Thursday, June 21, 2007

Back to Writing Topics

I like to read. Novels, magazines, non-fiction, anything with words that even remotely interests me. I have subscriptions to Newsweek, The Palm Beach Post, four different computer magazines, Men’s Health, Florida Monthly, Runner’s World and Popular Science.

Aside from some of my favorite novels like Patty’s forth coming Short Change, Paul’s Deep Blue Alibi, Cornelia’s Field of Darkness and Jackie’s Messenger of Truth (Sorry have to plug my blogmates whenever possible), I like to read about writing.

It’s funny but I never read much about writing when I was learning through trial and error, but since my first published novel, I have made up for that lack of reading with a vengeance. I read everything related to the craft of writing and even a few books on the publishing industry. I enjoy seeing other people’s ideas and techniques. If a writer is not trying to improve the quality of each book there really isn’t any hope of continued employment, let alone growing a reader base.

Here are a few of the books that I got something from or just liked reading:

One of my favorites is The Lie That Tells the Truth by John Dufresne. It’s not a technical manual as much as a perspective on the writer’s journey. Dufresne is a professor at Florida International University’s revered creative writing program. This book is a little different but it moved me to write an e-mail to the author as soon as I finished it.

One that sounds like a shallow view of writing but offers some good advice for those starting out is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. Direct and to the point, this book can focus the new writer on some key issues.

Robert McKee’s aptly titled Story is not, strictly speaking a book on writing novels. McKee is considered more of a screenwriting guru but the advice on characterization applies to any writing. I know McKee is not the most popular guy and some writers are not fans of this book but I felt it helped me flesh out my characters. This is one book I read before being published and occasional review it for a refresher course.

My former agent, Peter Rubie, a good guy and good writer, has written several books on writing and publishing. One of them, How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales, is a fine essay on writing non-fiction books.

The finest of all these types of books is clearly On Writing by Stephen King. Part autobiography part master class in writing, Mr. King has created an accessible, intelligent book that no writer should ignore. Not only did I learn something of craft, I learned about one of my favorite author’s life, about the publishing industry and the hazards of drug use. He is honest, open and direct, something we should all strive to be.

What are some of your favorites?


  1. Great list of books, Jim.

    I go back to Stephen King's "On Writing" before starting each novel. Agree too, that the maligned and parodied McKee has some useful character notions for both screenwriters and novelists.

    Worth checking out...some writers' tip checklists. The International Thrillers website,, has Brian Garfield's "Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction." It used to be linked to the home page; now, just put "Brian Garfield" into the search engine to bring it up.

    Then there's your pal Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing, including the famous admonition, "Never use an adverb to modify the word 'said.'" And, of course, his blanket advice: "Being a good author is a disapearing act.

    Leonard's website is one of the best in the business. Nearly an autobiography in itself with a wonderful gallery of growing-up photos.

    I just started "Up in Honey's Room" last night...a great smart and sassy female protagonist, "Honey Deal." World War II setting in Detroit drawn to perfection. Then there's Dutch's inside baseball joke, "Otto Penzler" as an escaped Nazi tank commander.

  2. Ah, Jim, thanks for the plug. You continue to amaze me with your noble and gentlemanly nature. You should be knighted. Sir Jim. Has a nice ring to it, eh?

    I have most of the books you mentioned. Here's another that saved my bacon (as Our J would say) when I first started writing. It's called "Scene & Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability." I also love King's book and for shear pathos I reread Anne Lamott's book, "Bird by Bird." A telling tome about the publishing biz is "The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book" by Susan Page. Great post!

    Paulie, that Otto Penzler bit is hilarious.

  3. MAKING A LITERARY LIFE by Carolyn See. Not only is it a good book about writing, it's a good book about being a decent human being.

  4. Well, Stephen King's "On Writing" is the best in my book - and I have a shelf full of them. Like you, Jim, I didn't really read books on writing until after I had finished my first novel. I like those books that weave memoir with the lessons. One of my favorites, not so much on writing, but about the business of being a writer, is "The Forest For The Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers" by Betsy Lerner - it's excellent.

    I should tell you, however, that when my husband read the first draft of my first novel, he turned to me and said, "So, I guess you don't have Strunk and White over there in Britain." I didn't like the "unclear" he'd scribbled time and time again in the margins, either. He was probably far too right for me to take notice.

    After that I didn't let him see my novels until after publication, though I made an exception with the most recent manuscript, which will be published in March. He had some good comments ....

    And that's a good idea of yours, Paul - to read "On Writing" before starting out on each new novel. I might just do that myself.

  5. Now I wan to go back and dig out my copy of 'On Writing'. :-) It's been awhile since I read it.

    I'll go and look up some of the ones you've mentioned and add them to my 'to read' pile. Meanwhile, a couple of faves are:

    "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up" by Barbara Feinberg, "Dreams and Wishes" by Susan Cooper, and "A Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest" by Philip Martin.

    I know you're probably asking what the heck these books have to do with Crime and mystery fiction, but reading outside your genre, and your comfort zone, can add some new zing to your creative muse. :-)

    PS: I found the Lizard Motel one really great, with a new perspective on imagination. :-D

  6. "Make Your Words Work" by Gary Provost.

    By far the best nuts-and-bolts book on writing I've ever read.

    I also like David Morrell's book on writing, too.

  7. My all-time fave writing books:

    You Can Write a Mystery
    Gillian Roberts

    Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel: How To Knock 'Em Dead With Style
    Hallie Ephron

    If You Want to Write
    Brenda Ueland

    On Writing
    Stephen King

    Bird by Bird
    Anne Lamott

    The Art of the Novel
    Milan Kundera

    The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
    John Gardner

    Self-editing for Fiction Writers
    Renni Brown and Dave King

    Great post, Jim!

  8. Two of my favorites have been already mentioned, On Writing by Stephen King and Making A Literary Life by Caroline See. I also love Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury and On Moral Fiction by John Gardner --- actually, anything by John Gardner.

    I never heard of the one by Milan Kundera. Think I'll go cruise Amazon now.


  9. Whoops! I thought of one more --- Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block.

  10. I have to agree that Mr. King's On Writing is one of the most useful and practical books on the craft I've ever read, and I return to it time and again -- in audiobook format, on my iPod -- for inspiration and support when I'm feeling creatively caved-in (which is every other day or so). There's something about listening to Mr. King read the story of his own troubled life and stunning career that soothes my soul; he's like an old friend, his nasally voice somehow oddly avuncular and comforting. I will listen to On Writing for the rest of my life, and have given the book as a gift to even those friends that are not writers themselves.

    Bird by Bird should not be missed, either, and is a wonderfully soulful reality check for the beginning writer. Ms. Lamott tells it like it is and bursts many Aspiring Author bubbles -- you won't get rich, it won't change your life -- without crushing the spirit. There's a sense of reverence for the craft in her writing, as if she's preaching a non-denominational holiness to the art of creating good fiction; I cherish this book like I would a slim volume of common prayers, and dip into it at random when I need that sort of solace.

    How to Write by Richard Rhodes and the classic On Becoming a Novelist by the late John Gardner are the Nuts and Bolts volumes in my writing library (which just grew by one this morning as I received in the mail Hooked by Les Edgerton via the Writer's Digest Bookclub). Both the Rhodes and Gardner books address the roll-up-the-shirtsleeves, sit-at-your-desk, pound-it-out work ethic and offer practical, no-nonsense advice on the craft. Highly recommended, especially for the beginner.

    I also recommend anything by Natalie Goldberg, whose books are fun, uplifting and inspirational.

    Great post, thank you for the opportunity to discuss this topic!


    Wender J. Crinklebank