Writing About Reading About Writing
I am EXTREMELY RELIEVED to report that Seekers Book Five is finished and turned in (whoopee!), so I can be a real person again. (At least until the editorial notes come back and I have to revise it.)
I’ve said this before, but man, I get so frazzled at the end of writing a manuscript. Literally nothing else can get done — cleaning the house, answering emails, making plans with friends — because every time I start to do something, my brain goes: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? You should be working on BEARS!" (or whatever the currently due manuscript is). And then I panic and have to retreat to my office and laptop as fast as I can, leaving a trail of abandoned laundry behind me.
Anyway, point being, I am sorry if any of you are waiting for an email from me. I have a trillion more emails than usual to get through because of Jeopardy, but I’m working on it! I’ll try to get to them soon, I promise! 🙂
So this week I believe I pledged to give you a list of my favorite writing books (yay!). These are the books that basically convinced me never to write a book about writing, because all the most important things have already been so well-said by these brilliant people. These are also the books I re-read whenever I’m feeling uninspired or unmotivated.
But please keep in mind that there are trazillions of writing books out there, and I’m sure many of them are also wonderful — I just haven’t read them yet! So these are the ones I’ve gotten to so far and liked the best. Feel free to suggest others, because I love this kind of reading!
Without further ado:
Take Joy, by Jane Yolen
I find it very easy to trust the advice of someone who (a) is awesome, (b) has been published a million times over and (c) has won a truckload of awards. But more than that, she has the perfect philosophy of writing for me — that it should be joyful, that you should love doing it, that the writing itself is more important than getting published. Every time I read this book, I am seized with desperately wanting to go write something — anything, as long as I love it. I just think this book is amazing…and this is a shiny new revised edition from the one I read, too! The old one had cherries on it. I’m not sure what the significance is of changing the cherries into a watermelon, but I think I preferred the old cover, personally…it looked very Zen, which is how the book always makes me feel. Still, shiny and new!
On Writing, by Stephen King
Again, you kind of figure that someone this successful knows what he’s talking about, don’t you? :-) I have to admit I have not read very many of King’s actual novels (horror is one of the few genres I don’t read), but I LOVED this book. He’s so smart and practical and straightforward about everything. All his advice is really useful, especially when it comes to writing first drafts and not getting caught up in perfection the first time through. This is another book that always makes me want to go write while I’m reading it. Plus his stories about his own life and career are funny and insightful…probably even more so to people who’ve actually read the books he’s talking about!
The Way to Write for Children,
by Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken is one of those classic British children’s authors I assume everybody knows, so I’m always shocked when people have never even heard of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. IT IS AWESOME. She is awesome. Her character Dido Twite is EXTREMELY AWESOME. So I trust her advice as well, and this is a sweet, old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts approach to all the details of writing and plotting. Obviously this is specifically for children’s books, although some of the advice can apply to writing of any age.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
This is a book that I think many writers will recommend when you ask for a good writing book. It’s darker than Take Joy, with a more biting sense of humor, but it is funny and honest and thought-provoking. I haven’t read it in a while, but I remember finding that it dealt more with the emotional side of being a writer than the specific details of writing and style — but I think that’s really helpful, especially for young writers struggling to get somewhere in the publishing world.
Journal of a Novel, by John Steinbeck
Every morning, before he began work on East of Eden, John Steinbeck would sit down and write a letter to his editor, using the same notebook that he was writing the book in. This is a collection of those letters, and it’s utterly fascinating. It’s not a writing guide by any means, but it gives you some insight into Steinbeck’s mind and his writing process. You can see how he struggles with insecurity sometimes, or feels like the story’s not going the way it should. There’s a lot of rambling — this is basically his warm-up writing for the day, and he complains a lot about his pencils — but I think it’s so cool to see how such an important literary figure had all the same problems and concerns that any writer does. Weirdly reassuring, and especially interesting if you like Steinbeck or East of Eden in particular.
The Forest for the Trees,
by Betsy Lerner
Honestly, if you asked me what I think the best path to becoming a writer is, I’d say: go work in publishing. Obviously that’s what I did, and so have lots of other (more famous!) authors. Seeing how the editorial process works and all the craziness that goes into publishing a book is a great way to figure out what you want from your career and how to pursue it. But if that’s not an option for you, this is a pretty good substitute: a book about writing and publishing written by a brilliant woman who was an editor for years and years before becoming an agent. If you want to know what your potential editors are thinking, or how to make them happy (and you really do want to make them happy!), this is the book you need. Not to mention it’s also a great read!
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,
by A. Scott Berg
This is kind of a random book to put on this list, as it really has very little to do with writing, but it’s ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. Max Perkins was the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe (can you believe they all had the same editor?), and his life was deeply involved with theirs. This was a time when editors devoted themselves to nurturing and supporting their authors (at least, editors like Perkins did!), often to a kind of crazy extent. On the one hand, you might wish we still had editors like that…but I couldn’t help thinking how much healthier it is for my friends-who-are-editors that they don’t have to live that way! I ended up both admiring and pitying Max Perkins, because these authors basically ate up his life. But again, it’s an enthralling look at what certain famous literary figures were really like, not just in their personal lives, but in the way they dealt with their own writing. Insecure? You have no idea! Even Hemingway, who mostly thought he was awesome, had bouts of jealousy about Perkins’ other authors and worries about his books, all of which Perkins had to soothe and handle.
I also learned that Thomas Wolfe (who was a gigantic man) wrote all of his books standing up, leaning on the top of a refrigerator. He tossed each finished page in a milk carton, and when he was done, he just delivered the entire milk carton to Max Perkins and let him sort it out into a finished book. CAN YOU IMAGINE? I mean, I really really loved the authors I worked with as an editor, and I still would have been like "WHAT. THAT IS NOT A BOOK." Boy, I scolded my poor authors for numbering their chapters wrong! (To be fair, it was hilariously wrong.) This book kind of made me want to be as great an editor as Max Perkins, while also making me realize I would drive myself insane if I tried. So it’s more fun to read as a writer! I certainly feel like my problems are quite small compared to Fitzgerald’s or Hemingway’s or Wolfe’s. :-) And it’s just a GREAT book in general.
Whew. I hope that’s helpful for you guys! I’ll let you know if I come across any others I love. :-) I’m actually reading the revised edition of Take Joy this week, because I have a new idea (or seven) which I want to play with now that Bears is done, and I’m hoping this will help inspire me.
Also, keep watching this space for an exciting announcement about Pet Trouble, involving the Scholastic message boards and a chance for you to share your own funny pet stories! Yay! More on that soon…
Quote of the Day: "I write only when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning." — William Faulkner