Books: The Best Books For Writers

Emerald City Trapeze

Emerald City Trapeze

Hello Dear Reader, if you are in fact still out there. I know I’ve been off the map, but I tend to do that from time to time. And that’s okay. I am a vagabond. Sometimes you just need to go out and live life. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I took a class where I learned how to fly… well I learned how to climb “silks” and swing from them like Pink! does. I also learned doing that is really, really hard, and I am a total badass because I fucking did it. So there was that.

I’ve also been reading like crazy which is good since I am “literally” trying to pen a novel in long hand. Anyway, all great writers are great readers. Stephen King, or should I say NATIONAL MEDAL OF ARTS recipient, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Margaret Atwood says, “Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice.

41VVy56lKJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Reading is fundamental to writing. If you want to be a writer you should be reading books. And not just books about writing. While those are valuable, you have to be careful or at least thrifty about what you read. Good advice and reading about other writers will only get you so far. Hell,  add “an MFA” and “a good Twitter account” to that list. Having a Twitter account doesn’t make you a good writer. It hardly qualifies you to put a sentence together. What you really need in order to improve is:
1. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.
2. READ. READ. READ!
Every book you read is a learning experience. Reading Joyce Carol Oates is a Master Class in story, character and prose. Du Maurier is all about tension and building mystery. Different writers have different things to tell you. Some don’t have much to say at all, (Thank you Gillian Flynn) but at least you know what you don’t want to sound like. Read writers who inspire you and scare you. Read books with unusual language or style. Read books that make you read more books. Or… try these. These are just a few of the best I can think of. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these books are on my personal short list for writers. Read these if you want to grow in the craft of writing. And they are just really good books.

  1. Steering the Craft, by Ursula LeGuin
    This is a revised edition of the same titled book she wrote in the 90’s. In the Introduction she states this “is not a book for beginners.” It’s for people who have already worked hard on their writing. That hooked me. A lot of writers today have the expectation of fame and fortune, of being published and Tweeted about, of possibly being the next big thing. But they don’t do the work. They’ve never read Twain or Dickens. They have heard of Shelley but don’t see the point in reading something so old or out of touch. Ms. LeGuin’s book is full of reasons why to read these books and what you can learn from them. It is also full of exercises for The Lone Writer or a Mutinous Crew (her term for a writing group) It’s a delightful and lovely book that just so happens to be about writing.
  2. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy I know. The last book you want to read as inspiration is “The Best Book Ever Written”. But it worked for me! I was not only inspired by Tolstoy and the story he was able to tell, but how economical he was with both word and emotion – considering how long that book is. And I guess I should add he was not so economical with his words when it came to hay. A good lesson to learn: Just because you find “hay” fascinating, doesn’t mean it deserves center stage. It’s a beautiful book about love and hate and marriage, gender roles, having kids, and being human.
  3. Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier and The Collected Stories, Grace Paley
    Two collections of short stories which I find to be the best. The first is fear, tension, sex and mystery. And also a sense of humor. You’ll read the short story called “The Birds” which Alfred Hitchcock changed from a terrifying tale of animals rising up against a small seaside fishing village to an odd romance where Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette eat more scenery than the birds do. Every story in this collection is fun and a lesson in how to write short fiction. And all writers should be readers in short stories. Grace Paley is the American Master of them. Haven’t heard of her? Run. Go now to the library or local independent bookstore and get her. If Raymond Carver is all you know, you don’t know much.
  4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
    He is pretty much literary perfection. I’m not the first or last to say it. But read Lolita and not be transfixed and transplanted by his absolute dominance of the english language. And this from a non-native speaker! Of course, Nabokov wrote in english and Russian, but Lolita was his first novel written in english. Read it and think about that until you feel a little dumb. Then shake it off and get to work. Nabokov didn’t learn english overnight, he worked at it.
  5. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
    Oddly enough, this incredible true story of magic, murder and mayhem during the 1893 World’s Fair is the best example of a perfect narrative I can give you. All of his books are. This book is full of facts and true history, but you’d never know it. He takes old boring documents and turns them into a unputdownable narrative which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Not bad for non-fiction, eh? Any writer who says they “don’t read” non-fiction isn’t a writer I would read.
  6. On Writing, by Stephen King
    41cqe00ZzsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Stephen King understands what it takes to write books. He’s written like, sixty books, not including his non fiction and short stories. Anyway, if you want an expert on the craft of writing, look no further. His book reads as part awesome writing coach and part memoir of America’s most prolific and beloved writers. If you are too snobby for Stephen King, read this and tell me he’s not good. The man knows how to tell a story and… he can scare the shit out of you USING ONLY WORDS. Anyway, here are a few tidbits of wisdom from the master.
    “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
    “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
    And finally, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
  7. Joyce Carol Oates, anything you can get your hands on
    I am the only bookseller at my current bookstore who has read, and who currently reads, Joyce Carol Oates. This is a sad little travesty. Not only has she been producing work since 1962, that work is all really, really good. Okay, I haven’t read all of her work…. but I’m working on it! Now think of the volume of work she produces and now add to that she works IN LONG HAND. Yep she WRITES her really long and intricate stories. That is rad. She writes from 8am til 1pm and then again, two more hours, at night. And she still has time for The Wire. If Joyce Carol Oates can put out a memoir and three novels a year, I think you can finish that short story you’ve been working on.

