Thursday, January 9, 2020

Great Books for Writers

By Laurie Allee
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NanoWrimo 2019 wrapped this past November, and if you are anything like I was after my first Nano, you're still trying to decipher the rambling mess you made!

Congratulations to all the now-novelists who finished 50K words in 30 days.  I didn't participate in the madness this year, but I'm an old NanoWriMo-er.   I managed to earn the T-shirt in 2014 and 2015, finishing two halves of a (really really long) first novel in those two intense marathons.  Yes, I'm still editing that book.  We can talk about the editing process later.  Right now, let's talk about writing...

I love what my old friend and prolific playwright friend Mark once said.  He told me that he didn't necessarily like writing but he loved having written.  Can you relate?  I find nothing more satisfying that finally finishing a manuscript.  But getting there?  All the way to the end?  Sometimes we need a little help.  (My very first published short story was called Lifesaving.  It was about a bunch of characters who joined together and haunted the dreams of a writer because she never managed to finish their stories.)

With that in mind, I want to recommend a few of my favorite books for writers.  Deadlines for paid gigs are excellent motivators, but we don't always have an external impetus to finish our passion projects.  (And, to be honest, sometimes we need a little inspiration for those paid gigs, too.)

I've read dozens of How-To Write Well books. It's a great excuse for not actually writing. Here are the ones that actually got me back to the keyboard:

If you own only one writing book, make it Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.   This is one of the most acclaimed books on the craft of fiction, and its stellar reputation is wholly deserved. 

Part guide, part anthology, this book explores the elements that make storytelling work.  I'd heard of it for years but had never gotten around to reading it.  I was eventually assigned it by my professor Ian Randall Wilson during a fiction writing class at the UCLA Extension Writers Program.

As I first read it, it wasn't like one lightbulb going off over my head, but more like a strobe of them.  The book illuminated and offered solutions for so many little, niggling aspects of a writer's craft.

I've given copies of this book to several writer friends, and every one of them has echoed a version of my enthusiastic endorsement.  Just dive in and see if you don't emerge a better writer.

Writing With Style was written by John Trimble, another one of my former professors.  His popular style guide is hands-down the most fun, accessible book on the mechanics of writing.

If Strunk and White are like stuffy gourmets of grammar, John Trimble is more like a hip, organic food truck chef.  He brings new flavor and fun to the dry mechanics of writing.  Writing With Style is a witty,  conversational storehouse of education and inspiration.

I got my copy way back in the 80s when I was lucky enough to be enrolled in John's Study of Modern Drama class at the University of Texas.  (If you think his book is good, his class was even better.  Plus, it was on a Friday and the students often persuaded John to go out for margaritas and literary talk after class.)

I'm happy to see that the book is still in print, now in its 3rd edition.  You can still score a first edition just like my own well-worn copy right here, or you can buy the latest edition.

Watch John talk about writing here.  By the looks of this video, he basically hasn't aged since I knew him in 1988.

Dewdroppers, Waldos and Slackers by Rosemarie Ostler is my favorite reference book.  it's a catalog of popular, now mostly-forgotten vernacular from 1900 to 1999.  Word lovers: look out.  This book is difficult to put down.

Thousands of words and expressions entered American English in the 20th Century, and we've forgotten many of them.  Dewdroppers, Waldos and Slackers memorializes each decade's trendiest, hippest, most up-to-the-minute buzzwords and catchphrases.  Most of them have faded from memory.  Many of them really, really should be resurrected.  These words capture the times in which they were spoken and resonate with each era's prevailing moods.  They also ensure that your characters speak authentically no matter what year you choose for their setting. (Warning: restrain yourself from going overboard using these words or your 1950s detective will sound like you put Raymond Chandler under gamma rays.)

The book is loaded with surprise history, too.  Fun fact: did you know that the word groovy didn't start with the 60s hippie generation, but was first used in the 1940s?  That said, I still wouldn't advise having your WW2 soldier character exclaim "Man, I had a groovy time at the Hollywood Canteen before shipping out."  Maybe he had a "killer-diller" time, instead.

I love this book, and I always feel inspired to write after reading it.  My brain gets tickled by all those wonderful words and expressions.

Don't dismiss The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman as just another formulaic how-to writing book.  It's more than that.

Are you a new novelist trying to get traditionally published?  Are you a veteran author who wants your next book to grab readers from the very first page? Are you more interested in improving your upvotes, clicks, downloads or Medium claps?  This book will teach you ways to ensure your manuscript (or blog post or Kindle ebook or any other piece of writing) stands out from the rest.

