A Tuesday Xtra: Reading Like a Writer

A writer is a reader just like a musician listens to music. If you are like me, books on writing are included with the novels, short stories, memoirs and histories you read. My advise to read broadly. Everything is worth a read, even the ingredients on your cereal box. There are many great books on writing. After reading a slew of them, I’ve come to one conclusion. Keep my reading on writing to a short list. Then read them not just once but many times over. In addition to a dictionary and a thesaurus, here’s a list of nine books that you can’t go wrong with.

1.Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. Before a writer becomes a writer, they read. Francine Prose teaches writer how to read in ways that benefit their writing. She offers some helpful suggestions on what to read as well.

2.Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This small, inexpensive guide lays down the style rules for the road.

3.Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard sold millions of books. If you’re thinking why should I pay attention to him, there’s no better reason than that. At least be aware of these rules before breaking them.

4.The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O’Connor. Frank O’Connor was an Irish master of the short story. In this guide, he calls attention to the short story writers who matter. Even if a writer is not thinking about writing short stories, this is relevant to any potential fiction writer.

5.On Writing by Stephen King. Both a memoir and a guide on writing, this book has become a classic. We all know Stephen King and how many books he has sold. Here’s his insights to the writer’s trade. I would suggest you read this one “zestfully”.

6.This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley. This is a short book but it is filled with much wisdom on how to carve a novel out of novel. Walter Mosley has done this with his mysteries again and again.

7.The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Brett Norris. This handy dandy workbook is designed for the potential novelist who has a full-time job. Through a series of exercises, the writer will have a finished novel at the end of a year by working a few hours each week. Using the work of well-known writers, it shows the writer how to take an idea and run with it, how to structure plot, how to scene. Each exercise is designed to prompt the writer with their own work.

8.Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Once a writer has a first draft, what are the things that they have to look for when evaluating their text. John Truby lays down twenty-two elements that go into creating a great novel or screenplay.

9.What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. How important is the appearance of words on a page to a reader? This book calls attention to an element many of us writers totally ignore.

 

Uncle Bardie’s Weekly Music Pick: Adam at the Window

It’s Thursday again. You know what that means. Uncle Bardie’s Weekly Music Pick. Uncle Bardiie gives a double thumbs up to this week’s selection: “Adam at the Window” by Mary Black.

First there’s that voice. Then there’s the song, written by Jimmy MacCarthy. I rarely hear a song with such lyrics. Mary Black has the perfect voice to give the song wings. I heard this song and it made me want to write a story. Even a novel. Made me want to know more about this Adam. So I began a novel and Adam was the painter. I began to discover how and why Adam came to that Island. I began to discover that Adam had lost his mentor, his grandfather who had given him his first paintbrush and his first canvas. He could paint no more until he found the reason behind his grandfather’s suicide.

It became a novel about creativity and the loss of creativity. It became as novel about family and the need for family. Somewhere along the way I will set the story down. One day, maybe in the next year or so, I will pick the story back up and finish it. Maybe for the Nanowrimo this year. The Prologue to the Novel, Adams at the window, I posted sometime ago. I just need to gather myself up and get myself in tune emotionally with the work.

 

In Praise of Prompts

What is a prompt? It is a trigger to get the subconscious boogying. Prompts come in all sorts and varieties. For the creative person, they can be very useful.

Food, that piece of broccoli lying on your plate, may remind you of a teacher you remember fondly. He was a wonderful teacher. You haven’t seen him for years and you’re wondering what happened to him. He had a kind face, an interesting face. He was a vegetarian with a fondness for broccoli. You haven’t thought of that man in twenty years. Over the next few days your mind keeps returning to that stalk of broccoli, how similar it was to your teacher’s face. Your mind just won’t let go of that teacher. Then it hits you. You decide to paint a portrait of that face. And you are off on a new adventure, rediscovering the face that lunched on a thousand stalks of broccoli. The painting you finally complete may be of the teacher as a husband or father, as an old man or a young man. That trigger, of broccoli, made you explore the many facets of that man’s life.

One day you are leaving school and you see a penny dropped onto the concrete. You reach down and pick it up. For some reason, you accidentally drop it again. It makes a sound. An interesting sound that causes you to go hmmmm. You drop it again and there’s that sound. You bounce that penny against the brick wall next to you. The sound is different. Pretty soon you are dropping all sorts of change onto the concrete and the dirt or against the brick wall. You are listening, listening hard. This activity is becoming all consuming. You spend hour after hour dropping things, not just change, but pots and pans, wallets and knives. You are falling in love with the sounds. Before you know it, you sit at the piano, trying to reproduce those sounds. Within a short period of time, you have a completed piece of music. All because of one little penny you found in the parking lot.

You are a scientist and you have been working on a problem for twenty years. It’s had you stumped. You are at a party and someone hands you a glass of wine. You accidentally drop a crumb into the wine. You start to drink the wine. You go to sip the wine. You notice that crumb staring back at you. Hmmm. You sit the glass onto the table, then you drop another crumb into the wine. They are close together. Looks like those two crumbs like each other. Looks like they may even want to date. You take your finger and stir the wine. Now they are across the glass from each other. You stir again. Now it looks like they are near, but not so near that they are waltzing. Again and again you stir the wine, fascinated by those crumbs in that glass of wine. You go to the lab the next morning and reproduce the experience from the night before. Bells and whistles go off inside your head. It’s the answer to your twenty-year quest thanks to that prompt of a crumb in a glass of wine.

You observe a grasshopper on a leaf. You watch him for a few minutes. He leaps to another leaf. He spends a few minutes there and you shoo him off. He is not a quitter. He goes to another leaf, and then another, and then another. It’s a dance and you are the choreographer. It hits you what a perfect dance nature can present. You start observing squirrels scampering in their quest for nuts. You watch your cat jump high in the air, your dog go catch. Before you know it, you have choreographed a complete new dance all because of that grasshopper.

Prompts, triggers can be very useful to a writer. They help the subconscious come up with new lines of poetry, new dialogue, new characters. Say you have a heavy case of writer’s block. You’ve been trying for months to shake it off. It just won’t quit. You set your writing aside. You are just not going to try anymore. You turn on a piece of Beethoven’s music. Perhaps “Fur Elise” or “The Emperor’s Concerto”. You sit there totally absorbed in the wonder of that music. Or you find yourself looking through some old postcards from the early part of the twentieth century, or you are reading a novel you have read at least thirty times. One line jumps out at you and knocks your subconscious on its rump. Suddenly you are writing, not just for a few minutes but for hours.

Sometimes when I don’t know where to begin a chapter or a blog or a story, I pull out a book of photographs. I start looking deeply at one of them, letting my mind explore that time and that place. There are other times I will be watching a movie and I get the answer to a problem that I had been trying to solve in a story. Or I read a line of prose, like this one from A Moveable Feast: “And then there was the bad weather.” It starts me on a whole new journey with a character or a story, detouring me from what I thought might be the plot. It may start me me off on a new story or a new poem.

We are lucky. Writers have so many choices when it comes to prompts. It may be a woman in a restaurant, a man in a nursing home, a blanket with a strange pattern, the cover of a book, a stack of dirty laundry, a neighbor’s cat, the words from a dream, a postcard. You name it. Anything can prompt our subconscious with inspiration.

So be brave and trust. You never know where that subconscious of yours will lead.

What is your favorite kind of prompt?