Books I Can’t Write Without

Standard

Like many aspiring writers, my bookshelf is loaded with various books related to the craft of writing. Along with the standard dictionaries, thesauri, and grammar guides, I have books that cover everything from how to write a novel to college textbooks that pick apart short stories.  What I can’t figure out is why I have so many of them! If I’ve discovered anything over the last few years, it’s that the most valuable writing books are the ones which actually inspire the act of writing.

Favorite “How To” Books:

From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen S. Wiesner

When I decided to start writing a novel, it became glaringly obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.  Wiesner’s book gave me a wonderful place to start in plain, simple language that gave me some hope of actually achieving my goal.  She uses a wonderful analogy of how building a house is similar to the process of writing a novel.  For example, the first phase of building a house is laying the foundation just as brainstorming is the first step to writing just about anything.  As an added bonus, the back of the book is filled with appendices that include checklists, graphic organizers, real world examples, and outline layouts.

Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Maass taught me how to craft a plot line and map out characters with thought provoking exercises and questions. He asks writers to constantly challenge and question every word and every segment of a work in progress.  It’s time consuming and even frustrating at times, but ultimately the blood and sweat leads to a more finely polished novel.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

Lukeman gives excellent advice on how to make a novel a page-turner right from the first sentence. He’s a literary agent that explains what makes a manuscript attractive and how to avoid the slush pile. I found this book while in the middle of writing my first novel and it has proven to be an invaluable reference during the revision process.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

Editing is not any easy task by any means, but Browne & King  make the process a little less painful. They have a great sense of humor as they offer fantastic advice on how to polish a manuscript. Everything from point of view, dialogue, and pacing are outlined with before and after examples that show the difference between good writing and great writing.

Favorite Books For Inspiration:

You Know You’re a Writer When . . . by Adair Lara

This thin little book has made me laugh so many times!  Whenever I have a tough day, I just open up to random page where I’m guaranteed to read something that reminds me I have the soul of writer.

For example, You know you’re a writer when  . . .

. . . You wonder if there’s another word for thesaurus.

. . . There are three empty cereal bowls next to your computer – one for each meal.

(Yes, I’m guilty of both.)

The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley

This is easily my favorite book of prompts.  Kiteley has put together a collection of unique and unorthodox exercises designed to push at a writer’s boundaries.  Prompts cover a wide range of elements including setting, imagery, characters, description, and dialogue.  Whenever I’m stuck this is the book I pull off my shelf.

Now Write! Edited by Sherry Ellis

Writers often look to each other for inspiration, which is probably why Now Write is such an amazing collection of advice and writing prompts.  A wide array of novelists, short story writers, and writing teachers offer up their best exercises designed to both challenge and inspire.

A Writer’s Space by Eric Maisel, PH.D.

While Maisel offers some very intriguing prompts, his focus on the creative process is what inspires me the most. He encourages writers to pay attention to and foster the muse within by creating a space in which to work, (both internally and externally).

Wild Card Books:

Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Recently, I started posting pages from the journal I’m wrecking as it has been an incredible source of inspiration. Actually anything by Keri Smith is bound to loosen the bolts of the imagination. Her books are literally full of dares to step outside the box.   As a result, my writing has become bolder and more honest than ever before.

This Is Water by David Foster Wallace

While not a book on writing, it is one of the most inspiring books I own.  It’s a transcript of a speech he gave at Kenyon College where he posits the notion of seeing the world with idea of choice in mind.  To him, the mundane, day to day existence of humanity is rife with extraordinary beauty.  A trip to the grocery store or even the aggravation of getting stuck in traffic jam can be a fantastic journey, but only if we choose to see it that way. Thanks to Wallace, I try to walk into the world with an almost constant sense of wonder. If that doesn’t given me a reason to write, I don’t know what will.