Need more? Susan Sontag, Frank Stanford, Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Murakami, Mary Gaitskill, Patricia Highsmith, James M. Caine, Jane Smiley…

What I Miss?

bill_cosby_1978025Sorry folks, a lot of life happened to me in November, but I’m back! And after a succesful NaNoWriMo to boot! That’s right, I won for the third time! (out of ten times trying.) NaNoWriMo takes up a lot of time and energy, plus I had my job to worry about, so I just couldn’t blog. But I came out of November with a whole novel! So I can’t complain. I did it! Thanksgiving, a broken tooth, a sprained hand, and some sort of stomach virus are not going to stop me. 

But so much has happened! If these stories had surfaced at any other time, I would have had a lot to say. But as it was, my words were otherwise engaged. So I thought I’d give my two cents on the big stories I missed in the last thirty days. I’m a little rusty,so be kind. It feels good to be back.

  1. Bill Cosby – Ever since women began coming forward accusing The Cos of sexual assault and rape, I have been wondering where his supporters are. Usually when there is some sort of scandal involving a beloved celebrity (Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods) that celebrity has his famous friends coming out of the woodwork to support them. Not so much with Bill Cosby. Raven-Symone has said to please “leave her out of it.” Whoopie Goldberg said on the view she found some of the stories “questionable”, and singer Jill Scott defended him on Twitter. Most stars have tried to dodge the story by saying things like, “How sad if this is true”. Sad? More like infuriating. These women deserve to at least be heard. If these allegations are true, and dollars to donuts they are, then it is infuriating that this man preyed on women for over thirty years and nobody did anything to stop him. He drugged women and then had sex with them, or touched them. Power and privilege can sometimes make a man into a monster. He shouldn’t get special treatment just because he was a great TV dad and comedian. He is an awful person and should be put away. It’s called serial rape. But famous men often get away with brutality and we end up blaming the victim. I think a full investigation should be made, and if Bill Cosby wants to remain relevant and free, then he should start talking. But his silence is so loud that the only option is to believe the 20+ women and their claims of abuse. Sometimes you have to kill your heroes.
  2. Philae’s Wild Comet Landing – Yep, scientists managed to put a lander on a comet. A comet! The thing used harpoons and everything! I half expected to see Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck emerging from it to help save the earth. Okay, so the mission wasn’t to save the earth, but it was pretty freaking dramatic. It touched down thrice and drifted for nearly two hours before resting on the comet. Now the thing is recharging its batteries and hibernating until it gets closer to the sun. I don’t know what it all means, but I do know that it is wicked cool.

  3. Charles Manson getting married – Who the fuck cares.

  4. Fergusondemonstrators-defy-curfew-fergusonUnfortunately when the news came that there would be no indictment I wasn’t the least bit shocked. I lived in LA during the OJ trial and the riots that followed. This doesn’t feel a bit different. Except that OJ was a famous sports and film figure at the time and used those things to help him legally get away with murder. In Ferguson we have a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed kid and got away with it. It should have been cut and dry. I don’t care what the legal evidence was, the police officer should be behind bars, at least for some period of time. There was no question that he did it. Only a question of self-defence. A murder, even if it was an accident or self-defence, should be punished. The fact the officer is a free man today has sparked nationwide riots. Yes, the facts matter. And no, I was not in the courtroom to hear the facts. But, I do believe some sort of punishment was necessary. And we must also take into account that this wasn’t the first time an unarmed black man has been shot for no good reason. And recently! The the powers that be don’t do something fast, a full revolution is on the horizon.

