Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Books We Have Loved - A Roundtable Discussion

Excuse me. Hello? I'm sorry for elbowing my way in here. I have a copy of Bird by Bird for Heidi, but I still need your address. Please click on "contacts" to send your snail mail address, and I'll mail the book right out. We start our discussion next Monday. You may now proceed.

Last week Patti gave Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" away to five lucky readers, and I'm delighted for each of them. I too read the book several years before I published my first novel, and yes, it comforted and encouraged me, yes, I clutched it to my heart, and no, I won't loan it to you. Bless Anne. Bless Patti.

After I read her
post, I went to my bookshelf to find other books I won't loan to you, writing books that stirred me up to be not only a writer, but a certain, stubbornly individual kind of writer.

As I scanned the books, I caught sight of the smallest one, nestled in like a first beloved toy crowded to the back of the shelf.

The book was "Zen and the Art of Writing," by Ray Bradbury. It's not the small paperback you can buy at the store - and I suggest you do. It's the Chapra Chapbook Series edition published in 1973 that my professor made me buy in my freshman year of college. It consists of the title essay plus one more, The Joy of Writing. The price on the back reads, $2.50. I notice now, you can buy one on eBay for $25.00. I'm not selling.

Here's a sample, to remind you that good writing is not about money or reputation. It's about juici
ng out what you and you alone can give the reader:

"Notoriety and a fat bank balance must come after everything else is finished and done. That means that they cannot even be considered while you are at the typewriter. The man who considers them, lies one of two ways, to please a tiny audience that can only beat an idea insensible and then to death, or a large audience that wouldn't know an idea if it came up and bit them."

Yet another writing book to add to my list. Thanks, Katy!

I own an embarrassing number of writing books, but I only return to a few. One is by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg--Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. I enjoy Ms. Berg's writing, because her narrators are so stinking honest. Laughingly so. Gut-wrenchingly so. And that's the kind of writer I want to be, honest. That honest is born of passion and courage.

She says it like this:

Passion is everywhere: in love, in religion and politics, in cooking and gardening, in learning, in art, in d
evotion to one's family, in solitude and the search for self. But if I had to come up with one word to describe what writing passionately is all about, the work would be "risk." Because that's what emotionally intense communication requires: You must be willing (and courageous enough) to show others the most private parts of yourself, holding back nothing. But first you must be willing to show those parts to yourself, to acknowledge in a conscious way their presence in you.

Confession time: Most writing books make me nervous. They spend a lot of time on helping new writers find ideas and that's not my problem: Ideas stalk me and mug me in the middle of other things I should be doing.

For me, a writing book has to be practical. Nuts and bolts. And the book that helped me the most in that regard is an actual workbook with tear-out pages where I learned, by filling in those pages, how to pace the action of those ideas.

The book is Evan Marshall's The Marshall Plan Workbook: Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. I'm sorry to say it is out of print but even the copies you can get second-hand (be sure and get a new one-- you need those pages!) makes it worth the money. Here's my favorite quote from Marshall:

". . .In general, the key is to keep characters' emotions at the forefront; write about issues, whether large or small, that people care about; tell your story in an interesting manner; pay attention to your story's pacing; and wind up your novel on a satisfying note. You will be writing the kind of novel you most like to read, but you will also be writing to please your readers."

And the workbook showed me how to do that.

I have 5 writing books that, like Katy, I wouldn't loan out. They're the ones I go to time and again and never fail to find what I need. But since our assignment is to choose one and only one, I went with the book that has a boatload of multi-colored tabs stuck to page after page. That book is Write Away by Elizabeth George. The jacket boasts that "bestselling author Elizabeth George offers would-be writers exactly what they need to know about how to construct a novel." And the book certainly delivers. As a bonus, each chapter begins with an entry by Ms. George from Journal of a Novel. The entry that begins the chapter titled "The Value of Bum Glue" reads:
"This is the moment when faith is called for. Faith in the creative spirit within me, which is part of what I've been given by God; faith in the process; faith in my intelligence and my imagination. If I've managed to imagine these characters and this situation into being, doesn't it follow that I should also be able to imagine my way through to the end of the book? It seems so. Thus . . . I suit up and show up. I sit down at the computer and I do the work, moving it forward a sentence at a time, which is ultimately the only way there is to write a book."

I'm torn between two lovers (feeling like a fool. . . loving both of you is breaking all the rules) - at least when it comes to waxing eloquent about writing books. I've read several (skimmed most), but only two have rocked my writing world. When I started writing I lacked no hutzpah. But I didn't know how to wield it. Enter Arthur Plotnik's risque Spunk & Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language and style. This is the modern response to Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Art gives practical, gutsy advice and examples of how to write out in style - the kind that gets noticed, even published. Here's a sample from his introduction: "With so many gifted authors already sniffing their way to publication, with so man diversions grabbing mass attention, no writer can afford a writing-as-usual attitude. Language or style that is less engaging, less stimulating than the competition is, frankly, dead on arrival. Whether you strive as a journalist, novelist, poet, copywriter, corporate communicator, student -- or even as a yearning presence on -- something distinctive, some umami-like deliciousness has to emanate from your words or off they go to oblivion."

After that pep talk, Art's book emboldens the writer to unthink, bend some rules, and embrace her inner hutzpah. (A side note: since I read his book several years ago, he and I have struck up a writing friendship of sorts. He even quotes me twice in his upcoming book. Yep. Little ol' me!)

My second book o' choice is the meaty goodness of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. I applied myself to this book as I have to university courses. It was painful, but worth every jabbing chest pain. It's not a book to encourage yourself with, it's a textbook and includes the looming impression that there will be an exam at the end. And, of course, there is. It's called your novel.

