame you haven't posted in a year when you are capable of posts like this. I'm going to share it far and wide. Thank you.

  2. i love this list, Mary Lou! I'll have to check which books i have... but i do know i have the stephen king one... good to know your thoughts on it, thanks so much!

  3. Thanks Mary Lou! i look forward to reading from this list. ;)

  4. i just downloaded
    Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write to my Nook. i had forgotten I had read this book years ago, I love this book! I loaned it out several times and if finally didn't make it's way back to me. It's worth reading over and over again. Such beautiful, inspiring insight. I look forward to reading it again, after all these years.
    Thanks for reminding me about this book. ;)