What books inspire you to keep writing?

c.b. 2011

Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

Standard

David Foster Wallace looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit. In his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, he explores everything from politics, grammar, and ethics with an incredibly sharp eye and an even sharper pen. All ten essays are phenomenal, but a few stand out because they literally make the pathways in my brain change direction.

Wallace is at his most hysterical in an essay entitled, “Authority and American Usage.” In this article, he decides to explore and debate the “dictionary wars.” Did you ever stop to wonder just who is the authority of the English language? Who decides how to properly use words and punctuation? The truth is, there is no official organization that sets the ground rules; there are just a bunch of “experts” that argue relentlessly through the reference books they write and publish. This sets the stage for Wallace to air his grievances with the system (or lack thereof). He delves into the question of what truly defines langauge and the “rules” attached to it. What follows is a fascinating foray into the sub-culture of SNOOTS (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time),  the fine art of writing, how languages change over time, and why the rules exist in the first place. Even though Wallace himself is a SNOOT, he is infinitely curious on why he is such a stickler to the rules. In an effort to answer this question he investigates how language works both with and without the rules and how culture, class, and academia influence and in some cases “control” the accepted language rules. Most interestingly, he explores why most people don’t care about grammar. While the topic of grammar is usually considered quite boring, this is where Wallace is at his best. His wit and humor makes the bland study of words and punctuation entertaining, especially when his temper gets the best of him. Wallace doesn’t like to be wrong!

“The View from Mrs. Thompsons” is a tender, realistic, and touching account of 9/11. While a wholly individual memoir of the event, the emotive sense of the piece exemplifies what it was like to be an American on that day. No matter who you are where you were, Wallace has your words. At the same time, he puts out a challenge to view that day in a new light — there is more than one America out there and Wallace wonders which one we all see.

In “Up, Simba” Wallace functions as a reporter for Rolling Stone as he tags along with the John McCain campaign of 2000. The focus is on McCain’s political ideas, but Wallace also takes the time to explain the more technical aspects of campaigning. In particular, how the camera and sound guys work and how different media personnel relate (or not) to one another. Wallace is a keen observer of the mundane, everyday facets that surround him, which is part of what makes him a unique writer. Even the boring can be interesting if viewed through a certain lens. Aside from the technical crew, he also finds himself drawn to McCain’s honesty. He wonders if that honesty is real or created. Thus begins an investigation of how marketing ties into campaigns and how that might be why Young Voters avoid the polls and why people don’t trust politicians. Voters these days know the game as they are inundated with ads and manipulated every day by every industry on the planet including Capitol Hill. Even if a politician tells the truth, most people are so jaded they can’t really be sure it’s the honest truth. Is there even a such thing as the total truth these days? Now there’s something to ponder.

Lastly, in the title essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace visits a lobster festival in Maine. Where most people would soak in the local flavor and bask in tourist traps, Wallace walks in thinking of the lobster. Not as a meal, but as a sentient entity. As he stands in front of the largest lobster cooker in the world, his mind begins to ponder a deeply moral and ethical question: Do lobsters feel pain when they are being boiled alive? It seems like a simple question, but it leads to other issues regarding food production and consumption. He posits that there is a disconnct between people and the animals they eat. We don’t like to think about the animal where meat comes from or whether the lobster getting thrown into a boiling vat of water can consciously feel pain. Have we lost our compassion or are we simply kings of the food chain? With this unique perspective, Wallace offers a thought provoking take on the old adage “You are what you eat.”

Wallace likes to hang out in left field in everything he writes.  He often sparks debate, but he always fuels the fire of independent thought and consideration.  The lobster never had a better advocate.

c.b. 2011

A Bookshelf of Organized Chaos

Standard

Recently, the photograph that runs along my sidebar was a topic of conversation with a friend.  It isn’t something I pulled off the internet, but rather a photograph I took of my personal bookshelf.   The shelf is one of the more noticeable features of my home as it covers the an entire wall in my dining room.  It reaches all the way to the ceiling and it is rammed with hundreds of books.  With such a large collection, it would make sense to have  a sophisticated system of organization – like alphabetizing or Dewey Decimal – to make it easy to find any book.  I’ve mentioned my highly organized nature, so naturally there is a system in place, but no one really knows how it works except for me!   Nothing is alphabetized or numbered and genre based categories are not utilized. Everything is neatly shelved, but aside from that it looks like a haphazard stack to the untrained eye.  Despite my unorthodox ways, I know where each and every book is located.  Below is a larger scale photograph of my shelf and a list of the categories I use to keep everything in working order.

