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  • Lea’s exercise is one of over ninety in The Practice of Poetry, a thoughtful collection that enlightens even the non-poets among us.

    Reading the greats is the best way to become a better writer. But there are so many books, and there’s so little time. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad condenses the process, excerpting from the greats to illustrate the basic concepts of fiction.

    With chapters like “Getting Intimate with Readers” and “A Few Guidelines for Living Forever,” Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel covers the territory promised in its subtitle: “The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them”

    One of my favorites in the Greywolf’s “The Art of” series in The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter, with chapters on The Art of Staging, Digging the Subterranean, Unheard Melodies, Inflection, and Creating a Scene.

    David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, winner of multiple awards, including the coveted Prix Etranger, for wonderful landscapes and a whole lot more. Yes, it’s dark. It’s also brilliant.

    Victoria Redel’s essay “How Do We Mean What We Do Not Say” is part of a remarkable collection of teachings from instructors in the Vermont College MFA program, Words Overflown by Stars. Companion essays include Fiction’s Reminiscent Narrators, Distance and Point of View, the Fictional “I,” Dreams and Writing Fiction, and The Wounds of Possibility.

    Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington is a thorough, practical guide to all aspects of this popular genre. Even if you’re not writing memoir, her chapters on form, truth, time, and sensory images are insightful.
  • Media Bistro’s 49 Power Tips for Twitter
  • In Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner with wit and wisdom prods writers to an understanding of who they are, why they write, and how they can succeed. In the first half of the book, you’ll likely recognize yourself in at least one of the creative types Lerner profiles: Ambivalent, Natural, Wicked Child, Self-Promoter, and Neurotic. Armed with self-understanding, you’ll be primed for the second half of the book, on the business of getting published. 
  • As does Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners, Madeleine L’Engle explores the spiritual side of writing in Walking on Water. In the foreward, Nicole Nordeman tells how L’Engle’s book lifted her out of a severe state of writer’s block by chipping away at the self-absorption that stymied her creative spirit.
  • Shunning formula and prescription Cindy Dyson in The Last Query walks writers through the process of generating a succinct and powerful query letter, including advice on special problems. She also shares her own successful query and synopsis for her novel And She Was along with the brainstorming that helped generate them.
  • These days you’ll dish out (apologies, Misters Strunk and White, for the breezy manner) more than $2.75, but if you don’t own a copy of The Elements of Style, you’re missing out on some of the most precise advice ever offered up to writers. 
  • Pam Houston’s latest book, Contents May Have Shifted, is a novel constructed of 144 “glimmers.”
  • For everyone who wants to stay out of the rejection pile (and who doesn’t?), there’s Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. No gimmicks here - simply straightforward explanations, solutions, examples, and exercises in the areas that cause problems for writers.
  • Check This Out: For more examples of how flexible writers come out on top, read Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example. In it, editor Patsy Sims gathers exemplary literary nonfiction, annotating each piece so you can see exactly how each writer achieves brilliance. It's a pricey collection, but especially valuable if you're writing nonfiction. (With thanks to Bill Streever, author of the bestselling Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places and (forthcoming) Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places, who directed me to the Sims book, saying it taught him to write.)
  • Poet Mark Doty ponders The Art of Description in a slim volume from Graywolf Press that reads like a lot like a poem, packed with beauty and distilled thoughts and lyrical lines from the masters.
  • In Creating Character Emotions, Ann Hood devotes a chapter to each of thirty-six different emotions, offering bad and good examples for each, along with exercises. While her approach is a little too clunky for my taste, it doesn’t hurt to maintain an awareness of all these emotions, and good examples of anything literary are always a plus.
  • In The Plot Thickens, literary agent Noah Lukeman has a gift for cutting to the chase without coming off as harsh or judgmental. He covers eight aspects of narrative, that deserve our attention, including transcendence. In addition to straightforward explanations, he includes practical exercises.
  • If in the stranded-on-an-island scenario the book genre were craft, I’d choose Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, hands down. The chapter on Dynamic Characterization alone is worth several readings.
  • Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page explores the concepts of style and voice in writing. He divides his approach between theory and practice, with interludes that include quotes from authors and marked-up excerpts that show revision for style and voice.
  • Essays collected in Joyce Carol Oates The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art touch on inspiration, failure, self-criticism, reading as a writer, and why we write. It’s a slim but thought-provoking volume.
  • For the basics of promotion in the traditional, pre-electronic marketplace, check out Mark Ortman’s A Simple Guide to Marketing Your Book, where you’ll learn to develop a marketing plan with attention to budget, product, audience, distribution, promotion, and timing. But don’t stop there. Your writing community (online, face to face) can help you stay up-to-date on electronic promotion.
  • You’re not a screenwriter, so why read Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need? Because Blake Snyder will get you thinking about the stories readers and viewers like best.
  • Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, you’ll appreciate Telling True Stories, a collection of thoughts on craft from writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Franklin, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, and Nora Ephron. Worth the cover price alone are Jack Hart’s discussion of narrative distance and his chart showing the distinctions between summary narrative and dramatic narrative.
