The writing life, demystified
As we at BookPage know, writing is hard work. But believe it or not there are techniques that can make those long hours at the computer a bit more bearable. Whether you're a best-selling novelist, a working journalist or someone who simply likes to write, the following books offer encouragement, inspiration and practical advice on improving your fiction-writing and communication skills.
First up is Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott's Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment. Pickard is an award-winning mystery writer, best known for her Jenny Cain series. Lott is a well-published pop psychologist specializing in family therapy. Together, they try to find what might be considered middle ground a place where tapping into human feelings and personal conflicts unites with an almost spiritual sense of overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of producing good fiction or nonfiction. The seven steps referred to in the title are unhappiness, wanting, commitment, wavering, letting go, immersion and fulfillment. Various chapters in the book offer what amount to serious-minded pep talks supplemented by firsthand anecdotes about the writing life as related by dozens of interviewed professionals, including Sue Grafton, Nora Roberts, Don Coldsmith and Lia Matera. The well-written text discusses courage, risk, reward, desire, action and a host of other issues germane to achieving success, from the mechanics of getting started to dealing with one's fictional characters. One good thing: the touchy-feely atmosphere engendered by the book's general concept writing as a self-help paradigm doesn't get in the way of a lot of tough, necessary advice. Interesting and insightful aphorisms, reminiscences and handy reminders from the likes of Edward Albee, Benjamin Franklin, Susan Sontag, Emile Zola and many others are laced throughout, offering quick-take philosophical reflections on writing, but also on simply living life.
John Dufresne is the author of the acclaimed novels Louisiana Power and Light and Deep in the Shade of Paradise, as well as an instructor at Florida International University. His new book, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, touches on many of Pickard and Lott's concerns about the solitary regimen required of writers and the importance of recognizing how difficult the process can be. Dufresne's text offers the same kind of writerly shibboleths, but his guide is primarily concerned with the specific craft of producing fiction. In that regard, he discusses examples of great writers' work, provides thoughtful overviews on how to approach plot, character, dialogue, place and point of view, and presents sensible exercises designed to help writers set out with a strong sense of purpose. One of Dufresne's main credos is that there are stories all around us. His instruction reinforces the writer's imperative to observe the world keenly, to tap into one's own emotions and then set down the truth with determination and zeal. For Dufresne, writing is not a part-time endeavor, and his enthusiastic, highly articulate volume serves as an effective reminder that the novelist's life involves a lot more than putting words on paper.
Finally, there is The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer. The author, Steven Frank, is a Los Angeles-area high school English teacher who has shared his love of writing and his working methods with his students for 10 years. In this new book, Frank brings together the many helpful ideas he has imparted to others. The chapters have mock-biblical titles such as "Thou Shalt Not Waste Words," "Thou Shalt Keep Thy Structure Holy" and "Thou Shalt Overcome Writer's Block." A reflection of Frank's ongoing work in encouraging young people to embrace writing instead of fearing it, this nuts-and-bolts handbook features basic explanations of literary terms and parts of speech, useful discussions about sentence structure, essential coverage of the types and uses of punctuation, and clear descriptions of and exercises for the kinds of writing students may engage in along the way to improving their skills. It's all done in a lively, reassuring style.
Martin Brady is a freelance writer in Nashville.