    But I don’t think taking to the streets and reeking havoc is the right answer. It doesn’t solve anything. I’m all for revolution, but looting, robbing and arson are juvenile. Nobody will take you or your cause seriously if you are damaging property. It’s hard to have sympathy for someone when they are setting fire to a pizzeria. I say, take that anger and turn it into something useful. Take action, but in a civil way. Hell, find a lawyer and sue the city of Ferguson for hate crimes. Now that would be something. If we learned anything at all from Do the Right Thing, it is that letting people get really frustrated about unfair treatment never ends well. Espically for the pizzerias in the neighborhood.

And that’s all I got for now. I promise to be a better blogger until November comes a knockin’ again next year. But until then you can always stop by and say hello. I’ll be here.

National Novel Writing Month

nanowrimo1Every November thousands of struggling writers hunker down to write with “literary abandon” for thirty days, and thirty nights. We put aside all of our chores and excuses, and just write. We shun family and friends so that we can write. We write at least 1,667 words a day for thirty days. That’s how much time you have to write your 50,000 word novel. I’ve participated in this event every year since 2004. Participated, not finished. I managed to finish in 2011 (You can see my WINNER Badge displayed on my blog home page!) and that gives me hope for the future. Or at least for this year. I’m pretty excited. I’ve got my spiral notebook full of character notes, plot devices, and doodles. The ideas are spilling out faster than I can catch them. I have coffee at hand, and for the first time, I actually have a loose outline for my novel.

There are plenty of naysayers who think, “There is no way I could write 50,000 words in one month. And if I did, who would want to read it?” Maybe you have a valid point. Maybe your novel will be horrible. Maybe you are paralyzed by fear of failure, or of people laughing at you. Maybe your mom was right all along and you will never amount to anything. Maybe you shouldn’t even try. There are already plenty of novels out there, would yours really add to the landscape?

NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing the best novel the world has ever seen – in thirty days. It’s about turning off your inner editor long enough for you to start something and finish it – on deadline. It’s about taking an idea and running with it. December is jokingly called “National Editing Your Novel Month” by NaNo Nerds such as myself in order to remind us that – it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to get done. Sit down and write. Don’t look back. Don’t edit. Just write.

It’s always easier to participate in NaNo when you have a group of friends doing it also. Here are some good great reasons to participate in NaNoWriNo this November.

  1. You read Twilight and thought, “Man, I could write better than that.” Prove it.
  2. You are afraid you’ll fail. That’s cool. We all are. I have failed at this seven times. In a row. I failed until I didn’t. It’s not about winning, it’s about doing.
  3. You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Uh, hello? This is your chance! Set aside about two hours a day and just write. It doesn’t matter if it is good or not. Just write it. You can always edit it later. And by later, I mean in December.
  4. There is an international community of people doing the same thing. I just love how big NaNo has gotten. It seems folks from all over the globe are participating in NaNo. I had Czech friends do it, I saw people in China participating, heck, even people right next door are probably doing it.
  5. November is totally overrated. Thanksgiving? Eh, whatever. It’s just another excuse for not writing. We all work. We all have family and obligations, even in November. Make writing your 1,667 words a priority and then you can think about cooking that bird.
  6. Ninjas, pirates, and wolves – Oh My! I don’t know about you, but I love when a ninja pops out in a book. Maybe not a literal ninja, but a literary ninja. A literary ninja can spice up a boring story, or breathe new life into that stale plot you’ve been wrestling with. * Please note that the Ninja doesn’t have to be a ninja. Pirates, wolves, adorable yet deadly kittens all work just as well. 
  7. You’ll be able to answer “YES!” to the question, “Have you ever written a novel?” There are going to be plenty of assholes out there who say discouraging things to you. Don’t let them get you down. It isn’t easy to write a novel in thirty days. It’s really hard. It takes determination and follow through. But, by midnight on November 30, you’ll be able to say you have written a novel. It feels pretty great.
  8. You love to write. This should be reason enough. Now, take that love and push it to the limits for thirty days in a row. You can veg out and watch missed episodes of Homeland in December.
  9. You could be spending your time doing worse things. Watching reruns of New Girl. Playing Angry Birds. Holding up liqueur stores. Robbing banks. Drinking ’til dawn. Counting the number of stray cats in your neighborhood. Reorganizing your sock drawer. Shopping. Deciding that it’s finally time you steam cleaned that carpet. Scraping dead skin from your feet. Tie-dying.
  10. Finishing feels really, really awesome. Seriously. Getting to that 50,000 word mark makes you feel like a rock star. And it should. Like I’ve said, it isn’t easy. But completing such a huge task has huge rewards. Even if three of your chapters don’t make any sense, and your main character is annoying – it doesn’t matter. You did it! You finished writing a novel in thirty days! Have a party for yourself. Go out dancing. Open a bottle of wine and have at. You deserve it. You can start revising tomorrow.