Writers I Admire
Location: Second Shelf

I carved out a special section to store the books of authors who I hold in high regard as a reader and as an aspiring writer.  The likes of David Foster Wallace, Ivan Klíma, John Irving, Michael Chabon, Paul Auster, Dennis Potter, Guy de Maupassant, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paulo Coehlo populate this area of the wall along with a few other new recruits.  I keep these writers grouped together because they inspire me to continue experimenting with my own style of writing.  I don’t want to emulate them, but rather write with the same spirit of courage, creativity, honesty, boldness, and heart.

Books I’ve Read
Location: Second Shelf (far right, part of which is not visible in the picture), Third Shelf (1/4 way in from the left and extends to the far right which is not visible), Fourth Shelf (From the left edge up to The Da Vanci Code).

If you have visited the “My Bookshelf” tab, you’ll probably spot several of those titles stacked on my shelves.  I keep most books I’ve read if I enjoyed them, (some are double stacked behind what is visible).  Whatever I don’t keep is sold to Half-Price Books where I usually have the cash in my hands for an entire five minutes before buying something “new.”

The books are grouped in such a strange pattern on different shelves in order to link different categories without creating too much disruption.  I tend to read YA at a fast pace, which means just about every book in that section has been read.  That creates a nice meeting point to start stacking all other books I’ve read.  The other meeting point connects to Authors I Admire as the vast majority of those books have also been read.

These books are shelved in the order in which they were read.  Books on the right are the most recently read, which makes it easier to distinguish them from the next category . . .

Books I Haven’t Read
Location: Third Shelf (far right, starting after Martin Amis and continuing to a point that is not visible in the photograph), Fourth Shelf (starting after The Da Vinci Code and extending beyond the scope of photograph).

The largest category by far, but I would rather have too much to read than not enough.  The books are stacked on different shelves for a purely logistical reason – size.  The hardcovers are too big to fit on the third shelf and the collection as a whole is too big to fit all on one shelf.

Almost Finished Reading
Location: Third Shelf (in the middle, right after Water For Elephants and stopping at The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov)

These are books that for whatever reason I never got to the last page.  Perhaps another book caught my attention or I just didn’t get into the story.  I can usually remember where I left off and almost always return to them at one time or another.  I figured the perfect place for them was right in between read and unread, like a buffer zone of sorts.

Young Adult

Location: Third Shelf (left Side) and Fourth Shelf (left Side)

Ever since I read Twilight, (yeah, I’m one of those people), I found myself drawn into the YA genre.  There are a number of series of which I’ve become a devoted follower.  What I love about YA is the storytelling aspect.  The writing may not be fine literature, but the stories are usually very original and always a good bit of fun.  After reading something heavy or difficult, I love jumping into a realm where I don’t have to analyze every single word.

The series I’ve collected include, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Twilight series, (which has actually turned into anything by Stephanie Meyer), Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices series, Lauren Kate’s Fallen Series, Percy Jackson, and Claudia Gray’s Evernight series.

I tend to mix read with unread, but only because I go through them so quickly.  At the moment, there’s only a few I haven’t read, which means it’s time to start stockpiling again!

Size again plays a role in why YA occupies two shelves instead of one.  Harry Potter and parts of the Twilight collection are too tall to fit the third shelf, while the rest of YA is too short to properly fill up the fourth shelf, (sometimes aesthetics have to be considered).

Click for more . . .

Continue reading