John states the mission of the book in three succinct points (but don't let that fool you).
  • "Show that a great story is organic -- not a machine but a living body that develops.
  • Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose.

  • Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally our of your original story idea."
Both these books have moved me as a writer. They made me plop at the authors' feet and say, "Guru me , baby!"

Well, Katy stole my thunder. My all-time favorite how-to book is Ray Bradbury's "Zen" so I chose a little blue book by Les Edgerton titled Hooked. In particular, his chapter on story-worthy problems vs. surface problems gets to the heart of what hooks a reader:

A story-worthy problem always relates more to the psychology of the protagonist and has to be big enough, dramatic enough, to change the protagonist's world and force him on a journey of change. Surface problems, on the other hand, are more like bad situations that reflect the actual story-worthy problem.

What transforms a story is the inner psychological problem of the protagonist being laid bare on the page.

The best sources for significant story problems reside within yourself in the form of your personal demons.

Seriously good stuff. The book is easy to read with loads of examples and ends with insights, titled, "Agents and Editors Speak Out on Beginnings." Now, get thee to the bookstore.


Megan Sayer said...

Wowzers, there's some good stuff in those brief quotes. This is enough alone to keep me chewing all week!

When I was fifteen I told my Dad I was going to be a writer when I grew up. The following week he came home with two books for me: a book of dirty limericks from a second-hand shop (in case I enjoyed poetry), and a copy of James N Frey's How to Write A Damn Good Novel. I memorised large chunks of both.

The limericks still haunt me very occasionally, and I'm doing my darndest to forget them. Frey's book, on the other hand, I've reread countless times, and has led me on a journey through some of the world's great literature.

There's something about your first writing book that is truly unique, an unrepeatable experience of the lights going on in dark places for the first time. I'm looking forward to reading more of the books quoted here. Thanks!!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Such meat here.

I'm reading Hooked now. I've read most of the ones you mentioned except a few Bonnie added. I'll have to get those. Just bought the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. Can't wait to take sips out of that. Loved Berg's and Write Away. Those are two of my favs as well.

~ Wendy

Keylocke said...

My mind works on a screenwriting level. I love many of the books you have listed here but the telling of a story through screenplay (read: most dialogue) is my cup of chai.

I love Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee. It is my lifelong wish to attend a story seminar by McKee someday.

Thanks again ladies for the wonderful resources.

Bonnie Grove said...

Keylocke: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby is for screenwriters (John is a Hollywood script doctor), but it works perfectly for novelists. If you haven't met John Truby, you need to! Google his name and be prepared to be overwhelmed with great stuff.

Keylocke said...

Awesome! Thanks, Bonnie.

Lori Benton said...

Hooked by Edgerton is on my keeper list too. For a great kick in the pants I'll always turn to The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (or his great blog). The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass) is also at the top of my list.

Thanks for sharing your personal favorites!

Paula Wiseman said...

I loved Hooked, and Truby's book is on my "to-get" list.

Marcia said...

Thanks, ladies, exciting round up! Amazon, here I come.

I recently finished reading Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, which Randy Ingermanson highly recommended--and which I found extremely practical.

And I've already mentioned one of my favorites, Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I picked up a lot of new techniques and ideas when I disciplined myself to fill out the workbook which goes with the book.

I'm looking forward to digging into some fresh insight in the weeks and months to come. This list of writer's books by itself has made reading NovelMatters worth it.

Thanks again!

Patti Hill said...

Like Bonnie, I'm working through Truby's book as if it's a MFA text. Oh, the thinking I'm required to do! I highly recommend this book for those who want to take their writing to the next level...and don't mind being humbled a bit.

Word Verification: "plablexi" is how you feel when you're learning a new way to structure a story.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: Humbled, yes. Perhaps laid low - as I was. Am.
I've applied all I have learned to my WIP - and I find that writing this novel is like pencil sketching. Fine lines pressed soft on the page, knowing they will be erased.

Bonnie Grove said...

Oh Megan, I forgot to add that your comment made me laugh.
I'll have to hunt up. . . . nah.

l said...

I think my favorite writing book was Brandilyn Collins' Getting Into Character. Characters are such an important part of the story that when I attended one of Brandilyn's classes about character desires, I knew I had to get her book. I opened an entire new world for me as I learned to dig deeply into my characters.
I can't wait for my copy of Bird By Bird to get here!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Latayne! I'm with you: I like writing books that are concrete and practical.

When I was starting out, the two books I found most helpful were Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A. Whitney, and Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

For those charting a course through Story, John Truby's book is the north star. So says this oft-adrift sailor.

Latayne C Scott said...

Wow, Evan. Thank you for stopping in on our blog!

You're one of my writing heroes!

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Enjoying the conversation. Like so many here Bird by Bird is my fav. Another book not mentioned that I found so useful was a little paperback written by Dorothea Brande called Becoming a Writer. This book has been around a long time and it's called the classic inspirational guide to creative writing.

Kathleen Popa said...

Such great books mentioned here. I've read (and loved) most, but not all. Keylocke, I happen to be reading Save the Cat as we speak - well, in a few hours.

Evan, we're delighted you stopped by! Thank you!

Marian said...

I'm using The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. This 16-step program is guaranted to take you from idea to completed manuscript. The trick is not to leave out things. I've been ignoring part of step 12: "Show up! At the appointed time sit down at your desk and get to work."

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting that. I'm going to make a copy of this and keep in the writing desk!

My favorite writing book is "Writing Down the Bones," by Natalie Goldberg.

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Books are the best teacher and friends in everybody life's. It taught us many thing that we never learn in the real world.