The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.

On Opening Paragraphs

My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.

When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.

Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:

On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”

This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:

    1. The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
    2. The story begins in the morning.
    3. The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
    4. The story begins on a ship.
    5. The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
    6. The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
    7. “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
    8. The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
    9. The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
    10. The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
    11. Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
    12. The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
    13. This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
    14. We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
    15. This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
    16. Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
    17. Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
    18. Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
    19. This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
    20. The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!

Anything else?

This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.

Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:

“‘There’s Connecticut Colony,’ a voice spoke in her ear. ‘You’ve come a long way to see it.'”

Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.

Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice

One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, first paragraph of Anna Karenina

Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.

And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodologically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” –Herman Melville, first paragraph of Moby Dick

By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)

Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.

WRITER TIP: Reread the opening paragraphs and opening lines of some of your favorite books. Does the author give you the information you need to dive into the story without using an info dump? How does the author engage you and create tension? Does the author begin to characterize the protagonist within that first paragraph? How does the author make good use of each and every word? Think about ways you can do the same in the opening paragraph(s) of your own novel.