What Next?

As all of you know, a rousing huzzah was sounded yesterday when, for the first time in 8 years I finished my NaNoWriMo novel. It felt good. Heck, it felt awesome. I wrote 50,000 words in a single month and I could have kept going. In fact, I might keep going. I have nothing better to do, and now I am feeling a sense of loss. The competition is over and I am … bored. I got into a habit of writing everyday, and now I am left with a big hole in my world.

Truth be told, I do not have a “finished” product. I validated my novel at 50,327 words and it still has no ending. But, the goal was to write at least 50,000 words, and I did that. It is a pretty big deal for me since it means I didn’t give up, I didn’t quit and I learned a valuable lesson in focus and discipline. And I actually had fun doing it. 

So, I guess I could spend December finishing my novel and editing it, but I have a feeling that no one will ever read it. It might just be a waste of my time. Maybe I should spend December at the gym, losing that ten pounds that crept up on me. I don’t know. What i do know is that if you start anything, and keep with it, stuff happens. Good stuff happens. I began last month with less than an idea and I ended with a novel. Maybe if I begin this month with a first draft, I’ll end with an awesome novel. Or, maybe if I start this month in the gym I’ll end up with a rocking body. But whatever I decide to do, I know that I can finish it. I have the pudding, and the proof is in there.

The Art of the Novel

It’s almost December. Prague is getting all dressed up for the winter holidays, and putting extra blankets on the bed. That means it’s the end of the line for all of us NaNoWriMo-er’s out there. It’s the home stretch, the last couple of days before this month of feverish writing, sleepless nights and nervous breakdowns ends with a silent turn of the calendar. And I feel confident in saying that I am going to finish this year, although I had more than a few moments where I quit.

But I didn’t quit. And I actually learned something about myself! I learned that I am moody and I have very deep introspective thoughts and feelings of self doubt and feelings that I am a a complete and utter failure. I learned that I am a “real” writer. I am an artist.

I quit three separate times this month and each time I complained that there was no point to all of this, and why bother since no one will ever read the novel anyway. But I always went back. Why? Because I like to write. I have something to say. I actually cared about the stupid characters I had created. And I was NOT going to fail for an eighth time. Sure, my NaNo is probably pretty crappy, but at least I did it. I sat down and wrote 50,000 words of (mostly) coherent fiction in 30 Days. That is pretty bad ass. 

 

In Which I stop Whining and Just Do it

I am a strong believer in the old adage that idle hands are the devils playground. I don’t believe in boredom. I am a go getter. Sure, I sit and watch T.V.,  just like everybody, but I like to have some real hobbies as well. Just this weekend I purchased two new paint by number kits, a long forgotten hobby of mine. I also go to the gym, write this blog, play the ukulele and sing. That’s a lot of stuff to keep me busy.

But not enough. Not for November. November for me means one thing: National Novel Writing Month. Those of you who know me know that I subject myself to this unique torture every year with varied results. The idea is to get all us writer types off our butts and get us moving, or writing rather. Participants have thirty days to complete a 50,000 word manuscript. It must be fiction and it must be a “new” idea. As in, you start actually writing on November 1.

So, I have participated for 7 years (this is the 8th) and 7 times I have come up short. Yesterday I came to the only logical conclusion for this: I am a big fat quitter. But why? I’ll tell you why. Friday night while I was writing my novel, my old as fuck computer overheated and I lost about 200-300 words. I was bummed. I decided the only thing to do was to quit. I started all the negative thinking that goes along with this type of situation. “Well, I wouldn’t finish anyway, so why bother?” “It’s stupid. Who is even going to read it? What a waste of time.” “I’m not even a good writer.”

So, I took a break. I sat down with a friend and watched some T.V., but I was still thinking about my story. Then my friend said something that clicked. “It makes you happy, right? So, that sounds like reason enough. You were pretty excited about this, so I think you should keep going.”

