Sunday, April 5, 2015

Three excellent writing advice books

Like most writers, I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was able to form letters.  And even when my academic career demanded mostly non-fiction articles and books, I still found an outlet for the more creative, fun side of my writing. But when I set out to write my first novel, I felt strangely unprepared. And when I decided I wanted to publish said novel and make a career of my fiction writing, I felt adrift in a sea of cluelessness. 

And whenever I feel like I don’t know enough about something, I turn to books. Go figure.

So as I was stealing my snippets of time here and there to write my novel, I also started stealing snippets of time to read advice books about writing. I have many favorites for different subjects within the writing-advice genre, but three stand out in my mind because they did so much to encourage me and ease me onto the path.

Stephen King’s On Writing

On Writing, By Stephen King
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft This one is no surprise, everyone raves about it. But there’s a reason for that—it’s down-to-earth and incredibly useful. The first half of the book focuses more on his autobiography, the second more on what you’d think of as writing advice.

I found almost as much that was useful in the autobiography material as the rest. It’s easy to think of famous, prolific writers as these untouchable wizard-like beings who birth their creations by sneezing them out. And of course you can never live up to that, so why bother? So to read about the very real struggles of someone who has attained the mega-success that Stephen King has is food for the writer’s soul. All of those manuscripts written and copiously rejected, the manuscript for Carrie tossed into the garbage can—if these things happened to him, they don’t spell the end of the world when they happen to us.

But don’t get me wrong—the writing advice is beyond valuable as well. When I stared writing my novels, I had no idea what sort of process was going to work for me; writing research articles and books, even short stories, is very different from writing a novel. Luckily, I’m a big proponent of asking successful people how they accomplished what they did, and then trying what they say to do—so that’s what I did with this book. Stephen King says set your first draft aside for six weeks, and work on another project? Okay, I’ll try it. So I put the draft up on a shelf, and started playing around with an idea I had for another book. Six weeks later I had the needed distance to begin revising Book One, and I also had a completed draft of a second book. HOLY CRAP. It worked. And so began a cycle of revising and writing that keeps me productive in an effective way.

So much else has stayed with me in the same way. Advice on when and how to get feedback from others, when and how to revise, the importance of a writing routine, and so much more. Whether you’re just starting on a serious writing career or have several books under your belt, you’ll find that interesting and useful information abounds between these covers.

Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
This is another blended book, part autobiography, part writing advice. Lamott weaves her life and her advice together to varying degrees throughout the book. Sometimes she gives the advice straight-up, no chaser, like in her discussion of the basic formula for drama, and how to keep  your characters moving forward. Sometimes it’s given lyrically, embedded in life’s wisdom. The best example is the anecdote that gives the book its name. Her older brother had put off a report on birds for months, and was scrambling to get it done for school the next day. Beyond frustrated, he broke down because he had no idea how to get it all done. Their father gave him this advice: “Just take it bird by bird”. This approach has never failed me, in my writing life and out of it. If I look at everything that needs to be done, I want to curl up in a ball and suck my thumb. But if I break off just one piece and work on it…And then work on another piece…It gets done. Today this scene. Tomorrow that one. Before I know it, I have a book.

Simple. Beautiful. Powerful. Just like this book.

Another aspect I find continually valuable about Lamott’s book is the exploration of the writer’s life, the struggles and insecurities. When my self-doubt rears its pernicious head and I’m sure I can’t possibly write anything anyone would ever want to read, her honesty and insight never fail to make me feel ‘normal’. Not ‘normal’ as in the real world (that will never happen!) but ‘normal’ in the writing world. All writers have these issues; it doesn’t mean I’m talent-free and doomed to failure. And that helps me to pick myself up and move forward.

Lawrence Block’s Write For Your Life

Write For Your Life, Lawrence Block
Block has several writing books, most of which are compiled from his past writing-advice columns in Writer’s Digest. I recommend them all—they all give excellent insight over a variety of topics in a fun, engaging way. But Write For Your Life is my favorite for beginning writers, because it deals with the psychological stumbling blocks that beginning writers face (and that return periodically to plague experienced writers). Back in the day, Block used to lead a very successful writing seminar, and decided to write a book based on it. As much as possible, he made this book a written version of what is was like to actually be in the seminar, including meditations, affirmations, and exercises.

Yep, you heard me, meditations and affirmations—that was a revelation to me, too.

A major goal of the book is to get you past the fears that are holding you back and blocking your creativity. Turns out, simply naming your fears and writing them down can help you put them to bed, or at least make them take a little nap. And of course, there's much more dealing with those nasty little imps.

Meditation is an excellent way to allow your mind to disengage from other things, and engage with the writing you want it to do—a tool I’ve found very useful when I need to do my daily writing but my mind doesn’t want to cooperate. This book walks you through how to use a five-minute meditation to turn a potentially wasted day into a productive one.

If that sounds a bit too new-agey for you, don’t worry. There is certainly a new-age feel to much of the stuff. I thought so too at first, but luckily I have that whole try-what-successful-people-do thing going on, so I gave it a shot.  And you know what? It works. Don’t let some silly preconception stop you from getting the benefits. Maybe not every exercise will work for you, but something will, and it will be well worth the cost. :)

So there you have my three favorite writing books for beginning writers! They'll also likely be useful for more experienced writers, too. I have many more favorites in various content areas, and I’ll be reviewing them here as well. But as Julie Andrews sang, the beginning is a very good place to start.

Do you have any favorite writing books?

Happy Writing!

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