  • Robin Henley suggests taking a family incident from your childhood and writing it exactly as you remember it – no embellishment. Then query someone else who was there to discover how they remember it. Transform this memory into a fictional scene, strengthening the story with decisions on structure and point of view. Finally, write the story again from another character’s point of view.
  • Fitch wrote her breakout novel White Oleander after a stint at Squaw Valley. She was getting rejections but didn’t know why until she figured out that there’s good enough, and then there’s something else. What is it you can’t see about your writing? That’s the challenge she poses to writers.
  • You can only get it from two sources – the author and the Harvard Book Store – but Steve Almond’s Honey, This Won’t Take but a Minute is worth ferreting out. Think of it as a take-no-hostages update to Strunk and White in which the advice to writers isn’t on style but on something a lot more elusive: truth. As a bonus, this slim little volume delivers flash fiction that proves Almond walks what he talks.
  • I admire short story writers – they manage to write so many endings. The queen in my opinion is Alice Munro. For the uninitiated, start with The Beggar Maid. Not every ending’s perfect, but a lot of them are.
  • Ask ten writers a question on craft, and you’ll get ten different answers. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” Daniel Alarcon says in his introduction to The Secret Miracle, “and for this very reason, we find it impossible to stop.” Alarcon’s project compiles responses from several writers to questions on craft and the writing life; quotes in today's post from Galchen, Abani, and Prieto come from the book. Proceeds benefit 826 National, a youth literacy project.
  • Have your pen ready, because you’ll be using it often to mark up Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on writing. In this decidedly not-manual, O’Connor pulls no punches. “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers,” she says. “My opinion is they don’t stifle enough of them.”
  • Unique, engaging, and suspenseful first novel rich with metaphor. That’s Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! The HBO spin-off is sure to be a hoot, but for the language lesson, read the book.
  • Your left brain is a censor, but you need its analytic prowess when it comes to revision. How to juggle the creative and the analytic? The classic text is Henriette Anne Klauser’s Writing on Both Sides of the Brain.
  • Great for perfecting your bounce: Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected. Morrell works as a developmental editor; in her words, a living made “by breaking writer’s hearts.” Prompted by a multitude of good ideas she’s seen go bad in their delivery, she pulls no punches in the volume that helps you get tough while showing you how to get better.
  • The definitive source on conventions for (ahem) literary work is of courseThe Chicago Manual of Style. The latest edition – number sixteen – came out in 2010. They’re not kidding when they subtitle this hefty volume The Essential Guide for Writers, Editor, and Publishers. Everyone who’s in this for keep should own a copy. Of note: the option of foregoing quotation marks around dialogue has yet to earn a mention. 
  • To sum up all that Tom Rachman does right with character would take far more than a blog post. Better to read The Imperfectionists for yourself, a novel that makes the question of character versus plot seem utterly irrelevant. 
  • Spare and surprising, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life offers plenty to mull over during your reflective moments. It’s a slim, pithy book to reread whenever you need to regain perspective on the crazy lifestyle you’ve chosen.
  • I read Bookforum not so much to discover new titles but to learn more about authors I already love. From a great review of Marilynne Robinson’s latest book, for instance, I learned about Robinson’s perspective on the West along with her take on religion. Time to re-read Housekeeping.
  • As with love, when it comes to writing, most of us would prefer to just let it happen. But when we need a push, Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write is at the ready. “Writing is sensual, experiential, grounding,” Cameron says. “We should write because writing is good for the soul.”
  • In Now Write!, Sherry Ellis gathers writing exercises from dozens of authors, including Jayne Anne Phillips, Amy Bloom, and Steve Almond. Point of view, character development, dialogue, plot and pacing, setting and description, craft, and revision are among the topics covered. There’s also a large selection of generative writing exercises. Though the emphasis is on fiction, poets and essayists will find good workouts here too.
  • Whether you do it daily or at the end of your full draft or some combination of the two, revision is a crucial part of our process – a part that’s often glossed over because it’s messy and hard to pin down. If you’re going to consult only one book on revision, it should be The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. She gives equal treatment to macro- and micro-editing, with insightful commentary built around the work of respected authors and their editors as well as checklists and suggestions for practice.
  • Writers Workshop in a Book: Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction, edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez. This collection of faculty essays convinced me to apply for Squaw Valley, one of the most helpful and delightful weeks I’ve ever spent as a writer. As Richard Ford says in his introduction to the book, at Squaw they put wonder on display. What better way to teach writing?
  • The Portable MFA in Creative Writing from The New York Writers Workshop. “The education I received for over $30,000 can be condensed to eight easy-to-forget points, and I offer them all for the price of this book,” writes Tim Tomlinson in the introduction to this pithy and practical handbook. In sections devoted to fiction, personal essay and memoir, magazine writing, poetry, and playwriting, instructors from the NYW Workshop offer succinct thoughts on craft supplemented by exercises and further reading. The fiction section of my copy is heavily dog-eared and marked – my sign of an outstanding resource.
  • Ursula LeGuin, The Wave in the Mind, titled from Woolf’s lines quoted in the epigraph. A prolific and versatile writer, LeGuin is smart and savvy without pretension. In this eclectic collection of talks and essays on writing, reading, and the imagination, LeGuin also touches on issues of gender, beauty, and anthropology. A joy to read and contemplate.
  • Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World explores the idea that for writers, what we don’t know is as important as what we do know. Though his focus is on writing fiction, chapters on “Process and Paradigm” and “The Alternate Universe” will interest all writers. His concluding chapter “You Must Change Your Life” is a pointed reminder to all.