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.



A Guest Post: How To Kill a Poem

My friend, Marla Wolfe, is participating in this year’s Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) in her own unique way. She is composing a poem for each of the thirty days. She is sharing her poems with me at the end of each day. I was particularly blown away with this poem from Day 3. She has graciously consented to let me post it here. Thank you, Marla.

How to kill a poem
by Marla Wolfe

Yesterday I killed a poem.
It wasn’t pretty.
Everything started innocently enough, though.
I followed my usual routine:
Pondering, listing, researching,
Referencing, organizing, adjusting,
Working out all the details.
After several drafts
Something beautiful came into focus –
It was unique, naturally patterned, real –
But then I went too far:
I added meter and rhyme.
I poked at the poem, prodded it,
Stuffed that full-grown being
Into a neat little cocoon
Of eight syllables per line,
Dropping emotion to make it fit,
Erasing color, adding artificiality.
And before I knew it,
The poem was dead –
No movement, no flutter of life.
Flat on the table.
For a moment I stared at it in disbelief,
Sick with awareness of what I’d done.
Then in a panic I snatched away its burden.
It raised its wings, revived.  A miracle.
I opened the window and set it free.
©Marla Wolfe, 2015

Adverbs in the Kingdom of Gatsby

Since it is Nanowrimo Month, I thought I would do something writerly in honor of all you heroes who are creating masterpieces.

It was as if Scott Fitzgerald had suddenly discovered the adverbs of manner. You know, those -ly words that reveal how an action took place, those pesky words we writers are urged again and again to avoid like the rats who brought in the black death in the Middle Ages, those words. The ones Stephen King advised against in his book, On Writing. He especially hates the word “zestfully”, but so far I haven’t seen a “zestfully” pop its pretty little head up out of the pages of The Great Gatsby.

Many of the pages of Gatsby have at least a few of the adverbs. Sometimes more, much more. Normally I would say that this language doesn’t work. The writer’s just being lazy. But this is Fitzgerald and some of his finest music and he knows the secret that rules are made to be broken. Especially if you’re a writer as good as Fitzgerald.

You see it’s not Fitzgerald speaking on the pages of his masterpiece. It’s the narrator and observer, Nick Carroway, who is telling the story in the first person way Somerset Maugham used to great effect in a number of his novels.

Now I can hear some of you out there saying, “That’s no excuse.” Of course, it’s not an excuse. It is technique, it is style. Nick’s the voice we hear throughout the tale of disillusionment and loss, and he’s telling it in his own language. Just to be sure that this use of adverbs was purposeful, I checked another of Fitzgerald’s novels, Tender is the Night. I didn’t read it all the way through, though I intend to soon. I did a quick perusal of the first chapter. Those pesky devilish -lys are rare.

No, Fitzgerald is much too good a writer to be sloppy with those adverbs. He’s a writer who can make his prose sing, a novelist who gives his readers such wonderful lines as:

“wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug making a shadow on it as the wind does on the sea.”

“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of speech that will never be played again.”

And these are just in the first chapter. This is no accident. This is a master hard at work to give his reader pleasure, such pleasure.

Where do you get your ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?” the woman in the audience asked one of the writers on the panel of the Writer’s Conference.

“Oh, I have some fairy dust,” he responded. “I keep it in a gold box right next to my computer. I open its top and reach in with my index finger and thumb when I need an idea. I take out only a few particles because I want it to last as long as I can.”

A second writer, Marsha, a bestselling author from Texas, leaned forward and commented, “I used to use that stuff but I finally got rid of it. I’m here to tell you it was addicting.”

“You did?” a third writer, a Ph.d. candidate from the School of Hard Knocks, asked. “I sure wish you’d shared it with me. It would have saved me a lot of pain. My gosh, six months on that ship almost killed me.”

The woman in the audience, whose name happened to be Alice, smiled. “I want to be a writer. But I can’t seem to come up with an idea.”

Sam from the other side of the room stood up and addressed Alice. “I have ideas but I can’t write worth a toot. Maybe we can get together.”

The first writer, let’s call him Joe, laughed. “That’s how I ended up with my first divorce.”

Bestseller from Texas looked at him. “I thought you looked a little familiar. It’s been twenty years. The beard sure hides that s. o. b. face of yours.”

