Welcome to the best writing books I discovered/rediscovered this year. Although I'd love to pretend that I'm up on everything shiny and new, by no means are these all 2012 specimens. To be honest I have a lot of disdain for many instructional writing books out there that promise tricks of the trade and magical transformations of writing style when honestly reading other good authors can do just as much if not more. That being said, I enjoy trolling sites trying to find or rediscover the good ones. I also teach a Creative Writing course at my high school (yes - very lucky to do so) and I can rationalize reading these books not only as personal writing development but also research for school. And who doesn't love multitasking!
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron - I love, love, love this one, and it flies against every writing principle I hold dear. It speaks little of the beauty of writing and rather focuses on plot and the psychological impact your story can make on the human psyche. Essentially what does our brain crave when we read a book? Cron culls both film and literary examples, and I can't tell you how many lines I underlined of both her original thought and extensive psychological research that ties in perfectly with the writing process. There's also a neat section at the end of each chapter prompting you to ask very direct questions about your own work. I can't recommend this enough, especially since it's a short read. I managed to get through in about three days.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi - More of a reference than a read, every writer needs this book. No matter how skilled you are, you probably defer to a pout or a lip quiver for certain emotions, and this little guy provides pages of actions that help us show rather than tell in unusual ways. Quite easy to navigate and very straightforward.
The Elements of Style Illustrated by William Strunk and E. B. White - I hate grammar. There, I've said it, and I half expect the English teacher police to drag me out to the back yard and beat me (or at least take my teacher's card away). This is not to say I don't respect the heck out of grammar. I love syntax, I love playing with words, I love splitting infinitives with purpose. But I also hate the fact that not all of my mistakes are stylistic choices. Sometimes I flub, and those mistakes bug me later on or worse yet, sometimes I don't catch them at all and feel like a ninny when someone else points them out. I mean yeesh, I'm an English teacher. Don't I know them all? Nope. And this is the seminal text on not all, but certainly the most important rules and more importantly how they affect your writing. Another that can be used as a reference or read cover to cover. There is a non-illustrated version as well, but seriously, LOOK at that cute dog on the cover. Get this one.
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood - Margaret Atwood is brilliant. Period. Her fiction and poetry are sharp, her essays insightful. And I love how creepy these two appear on the cover. I bought this book at least five or ten years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. A BIG WARNING HERE! This is not a how-to write book. Rather this is a highly intellectual look at her process. That being said it feels like sitting down with her and peeking inside her brain, sort of a Being Margaret Atwood if you will. It's not an easy read, and there are parts that drag. But it's worth it. The book will challenge your brain and make you question your own process. It might be complimentary to read this with one of her fiction books as well (Oryx and Crake).
On Writing by Stephen King - On the flip side, I'm not a Stephen King fan. I've read the classics and was never compelled, except maybe by Itthat just scared the living daylights out of me. I find King formulaic. But this book IS a how-to write masterpiece. And it's worth a dozen reads. Conservatively this past year was my sixth, maybe seventh journey through, spurred by one of my students reading it. And I am never disappointed. Half of the book is King's life replete with a detailed account of his love of reading. In my mind he is an ideal model of a writer, who clearly states over and over "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or tools to write." Never has there been a truer statement about writing. I see too many writing students who insist on being writers when they either don't enjoy reading or refuse to make the time to read anything of quality. And quality doesn't equal classic. I learned plenty from the Sweet Valley High series when I was a teen. The second half of the book is King's advice on how to write, and while his novels aren't my cup of tea, the man's a very, very good writer. Pick this up and make it part of your yearly writer renewal. You'll be glad you did.
I wanted to call this blog Why Stephenie Meyer Is Single-Handedly Destroying The Universe. Then I realized that might be a slight exaggeration, so I thought perhaps Neil Gaiman Should Be My Starbucks Pal. But that one sounded a shade stalker-like. I'm definitely filing both of those away for another time, but today I'll simply stick with I Want to Be Mary Gaitskill When I Grow Up.
Why Mary Gaitskill? Her writing is beautiful and genuine and slightly uncomfortable. I've read and reread her short story collections a dozen times or more. And when I write, I always hope that I can be that honest and raw in the words I put down on the page. I've blogged about it before, but honesty in writing means more to me than just about anything. And this leads me to my super obvious but utterly vital writer tip of the day.
Good writers surround themselves with other good writers. It's such a simple equation but one that I think people easily forget. I constantly run into folks who either read junk, or worse yet, don't read at all. Can you imagine that? An author who doesn't like to read? Sure there are a million excuses for not reading. It's time-consuming. It's costly. It's a mental challenge that rarely yields the instant gratification of a quick game of Angry Birds. But any reader worth his or her literary salt will quickly explain that those excuses don't matter because they can't live without reading. They need to crawl into the brains of others like an addict needs his or her poison of choice. Life...and reality...are just not good enough for readers when they know that just a hop, skip, and a Barnes and Noble or Kindle away, there are other worlds waiting with arms stretched open. (I also quickly point out the films and television, in their own rights, do very similar things.) But I digress. You have to read to write. It's one of those very clear universal truths. And this is how you discover writing mentors for life.
I note here that you have to read good things or else the equation collapses (hence the nod to Meyer, queen of the sparkling junk). Good stories are chock full of exciting vocabulary, engaging plots, quirky characters, and reading those stories is like feeding your brain with spinach and sweet potato vitamin food. Now I say this fully acknowledging that there is a vintage stack of Sweet Valley High books hiding in my basement. (A personal favorite - Book 2, Secrets. Oh Jessica, you vixen.) In my youth I also read The Secret Circle Series and a few others that made my very academic parents' stomachs twist and shout. But in between those fluff series I read every word L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. And Sewell. And Tolkien. And eventually Angelou, Munro, Hoffman, Palahniuk, Austen, and a million others. And I would argue that I know when I'm reading something quality. Or as my husband will quip from time to time, game recognizes game.
As a writer finding those mentors, in my case the Neil Gaimans and Jennifer Egans of the world, to respect and emulate is crucial. It's as much a part of the writing process as practice or taking classes or anything else. Basically if we can't recognize good writing in others, how can we possibly hope to cultivate or identify it in ourselves? I remember being obsessed with Joyce Carol Oates immediately after college. I underlined every other word in her stories when I read them. I copied down her phrases of wisdom and even tried on a few pairs of glasses like hers to channel the inspiration. And there are faint threads of her style still present in my own writing today. Little moments where making her my idol affected my process profoundly.
It's the one piece of writing advice I give without reservation. Find the writers you love, and hate, because they write so beautifully you want to die with envy, but it's a stunning envy. A fruitful one. Study those authors. Visit their homes if you can. Wear a scarf of their favorite color on a day you lack inspiration. Understand their style. Read their works aloud. And one morning, you'll wake up and realize that they've made a deep impression upon you. And that you've established a relationship with them that will last a lifetime and beyond.
Mary Gaitskill, if you're reading this, seriously give me a call. We have a lot to chat about.
A mother, teacher, and writer who enjoys all good stories and believes in the magic we can make every day by telling them.