He was right. The only reason I was ready to give up was because I knew I could do it. I was afraid of succeeding. I thought about it and realized that I have a pattern of sabotaging myself when it comes to new endeavors. I am scared of being successful at certain things. It’s pretty fucked up because the things I am scared of being good at are the things I am best at – like singing and writing. If I had taken one or two opportunities that had come my way in the past, I might have a nice little singing career by now.

So I started thinking about my friend who lost two whole days worth of writing, (like 4000 words) and how she didn’t give up. She kept on writing, and is still going for it. It’s a tough challenge and there are days when you don’t feel creative. But hell, if I can wake up and go to work everyday, go to the gym and find time to watch The Biggest loser, I can find time to finally shut up and just do it. I know I say this every year, but this time is different.

This is the year. mark my words. Mark them!

NaNoWriMo – Wrap Up

The Goal: To write (and complete) a novel (50,000 words or more) in 30 days.

I did not complete the goal. I guess, technically I failed. But, I don’t feel like a failure – not like I have the past 5 years. I wrote 35,000 words, not to shabby. My excuses? Well, I have a few, but I guess they don’t matter. Not really. The fact is, for whatever reasons, be they good or not, I did not complete the task I set for myself. But, I am still pretty proud of my accomplishment.

I learned that I can still write. I learned that there are stories inside of me that are scratching at the door, pounding to get out. That is a revelation. I learned that I am a fairly good writer. I learned that I have some great friends out there who want me to succeed. Most people i know were (are) very supportive of me and my writing. Sure, a few people laughed at what i was doing and thought the whole idea was stupid. A couple of people never understood why I would put myself through something like that and smiled when I had to throw in the towel. Some people are never happier than when someone else fails. But, I tried to do something on my own – and that’s more than most people ever do.

I think the real goal of NaNoWriMo was to push. I realized that I go through life pretty easy, never really forcing myself to be great and do great things. This forced me to think outside of the box, and made me think that I can do more. I can. I did. I have no excuses. You just sometimes need a push – a kick in the ass. I read a Craigslist post that kind of sums it up perfectly. A guy was looking to hire someone to be his arch enemy. He needed someone to push him and help him strive for more in his life – and I say do whatever it take to get er done.

So, thanks to all of you who supported me in this endeavor. You rock. And to all of you I say this: Go forward and find some really huge mountain (be it figurative or just a really big mountain, if that’s your thing) and go climb the fucker. Break free from your mold and reach beyond what you know you can do and DO SOMETHING BIGGER.

GRAND.
ENORMOUS.
EXCELLENT.

Just stop settling for normal. You can do better than that, I know you can.

NaNoWriMo Update – The Halfway Mark

Today is November 15, which makes today the official half way point for NaNoWrimo. It is also the day that I take a step back from the computer I have chosen to chain myself to and ask myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” My “story” is going nowhere, my plot is split – I think I might be writing two stories – and to top it all off the soup I made seems to have little dough balls floating in it. Julia Child I am not.

I am receiving a lot of support from friends across the globe and my boyfriend thinks I am crazy. I am beginning to believe him. As I am typing this blog entry I am thinking that I could be using this time to work on the novel. The Novel! Who am I anyway?

What in the world led me to believe that I could write a novel in 30 days? I don’t rightly know, but I am doing it. It is being done. It is taking every last ounce of nerve I have in my little body not to quit, but I am doing it. This is the year I don’t quit. Follow through, that’s the idea. Even if my character is boring, placid and lifeless, I will take her through to the very end. I just might kill her for fun. It’ll make me feel better.

So faithful readers, I want you to know, that if I survive this month of torture, I will be back to my usual witty, bloggy self in December. I miss you.

NaNoWriMo

I write today asking for your help and support. I know, I know – you think, “bitch wants money again…” Nope! Not this time. I need your help in keeping a commitment to myself. Please allow me to elucidate.

Since 2004 I have signed on as a participant in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s a cool thing in which 1000’s of would be authors vow to stop watching TV and making excuses and write a novel. You have from November 1 – November 30 to complete it. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. It’s fun and I have NEVER followed through on it. NEVER. Not once in the four years I have signed up for the damn thing.

This year is it. I am back in Prague and feel ready to take some more big steps, leaps and maybe even a few jumps.

Here is where you all come in. I am conflicted about what I want to write about. I have a couple of ideas bouncing around.

-expat in Prague
-A sex and the City type thing called, for the time being, “The Dirty Little Mistress Club”
-a combo of the above…

I don’t know. What do you think? Fill me in. And For those brave souls that wanna play with me, sign up here and we can support each other!

http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Thanks! And…you can still send money.If you want. 😉