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Five books on writing for writers, and the people who love them

 

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Now that I have two kids under two (not a typo), I can barely find time to wash my hair let alone spend the time searching for the perfect holiday gifts for the people on my list. Which is why I now do things like Google “perfect gifts for the ___ in your life.”

So if I were to Google “perfect gifts for the WRITERS in your life,” I would hope to come across a list like this because it would make my life that much easier.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – My bible. Many people’s bible. Anne is like your favorite weird aunt whose kitchen you just want to sit in for hours on end basking in her hard-earned wisdom. You can find it here.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – I think this was the first book on writing I ever read, long before I had the courage to start. His humility is still so clear in my mind.

Writers (On Writing): Collected Essays from the New York Times – I used to read this in the bath. Richard Ford’s piece about how not writing is still writing is terrific.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg -When I first decided to offer my writing workshops, Natalie Goldberg was my patron saint as I came up with the structure and content. There’s a lot out there about structure, plot, etc., but first you have to get to the place where you’re actually writing. This book will get you there.

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland – I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this book, but I remember when I read it that I thought that if Brenda Ueland had a church, I would go worship there. Published in 1938, this is a 168-page love letter to aspiring writers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Tips When Writing From Experience

This is the excerpt for a placeholder post. It can be deleted, or edited to make it your own.

(This initially appeared in a column called The Writer’s Dig on Writersdigest.com in 2013.)

Like many writers, my first novel was autobiographical. Also like many writers, my first novel was not published. While at the time I was completely devastated—how could they not appreciate the genius that I had bled onto the page?!—by the time I did get published, I was grateful and relieved that the work was living on my hard drive rather than bookshelves. Since that first manuscript, I’ve published ten books. Yet it wasn’t until my forthcoming novel The Corner of Bitter and Sweet—the story of a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with her mother’s alcoholism and subsequent recovery—that I decided to dip back into my own experience. Determined not to repeat the same mistakes, I made certain to keep these four tips in mind.

1. Don’t use your work as a weapon to settle scores and get back at people.

There’s no doubt that writing can be therapeutic, and that when channeled correctly, anger is a healthy emotion. Not to mention writing burns calories versus the weight that is gained when we (okay, some of us…okay, me) carbo load at someone. That being said, one of the adages learned in twelve-step programs (a big plot point in Bitter and Sweet) is that “When you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back to you.” Your take on an experience is exactly that—your take. While exorcising your demons on the page might be cathartic, how you feel is your truth at that moment—and not necessarily how you’re going to feel a week, month or year later. Feelings change. The repercussions of vilifying someone on the page, even if it’s under the guise of fiction, can last a lot longer.

2. Know the difference between fiction and journaling.

Journaling is a wonderful tool. It’s also the pinnacle of self-obsession and navel-gazing. (I say this with great affection, as I’m a huge journaler.) One of the plusses of prose is that it allows for an internal exploration of a character’s thoughts and feelings. However, there can be the tendency when writing about/from your own experience to get bogged down in analysis paralysis at the expense of plot, pacing, setting and dialogue.

3. Be an advocate for your characters – even the so-called villains.

I write to understand and to be understood. Those are also the very reasons that I read. The opportunity to read about characters who are far from perfect and to love them anyway gives me the gift of identification and helps me to accept my own imperfections. In Bitter and Sweet, the mother is impulsive, self-obsessed and immature. She also loves her daughter more than anything. Showing the two sides of her personality—the flaws and the strengths–makes her a more compelling and complex character, one whom readers will hopefully identify and connect with, and remember long after they’ve finished reading. Check that your characters aren’t all villains or saints but human beings who are perfectly imperfect.

4. Put distance between you and the experience so that you can be objective.

The best kind of drama is that which provokes a charge. However, if you’re still charged about the incident when you sit down to write, chances are you’ll only be able to see the situation in black and white versus the grey that is a hallmark of good fiction. With time, you’ll be able to craft a story from a more objective viewpoint so that it doesn’t feel like your main character is giving a closing argument in a trial and trying to win over a jury.