Friday, March 13, 2009

The 10 Best Books on Writing

Whenever I find myself in one of those middle-of-the-novel writing funks, I turn to the experts, whose books on how to maneuver through the alternately frustrating and fulfilling maze of fiction-writing line the shelves in my office. Although I’ve read dozens of them over the years, a select few have made their way to a place of honor on the shelf reserved for books I refuse to give away. I know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists; these are mine, in reverse order:

10) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I had trouble picking a tenth book, because there are so many others that deserve to be on this list and aren’t (I considered Burroway’s Writing Fiction, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Olen-Butler’s From Where You Dream, DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen on Fire, etc.). But this one made the list because it has remained on my shelf for over a decade and its short and simple chapters, aimed mostly at beginning writers, speak truth. From “Beginner’s Mind” to “Rereading and Rewriting,” each pithy and instructive section reminds us what we already know. We read Natalie Goldberg and, no matter where we are on our respective writing journeys, we learn.

9) 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias
I have returned to this book countless times to remind myself a) that writers have been telling stories for centuries and b) that the best stories have form. The form of a novel can be as simple as a beginning, middle, and end, or it can follow the patterns of quest, revenge, pursuit, maturation, sacrifice, and discovery. Tobias reminds us that though there are hundreds of plot variations out there, a few of those structures have become classics, loved by readers everywhere. It is to those that we aspire.

8) The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
I loved this book from the moment I opened its cover. There’s nothing fancy in Bickham’s style – he grabs us by the neck and instructs us in each direct and wonderful chapter on what we should and shouldn’t do when writing. The chapter “Don’t Warm Up Your Engines” provides one of the best explanations I’ve read on where a story should start. When Bickham speaks, it behooves us to listen.

7) Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
I heard Ray Bradbury speak one year at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and I’ll never forget the amazing zeal and spunkiness of this fiction-writing legend. Bradbury brings the same energy and outspokenness to Zen and the Art of Writing as he does to his own classic tales. He describes his early years trying to eke out a living as a young writer with a family and then urges writers to stick to it and to do it with love. “Let the world burn through you,” he says. In the Zen world of fiction-writing, Bradbury is a warrior-king.

6) Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring
This is one of my most recent acquisitions, but it quickly found a home on my shelf of favorites. I took it with me on a writing residency and only allowed myself to read one chapter a day, doling them out one-by-one so I could immerse myself in each section’s quiet relevance. The book is divided into three parts: “Focusing the Mind,” “The Deep Writing Process,” and “Embracing What and Where You Are.” Writing Begins with the Breath both illuminates and gently instructs, and the imaginative exercises called “Touchstones” at the end of each chapter make us pause, reflect, and return to this book again and again.

5) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
What hasn’t been said about this book? It’s a classic, and Anne Lamott has become a well-deserved fixture on the writing circuit and in composition classrooms all over the world because of this gifted text. As she says in the opening, good writing is about telling the truth and she has done that, taking us from “shitty first drafts” to publication and deftly addressing everything in-between. Honest, inspirational, and very real, Anne Lamott illuminates the writing process in a way that is both accessible and revealing, telling the truth about writing so vividly that reading her words is like coming home.

4) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Who would have thought that a memoir by one of the world’s bestselling authors could so expertly define the practical facets of the writing process? In On Writing, Stephen King not only openly describes his own experiences as a professional writer struggling with personal demons, but he also shares his passion and knowledge about what makes writing good. My favorite section has to do with revision; in it, King tells the story about a piece of fiction he wrote in high school and submitted to a magazine editor. The editor wrote back: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” King says that this piece of advice changed the way he rewrote his fiction “once and forever.” Thanks to Stephen King, it has changed ours, too.

3) How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
I lent this book to a member of my writing group, and one of his dogs got to it and chewed through half of the front cover. I have to laugh every time I lift it off the shelf (it gives a whole new meaning to the term “dog-eared”!). But I love this book for its intensity and no-nonsense focus on what makes a novel good. Frey gives the best advice I know on how to create unforgettable characters, infuse a plot with conflict, and write dialogue that sings. I come back to this book often for the solid, no-nonsense advice that fills its pages.

