Monday, November 17, 2014

Favorite Books on the Writing Craft

When I started writing a little over three years ago, I foolishly thought I knew all there was to know about writing a novel—after all I’d been reading novels all my life. Boy oh boy did I have a rude awakening! When I heard about a writing workshop that was going to be held in town, a dear friend and I decided to go, and I think both of us were fighting back tears just an hour into the two day class. We had no idea what the instructors were talking about! Hook? Show, do not Tell? Plot points and twists? Three act arcs? We were in WAY over our heads. But by the end of the second day, we had some tools in our writer toolbox, knew we had a LOT still to learn, and when we came out of our stupor a few days later we were energized to continue learning our craft.

Now, three years down the road I’ve attended numerous workshops and classes, read as many books on the craft as I could, and feel I have a modest handle on things. Along the way I’ve found some excellent books on the writing craft; some of the best are listed below.

  • Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver: Hands down the best book on writing for the beginning writer.  Also an excellent book for any writer at any stage in their career. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this book for my first craft book, and just now as I was gathering books from around my house, I realized it’s time for a re-read. Cleaver breaks
    the writing process down into its most essential parts. It’s an easy read; he uses plenty of examples; exercises are included for each ‘lesson’ throughout the book. He covers every aspect of the writing process from story and plot, to rewriting, to unblocking, to the submission process.

  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, followed by his other two books, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction. Donald Maass---ahhhh. A top literary agent and craft teacher extraordinaire, Maass has written some of the best books on the writing craft you will find. HOWEVER, you should have some of the basics in place, maybe by reading Immediate Fiction first. Like Cleaver, his books are filled with examples of everything he teaches, but he delves more deeply into the craft. Start with The Fire in Fiction!! I made the mistake of starting with the 21st Century book, and it was over my head. I needed his basics first, which are in the Fire book. I was very, very fortunate to get to attend a workshop given by Mr. Maass, and he is amazing. A multi-published writer acquaintance of mine is repped by Maass, and she says she reads The Fire in Fiction every time she’s about to begin writing a new book. It’s THAT good. I read Writing the Breakout Novel while reading a breakout novel and found the experience very educational. And recently I’ve started reading a snippet of Fire in Fiction each time I sit down to write, just to keep it fresh in my mind.

  • On Writing by Stephen King: It’s Stephen King, do I need to say more? First half memoir—wow, fascinating!—second half craft. Simply put, every writer should read this book! I’m going to cheat here and send you to my alter ego’s blog where I wrote an open letter to Mr. King after reading this book, and followed it by some of the lessons I learned from his book. My blog post here, if you want more info on this classic, must-read book.

  • Writing Irresistible Kidlit  by Mary Kole: Kole is a well known YA and MG literary agent (she was with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency for six years) who shares her writing wisdom in her book, as well as on her popular blog. Though many of the excellent lessons in this book can be applied to any form of writing, she targets her lessons to the YA and Middle Grade writers. Readable and accessible to any novice writer, I loved reading this book, and learned so much about the unique requirements of kidlit. Looking over this book again as I write this, I think this is another book that’s ready for a revisit.

  • Second Sight, An Editor’s Talks on Writing Revising & Publishing Books For Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein: Klein is the Executive Editor for Arthur A. Levine which is an imprint of Scholastic. She was the continuity editor for the last two Harry Potter books, and is the current editor for some of the best writers currently working in YA and MG literature. She frequently speaks on writing for children, teaches workshops, etc. and this book is a compilation of many of her talks. She’s pretty damned brilliant, and I think having the opportunity to get a glimpse into her insight just for the cost of a book is one not to be missed. I got to hear her speak on a panel not too long ago—and let me repeat: she’s pretty damned brilliant!

  • Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin: Like the Stephen King book, this one has become something of a classic. Storytelling craft is combined with some grammar lessons ala Strunk and White, and all mixed in with an airy and comfortable narrative. It’s like getting a chance to sit down with LeGuin and hear her talk about writing and all it means.

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: I’m currently reading this, after it was highly recommended at a recent conference I attended. The subtitle tells what this book is about: “Some Instructions on Writing and Life”. You aren’t going to learn so much how to write the next best seller, but you will hear about the life of a writer, the highs, the lows, the joys, and the tribulations, and everything in between. When I pick up this book I feel like I should first have a cup of tea sitting next to me, as I’m about to have a chat with a remarkable writer. This book is for your writer’s soul.

I hope you’ll find something from this list that will help you with your writing! Whether you are just starting out, or simply need a dose of encouragement to keep going, there’s a book here for you! (And NaNoWriMo writers—you might want to come back here the first week in December and find an excellent craft book to help you whip that 50,000 word MS into a masterpiece.) Happy Writing!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE by Maggie Stiefvater

“Are you still reading that book?” my husband asked on the fourth day that he saw me with Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Seeing me with the same book for more than a couple of days is an unusual event at our house, so this anomaly was note worthy.

“Duh, YES, it’s Maggie Stiefvater,” I said as if that answered all possible questions about this odd occurrence.

Maggie Stiefvater. Ahhh…I cannot read one of her books quickly. That would be like reading poetry rapidly. Or gulping fine wine. Some things are meant to be savored, slowly enjoyed so as to make the experience last. I have to read and reread sentences, passages, paragraphs to see how she’s woven her magic through her words. And it is MAGIC.

A little about Blue Lily, Lily Blue from GOODREADS:  (More from me after this synopsis)
There is danger in dreaming. But there is even more danger in waking up.

Blue Sargent has found things. For the first time in her life, she has friends she can trust, a group to which she can belong. The Raven Boys have taken her in as one of their own. Their problems have become hers, and her problems have become theirs.

The trick with found things though, is how easily they can be lost.

Friends can betray.
Mothers can disappear.
Visions can mislead.
Certainties can unravel

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the third book in the four book series, The Raven Cycle. At its center are Blue Sargent and her unlikely best friends, boys from a local high-priced private boys’ prep school: Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah. Led by Gansey the five friends are on a search for a mythical lost king. The first book, The Raven Boys, whipped your head back and forth, front and back as one amazingly imaginative plot twist was laid on top of another. Oh, to be able to read that book again for a first time! The second book, The Dream Thieves, moved the story arc along while the reader got to know the characters better. And talk about clever, imaginative storylines. Wow.

This latest installment, Blue Lily, Lily Blue isn’t as much about story arc as it is about character arcs—though there is plenty of story here! I just felt that I was getting to know the characters in a new light, as they were also getting to know themselves and one another. And we have new characters!! Stiefvater has outdone even herself, (that’s a giant feat!) with two of her newest creations. One is decidedly evil, yet one of my all time favorite characters, sassy, smart, laugh-out-loud witty, blazingly clever. I wouldn’t mind reading a book dedicated to just this character.

Throughout the series, the five teens at the center of the story, have not only gotten to know one another better and become increasingly inseparable, but they have also discovered that their finding one another was destined—that their lives were connected long before they had even met. None can move forward without the others. This plays out beautifully at times in this book, and painfully at others.

Though the second book was about dreams, this book has a definite dream-like quality. It feels a lot like a fever nightmare, where you constantly question whether something is real or imagined or maybe a night terror. Nothing feels right, normal or as you expect it to. I found myself doubting my understanding of things. Stiefvater makes the reader feel just a little off kilter.

In other words, she has written magic.

If you are one of the two or three people on the planet who have not yet read Blue Lily, Lily Blue what’s keeping you?