Monday, March 31, 2008

The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley

Writing exercises and prompts are one of my favorite parts of books on writing. So on my last quest for a new writing book, I looked for a book that was meant to be used rather than simply read. Brian Kiteley gave me a solution.

In The 3 A.M Epiphany, Kiteley has given me a gold mine. The book is composed of over 200 exercises on a range of subjects, from point of view and images to humor and travel. For me, they differ from what you might find in other how-to books because the exercises themselves are meant to be the teacher. Frequently, the prompts and exercises are located at the ends of chapters to reinforce the lesson that was just given. This book teaches by allowing you to write. For people who learn best by doing something and not just reading about it, it may be exactly what you need!

I am working my way through this book one exercise at a time. Each day I move on to the next one, so it will take me almost seven months to finish the book! However, I consider it a warm up for my day. I begin with a writing exercise, which rarely takes more than fifteen minutes, and then move on to my work-in-progress (WIP), an article, or a blog post.

My favorite exercise thus far is number 48, which asks the reader to write 600 words using cookery "as a way of understanding a man and a woman's relationship to each other." As a full-time cook, I love the idea of using food related scenes to help in my character development! Everyone has a favorite story to tell on the subject.

You may wish to work through the exercises in a more random fashion, jumping to a topic that you need work on or just to an arbitrary page. If you are stuck on a particular WIP, try checking out the last dozen selections. They are devoted to just that problem, and range from writing quickly about a particular character to try and "outrun" your internal critic to using a tape recorder to tell the story of a scene that is giving you trouble.

Kiteley has challenged me to look more deeply at my own writing thanks to The 3 A.M. Epiphany. After I complete one exercise, the next one might ask me to do something completely opposite. It is a unique way of helping me grow and develop my writer's toolkit!

Monday, March 24, 2008

How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Author Orson Scott Card knows how to write Science Fiction. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards two years in a row-- first for Ender's Game and then for Speaker for the Dead. He is the only author to have won both these prizes in two consecutive years. Experience does not always translate into a successful how-to book, but in Card's case it works wonderfully. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy was the first book that I picked up when I decided I wanted to venture into the fantasy genre, and it was a wonderful investment.

This book is geared towards Science Fiction writers more than Fantasy, but if you are interested in either genre it would be worth your time to read. He begins by defining the boundaries between the segments of speculative fiction, particularly between Science Fiction and Fantasy. He breaks down the rules to their simplest form: "Science fiction is about what could be but isn't; fantasy is about what couldn't be."

Then Card moves into one of the most important parts of creating these types of stories-- world building. Even if you never mention them in your story, you have to define the rules of your world. You have to know how the space travel or magic work, and what their limitations are. If the fantastical elements have no consequences and no definition, they can quickly become a deus ex machina and pull the reader out of the story. You can only expect your reader to suspend their disbelief for so much; you must have a grasp on the rules to keep them interested.

One section, number 4, is titled simply "Writing Well" and I recommend it for folks of all genres. While the examples it uses lean towards Card's own genres, the topics are basic and necessary, such as naming, piquing the reader's interest, and exposition. He does a wonderful job at explaining how to relate information to the reader without falling into the trap of the "info dump."

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy will put many other books on your "must read" list, as Card makes liberal use of examples from his own life and other authors. Octavia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin are frequently quoted and paragraphs from their work are dissected. By using other books to illustrate his points, Card allows the reader opportunity to continue studying beyond the cover of his book. He gives his audience direction.

If you want to write speculative fiction, Orson Scott Card's books should be on your shelf anyway. This one is a wonderful addition, and I am grateful to him for being willing to share his knowledge and experience with new writers!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande

Have you ever stared at a piece of writing, wondering if it really needs that hyphen? Have you looked up apostrophes in multiple grammar guides, just to find that the rules contradict each other? Do you know someone who seems ready to pounce on anyone who makes an innocent mistake with the language?

If so, you might want to pick up a copy of Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande. The book brings sarcasm and pop culture to the world of grammar. I love books that can teach you something important while still making you laugh, and Casagrande is successful at doing just that. She is a writer and journalist who writes a grammar column in the Los Angeles Times, so she knows what she is talking about and has dealt with letters from grammar snobs everywhere who are offended at a grammatical mistake in a grammar column.

One of the first topics that Casagrande covers is the difference between "who" and "whom" and in what situations each one is appropriate ("who" is used as the subject of a sentence, and "whom" is used as the object). Grammar snobs love to use whom, and often use it incorrectly in their eagerness to show off.

The next chapter, about "til" versus "till," sets the lesson within the context of The Simpsons, which is a show with surprisingly accurate grammar. The one mistake they make on a regular basis is using 'til as the shortened form of until. As odd as it seems to add an extra letter onto the end of an abbreviation, the correct version is "till."