2) The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict
I don’t know how this became my #2 all-time favorite, but perhaps it’s because I (ahem) have trouble writing about sex. I use my Catholic upbringing as my excuse; for some reason, I imagine the nuns at my elementary and high schools peering over my shoulder every time I write a love scene. But whether it’s my own modesty, or the fear that the intimacy my characters display on the page will reveal more about me than it does them, writing sex scenes – good sex scenes – is really difficult. All of that changed, however, after I found Benedict’s book, which provides insight and advice on how to not only make sex scenes convincing, but also how to use them to reveal character and create and/or resolve conflict. Benedict uses wonderful examples from some of the most respected writers to illustrate the dramatic impact of a well-written sex scene. And she addresses it all – married sex, adulterous sex, illicit sex – in a way that is fresh, revealing, and inspiring. So, whenever those nuns appear, I reach for this book and let this classic guide remind me that it’s okay for sex to be part of the story.

And, drum roll please…..

1) Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
My husband bought me this book for Christmas the first year I started writing fiction and it has become my all-time favorite writing guide. I’ve turned to it so often that the pages are covered with sticky notes, highlighted passages, fingerprints, and coffee stains. The book is designed for mid-list authors looking for a way to move ahead in the industry, but the advice packed within its pages is useful for beginners, as well. For a book to be a breakout success, Maas says, it must have the following: an original premise, high stakes, a strong sense of time and place, and larger-than-life characters. And Maas, a literary agent and author of seventeen novels, knows whereof he speaks. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his seminars, where we used some of the draft exercises that became part of his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Both the original book and the workbook are essential instruments in any writer’s toolkit, but if I was going to be sent to a desert island and could only take one book on writing with me, Writing the Breakout Novel is the one I would pack in my suitcase.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First Impressions

As a book publicist and an avid reader, my first word of advice to anyone who contacts me regarding my services is to write the best book s/he possibly can. I am sent books by hundreds of people looking for promotional help, but since I only handle two or three clients at a time, I tend to be choosy about who I agree to represent.

Judging writing is a subjective art, and I try to be fair with every book I receive. Instead of asking whether or not I love the book (something I’ve heard a few agents say they must feel before they take on a client), I ask myself, Can I sell it? This is a bit of a different question – my concern is not whether the book is great fiction or non-fiction, but more whether booksellers, reporters, and media producers will be interested in it when I call to give them a pitch.

Even so, if a book is poorly written or riddled with typos and grammatical errors, it isn’t likely that I’ll be able to place it anywhere, even if it has a great topic. Likewise if the title is off-putting or the cover art is somehow wrong for the book or its audience. A young adult novel, for example, with a Goth title and violent cover art may fly with the kids it’s designed to reach, but it won’t get past librarians or teachers who are the gatekeepers that decide whether or not a YA author can appear at a library or school.

Every writer should have multiple pairs of eyes on a book before it goes to an agent, editor, or publicist. Best case, authors should revise and rewrite with a high-caliber writing group. After rounds of testing with other authors, the book should then go through a good edit, hopefully with a professional editor, but if that’s not possible, then with a trusted friend or another experienced writer or teacher who can help spot typos, grammatical issues, and flaws in the storyline.

I’m seeing more self-published work lately and many of those books, though interesting and decently written, have not had an agent or editor to help with the conceptual issues and editorial corrections that most books need. Although it’s tough to get an agent these days, and even tougher to be published by a larger press, the value those entities bring to an author’s work is immeasurable. I know this from experience – my first agent worked with me for four months on my debut novel before shopping it to publishing houses, offering input on what was missing and urging me to write seven new scenes for the book. Some agents give thorough critiques and mark-ups of manuscripts; others will work with authors for months, or even years, making certain that a book is the best it can be before it reaches an editor at a publishing house.

And editors, despite being over-worked and beleaguered by cut-backs and mergers, will put their own spin on a text. Some do more than others but, in most cases, a book will have gone through many rounds of revision and polishing before it hits the market if published by a larger house or even a diligent small press.

Can an author with a self-published book get the same quality end product without an agent and editor? Certainly, although the onus will be on the author to provide editorial and packaging resources for himself, which can be expensive and/or time-consuming. Many authors, in their hurry to get their books out, forego these steps and, sadly, their books don’t sell.

The bottom line is that self-published or not, if you want your book to be well-received by booksellers and the media, you must take the time to carefully edit, polish, and package it well.