Joe was surprised. It was his first wife. He leaned forward, looked down the row of panelists and asked, “Marsha? Marsha.”

“You still with that little tart?” Marsha wanted to know.

“I caught her with a bestselling novelist. She was after his ideas too. It was a coitus interruptus. I shot the bastard before he could do a complete coitus and kicked her butt for three blocks. That was how I met my third wife. She was the arresting officer. Come to think of it. He was from Texas just like you. Anyway the judge said I had every right to do what I did and he let me off scot free.”

“It’s a big state. Guess that serves you right,” Marsha said. “Hope that cop keeps you in line.”

“She does. She’s the lady in uniform at the back.”

Everybody turned and saw this six-foot-three female cop standing at attention beside the door. She saluted the audience.

“You always did like uniforms,” Marsha said.

“And you never would play in one,” Joe said, then went back to the original question. “Where do we get our ideas, Alice? Life I guess. In fact, I just came up with an idea. Writer meets his ex at a writer’s conference.”

The female cop at the back of the room took out her handcuffs and headed toward the panel. “We’ll be having none of that,” she said.

Where do you get your ideas to write?

Uncle Bardie’s Return

So you’ve been wondering what Uncle Bardie’s been up to lately. Well, I am here to tell you that you’re just not going to believe it. It’s enough to make a caveman blush. I have been out doing research for my new novel, The Absolutely Unbelievable Extraordinary Adventures of Lady Marye Wimpleseed-Prissypott, and the work has led me to some interesting places. It gave me a real opportunity to measure the lay of the land where her ladyship’s adventures took place.

First I went off to the jungles of Africa and swung with Tarzan. Man, that dude can swing. Got a chance to see the cave where Johnny Eager hid the diamonds. When I made it to London, Queen Victoria was in a foul mood. Seems Crown Prince Eddie, a regular party guy if ever there was one, came to a Halloween Costume Ball as Jack the Ripper. Had knives and a cape and everything. Set the tongues wagging. Boy, was his mum mad.

Paris was up to its usual Parisian ways. Seems I couldn’t roll my rs quite good enough to please the Parisians. Should have expected as much. Don’t think they would stand up very well if they came to my part of the country and tried to y’all the folks down here. ‘Course we wouldn’t snob things up the way they do. We’re a bit more hospitable than the Paris folks are.

Istanbul still can’t figure out whether it is Istanbul or Constantinople. Depends on which shore of the city you stand on. Asia or Europe. Managed to find Dilly’s old hamburger joint. Seems he carved a heart with “Dilly Loves Mary-Marie” before he went off and joined the Detroit Tigers. Don’t think he ever got over her. And oh, I gotta tell you. When I went to the Bazaar, I was followed by a man in a fez wanting a pheasant and he was a pleasant peasant. At first, I thought he was stalking me. He was just stalking that bird, that’s all.

I did manage to get to Haggismarche Manor. The ghosts are still there. B. P. welcomed me with a big howdy. The three house ghosts, B. P., Lord Early Grey and Sir Long John Longjohns, are happy as lollipops these days. They even showed me Lady P. P.’s wardrobe. Her corset and dresses are still there, preserved for posterity. The ghosts did discuss having a Convocation of Ghosts to honor me, but there wasn’t time. The Riders in the Sky were away and it would have taken fourscore and seven years to get them to chase down enough whoppee cushions to sit on. Something about a soft landing. Oh well, you just never know. When ghosts mumble, they do mumble.

But the really good news. They’ve totally rebuilt Gibraltar. After that little run-in with the S. S. Twit, I was concerned that the Gibraltarians wouldn’t be able to put it back together. But there it was standing in the middle of the Mediterranean, welcoming weary travelers for a stopover of tea and crumpets.

The really amazing thing is that the Castilians have put Quills’ cape and mask on display in Barcelona. Alongside the cape and mask of the Mighty Paddington, the Iranian Cubist Assassin. Found them in a little sandwich shop called Hero’s.

All in all it has been jolly good trip. Now I am back at my desk working hard to dress the novel up in its Sunday best. Just one more edit and I will be done. Then you’ll be seeing it on a Kindle near you.