Often, she will reference the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manuel of Style, The Elements of Style, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It's no wonder that the rules of grammar can get so confusing, when all the major tomes seem to disagree! It's important to know which reference guide is accepted for the particular type of writing you are doing. For instance, the AP Stylebook is the standard for newspapers and print journalism, where space is at a premium.

The forty-two short chapters can be flipped back to when you need to double check if you should write forty-two or 42, or you can read straight through. Few other grammar books lend themselves well to both.

Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies won't replace the reference guides on your bookshelf, but if you want to brush up on your skills and entertain yourself at the same time, this book is a terrific choice.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Author Anne Lamott has written a large selection of fiction and non-fiction, but my favorite by far is Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She is funny, honest, and up front about the most difficult subjects in life. For me, that willingness to be completely open is what makes her instructions on writing a book that is worth reading.

With all the books on writing, so many of them can become repetitive and stale. But the best books have some spark that makes them engaging and unique. As Lamott puts it, "Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning." She uses her wry humor to accomplish this, even during tragic anecdotes.

The subtitle was particularly interesting when I first picked up this book: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. So much of the advice does apply to both topics. Tackle projects one step at a time (take them bird by bird, so to speak), have confidence in yourself, don't listen to your internal critique, and be open to the world around you.

Lamott is brutally honest about the difficult side of writing. She is the first to admit that "all good writers write [shitty first drafts]" and hate the few people who claim that their work comes out perfect on the first attempt. In her one small chapter about publication, she uses her own story to demonstrate how it is not a guarantee of happiness and how there are a whole new set of problems that arise.

With all of the truth-telling, the book is never discouraging. Lamott breaks down the myths and the fantasy, but replaces it with solid advice and techniques to move forward. Since it is written from personal experience and anecdotes I never felt the book was forcing advice on me. The message seemed to be "Here is my story and my method; I hope it helps you create yours." The section that includes publication is called "Publication-- and Other Reasons to Write." She always stays hopeful that even though things might not be easy, they are worthwhile.

That has been one of the most important lessons I have learned in my own writing. It may not be simple and it may not lead to a major book deal, but every moment I spend writing is worth it. Bird by Bird is a constant reminder of that.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

To me, the most important thing about reading a book on the craft of writing is that it makes me want to pick up a pen or turn on my computer and write. Yes, it has to be engaging, and yes hopefully it will teach me something new or help me approach an old process with a new frame of mind, but what I love are the books that light a fire under me.

At the top of my list is the book that I have highlighted the most sections and written the most margin notes in. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a book that I have seen referenced over and over, and upon reading it I understood why.

Natalie Goldberg is the author of nine books, as well as being a poet, painter, and teacher of writing in Northern New Mexico. Her website features information on her newest book, tour schedule, classes and workshops, as well as her selection of books.

Ms. Goldberg's book focuses primarily on writing practice-- the mere act of sitting down with pen and paper and writing. She has six rules for writing practice, from "Keep your hand moving" to "Go for the jugular." She urges writers to not cross out and not edit themselves during these practice sessions, just keep your hand moving across the page and don't be afraid to write what comes to mind. That particular passage may all be garbage. So what?

In any other art form, it is expected that you will practice. How many of us took music lessons as children and were assigned to practice for a certain amount of time a day? We may have rejected and rebelled against the idea, but where would we have been without it? The initial sketches of a painter and the hours of practice for a concert violinist are not for an audience, they are just to learn. Why should the writer be any different?

One question I hear frequently from new authors is "How do you come up with ideas?" What they need to understand is ideas tend to generate more ideas. When you start sifting through your brain and asking "What if?" questions, you begin to find more and more ideas and characters ready for the taking. By engaging in Ms. Goldberg's writing practice, you are using one method to get there.

The chapters are short, which is another thing that I enjoy in books of these natures. If you are stuck, it is easy to open to one and find an exercise or anecdote to restart your story. Some are as short as three paragraphs, but each still has a strong message to convey.

Writing Down the Bones will most likely always be in my list of most-loved books. It neglects the business side of the creative process, which I think is exactly what people need when they first think "I'd like to write a book..."

Friday, March 07, 2008

Books on Books

How many people dream of being the next big name in fiction, or of writing the Great American Novel?

I'm the first to admit that I'm addicted to books about writing. These books are written to inspire, to teach, and to share (and, lets be honest, to capitalize on the large number of people who imagine what it would be like to see their book at Borders).

Get ready to wear out your library card, because I'm here to share with you a list of my most beloved books on writing. Whether you are looking to improve your grammar, learn about the business side of the process, or just find new information I hope that I will have a resource that you can turn to.

The beauty of books is that they are subjective. Every author has their devotees and their detractors, and neither group is necessarily wrong. So while I may love the books I am going to share here, you might hate them. Speak up!

What is important to you when you pick up a book on writing? What is your favorite? Which did you want to throw at the wall?