Tuesday, May 04, 2010

“How To” Books for New Writers—Have a Favorite?

by Jamie Freveletti

I’m preparing a presentation to a group of new writers and writing a list of “How to” books for them.

Like most debut authors, I spent a few years writing, rewriting and reading about how to write. I’d get stuck in the process and race to the Harold Washington library here in Chicago to a group of shelves that held books written by writers on writing. I’d yank one out, read it on the subway ride home, and plunge back into the novel. Some were quite helpful, some not so.

There are a few “standbys” that we all know, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” and Elmore Leonard’s wonderful, fun read: “10 Rules of Writing” (Rule #3: Avoid Prologues).

I’d add the following:

1. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them), by Jack Bickham.

Bickham’s short, numbered mistake list, with a bit of explanation for each, is bound to hit on one that every writer will recognize as one they have made or are still making. At the time I grabbed this book I was deep into the first manuscript and nothing was going well. Mr. Bickham clued me in: I was protecting my protagonist and having a sidekick interact with the main second character. Why? My protagonist was married, and unless she was going to have an affair, there was no way she could run around with the male character in the story. I rewrote her as single, lost the sidekick, and continued forward.

2. Give ‘Em What They Want: the right way to pitch your novel to editors and agents by Blythe Camenson.

This is a must read for any author in the query stages of writing. I used this book religiously when creating my query (along with the advice of a good friend) and it really helped me see what agents needed in order to evaluate the novel. What’s great about this book is that many of the agents interviewed are still in the game and they are generous with advice about what they want to see in the queries they receive.

3. Making a Literary Life: advice for writers and other dreamers, by Carolyn See.

See’s book is one of the few that really helps published authors as well as the unpublished. Her “So what?” approach to reviews and her advice to use a form of “literary aikido” to take a negative event and spin it positively is a quite helpful (and as a black belt in aikido, I loved the analogy). See addresses whether to have launch parties in New York (better to wait and be sure you’ve got enough friends to back you) and gives a lighthearted account of her attempts to get an editor to accept some of her freelance work (pictures of goats were involved).

These are my current favorites, but if any of you have a book to recommend do tell!


Dana King said...

I read Sol Stein's STEIN ON WRITING when I was first getting into this. It's a little dated in some ways, but there's a lot of good stuff there.

Most folks will have heard of this already, but Stephen King's ON WRITING is excellent, and a fun read.

The book I refer to most is SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Dave King and Renni Brown. Concise little paperback with a wealth of information on things we too often don't think of.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Thanks Dana! I had heard of the first two, but the last one is new to me. I'll pick it up and add it to the list.

Libby Hellmann said...

INteresting post, Jamie. I used to disdain writing books, but, over the years, there are several I've come to admire. One is BIRD BY BIRD.

Another is ON WRITING by Stephen King. Like to listen to that on audio.

Another is Carolyn Wheat's HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION. Really good.

And finally, Francine Prose's READING LIKE A WRITER. WHat I love about her book is that she incorporates examples of craft right there in the text. You don't have to go look them up. Plus, she has an index of "100 books you have to read right away".. .Love that idea.

Melissa Sugar said...

This is my first time reading your blog and I am delighted I found it. I expect to be a repeat reader. I have a few books to add, but I should preface my opinion by telling you I am a novice writer. I have been writing for a long time, but I am unpublished. I can, however finally see the light at the end of my long tunnel. I am very close to completing my fourth and final revision of my first novel. I am a mom and a full time attorney my 'undisturbed' writing time is sometimes limited.
It took getting this close to finishing my Legal Thriller to realize that the completion is only the beginning. I am now facing the next step, a much more difficult one of writing query letters, anticipating the guaranteed rejecton letters and landing a good agent.
I agree with many of the books already listed so I will not repeat titles. I have purchased nearly every "how to" fiction writing book that I come across. My husband, also a lawyer continues to remind me that if I would stop wasting so much precious time reading books that demonstrate writing techniques I would have finished my own book a year ago. I have to disagree. I have learned valuable tools in a plethora of writing areas. I must admit; I have started to accept that at times I may use these books as a crutch to avoid my own writing. So here is my short list of favorites (excluding Stein, King and some of the other aforementioned gurus).
1. BREATHING LIFE INTO YOUR CHARACTERS by Rachel Ballon-Yes, this is an older book, but it seems to be my go to book whenever I have trouble creating real, well rounded characters or when one of my major characters is experiencing trouble showing the readers what certain emotions really feel like. The exercises require deep soul searching and admitting our own faults and weaknesses. Forcing myself to use my sensory memory to recall times when I was in fear or humiliated or heartbroken, or worse played as a naive fool is more difficult than many writers admit.This book has shown me how to create believable, credible, realistic and unique characters as opposed to weak, flat, stereotypical ones.

2. NOVEL SHORTCUTS by Laura Whitcomb

3. HOWDUNIT? FORENSICS: A GUIDE FOR WRITERS by Dr. D.P. Lyle. As a former prosecutor of 20 years turned criminal defense attorney; I can attest to the truth and accuracy of this book. He also has a kick-butt blog.

4. FINDING YOUR WRITER'S VOICE by Thaisa Frank & Dorothy Wall

5. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL by James V. Smith, JR.-This is a Writers Digest book that is easy, fast paced reading.

6.THE WRITER'S DIGEST GUIDE TO QUERY LETTERSby Wendy Burt-Thomas *****I highly recommend this guide
7. AUTHOR 101 BESTSELLING SECRETS FROM TOP AGENTS by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman

......and... My absolute must have, new favorite book

I am also a fan of James N. Frey;s books HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL; HOW TO WRITE A REALLY DAMNED GOOD NOVEL & HOW TO WRITE A DAMNED GOOD THRILLER; my only complaint is that I did not learn enough new information to justify purchasing all three. The first , my favortie is another quick paced easy read.

I hope this helps someone out there. I thought I had them all, but now I am interested in trying Francine Prose's READING LIKE A WRITER.Many thanks for the advice from your readers

Lori said...

The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh

On Writing and Bird by Bird, of course.

The one I didn't like: The Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Thanks Melissa (and welcome!) I'll check out Ballon.

Lori-never heard of the Walsh book, but I love the title!