Lukeman has great advice whether you're a novelist, blogger, essayist, screenwriter, journalist, podcaster, Ted Talker or poet. He's a New York literary agent who, let's be honest, knows an awful lot about rejecting manuscripts.  Listen to his advice.

 Sometimes writers just want some serious inspiration.  For that, I highly recommend Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing a collection of exuberant, gleeful, uplifting essays that will light your literary fires.  I love this book because it feels like having Bradbury as your very own fairy godfather -- optimistic and wildly creative, bestowing writing magic and miracles.

Many years ago my husband and I were having dinner at the old Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica.  It's a great old Los Angeles steakhouse with dark wood, white candles and worn velvet.  This is the kind of place you'd expect to be haunted by the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett, so I wasn't exactly surprised when I looked over at the table next to us and saw Ray Bradbury -- who was very much alive and having dinner with a small group.

My husband loves to tease me about how I spent most of our meal with my head cocked listening to Mr. Bradbury's animated, jovial, (private!) dinner conversation.  Come on, wouldn't YOU?

As luck would have it, he talked a lot about writing.  The one thing I remember him saying was that writing should be liberating.  It should be a joy.   I thought, gee, I wish I wasn't just eavesdropping on this man.  I wish I knew him.  Zen and the Art of Writing makes me feel like I do.

Kirkus Reviews described it this way:  "Bradbury, all charged up, drunk on life, joyous with writing, puts together nine past essays on writing and creativity and discharges every ounce of zest and gusto in him."

It's true!  This book is a love song to the art of writing and it will make you want to rededicate yourself to the craft.  With Bradbury as your coach and cheerleader, you'll triumph.

Ok, so you want a really thorough primer on punctuation, but you don't want to read through a dry textbook.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is not only an invaluable resource, but a witty love letter to the English language.  Oh, and it is very, very English ... as in sit-down-for-some-Earl-Gray-and-biscuits English.  Think of Truss as the Mary Poppins of grammar and punctuation, with a little Noel Coward thrown in.

She shows us how the very meaning of language is changed by an inappropriately placed comma, and the often hilarious consequences of punctuation gone awry.

I think what I love most about the book, however, is its wonderful chronology of important events in grammar history -- from the question mark's invention under Charlemagne to George Orwell's utter abandonment of the semicolon.  (I'm with Orwell.  The only modern author I can think of who uses a semicolon well is John Irving.  Then again, John Irving does everything well.)

Every writer should own this book.

You didn't think I'd leave out screenwriters, did you?  Everyone who has toyed with the idea of writing a film script has probably had this book recommended to them.  It's with good reason.  Story, by Robert McKee is pretty much the screenplay bible.

Robert McKee teaches this stuff in expensive seminars, but you really don't need to spend the bucks on attending unless you just like hobnobbing with other screen writers and you have money to burn.  Story gives readers McKee's comprehensive, integrated instructions for exactly how to write for the screen.

What I love about McKee is how well he understands the importance of thoughtful, well-crafted, intelligent narratives.  As he says, "A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.  When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it denigrates.  We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the human psyche and society." (Are you listening Hollywood?  Maybe lay off on all the cartoonish superheroes and show us some real heroes?  It's a thought.)

My final recommendation is The Right to Write by Julia Cameron.   Many of you know Cameron from her landmark self-help book The Artist's Way.  I think this book is actually more life-changing and revolutionary.

Cameron thinks that what we've all been taught about learning to write is actually wrong.  She thinks "prevailing wisdom" stifles creativity.  Instead, we should learn to make writing a personal, reflective, joyful, playful and natural  part of life.

While craft is certainly important, we can't dismiss the importance of gleeful, uncritical creativity.  This book rescued me from an intensely crippling bout of writer's block and gave me the tools necessary to find my voice again.  Whether you are a newbie or an old scribe, I think The Right to Write will make you a better, happier, more creatively liberated writer.

For more of my favorite writing books, check out the Writing Section of my Library.  And yes, I've read them all.  I know, I know, I already said that reading books on writing is a great excuse for not actually writing.  I also find reading about writing to be almost as fulfilling as actually writing.  Or, as my old friend Mark said, "having written,"

Don't forget to watch my tribute to old-school writing at the top of this post!  What can I say?  I'm analog at heart...

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