These Four Books Will Make You a Better Writer

I’ve read a lot of how-to books for writers. They tend to have grandiose titles, like How to Write the Next Big Book Everyone Talks About, and dispense obvious advice from writers who, curiously, are almost completely unknown. But a few have earned a spot on my desk, always within arm’s reach.

1 – Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

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If you read one book about writing, make sure it’s this one. Style explains everything you need to know about making your words sound cool. Managing long sentences. Describing actions. Lyrical paragraphs. (Even successive sentence fragments.) Every chapter felt like a mystery being unlocked, showing me how to use writing techniques that had previously been out of my grasp. This book is the key to good writing, and older editions are so cheap they’re practically free. [Buy it.]

2 – The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White

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A little obvious, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of this classic (and remarkably brief) set of English lessons. It’s in the public domain, so read it online. It will only take a few minutes. Even though it is novice-level stuff that you’re supposed to already know, many authors produce poor writing because they never bother to brush up on the basics. Don’t be like that. Spend a few minutes with this book to make sure you’re not writing with a huge blind spot.

Still sounds lame? Well, I first heard about The Elements of Style from…

3 – On Writing, by Stephen King

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That’s right. Strunk & White’s plain book about grammar is championed by the Schlockmeister himself. King has a reputation for being edgy, but this memoir  is all about the discipline of the writing craft, like learning grammar rules and making time to write every day. He almost succeeds in making it sound boring, but this book is a must for anyone who wants to know how a writer should get things done. Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors ever, so his advice on getting through drafts and completing projects is invaluable. [Buy it.]

4 – Write Like the Masters, by William Cane.

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This one’s my favorite. I was skeptical about the title, but this little book, written by a rhetoric professor, will take your writing to the next level. William Cane explains the rhetorical devices of famous writers in such a simple, straightforward manner that you’ll soon be impersonating Dickens or Melville with ease. Write Like the Masters also explores the lifestyles and writing habits of these authors to demonstrate different approaches to the creative process. (Balzac’s use of coffee might feel familiar, while Faulkner’s absolute concentration on his projects will make you question your dedication.) Professor William Cane is a very encouraging teacher, and any writer who reads through to the end will feel a surge of energy compelling them to write, write, write like there’s no tomorrow! [Buy it.]

Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ Shows Us a Better Way to Write Folklore

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Who doesn’t have fond memories of curling up with an old copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology, curled at the edges and filled with countless (but brief) adventures of the world’s most famous heroes? Legendary stories don’t really get old, but Neil Gaiman has shown us how they can be re-told better than ever. With Norse Mythology, Gaiman has perfected—or at least advanced—the art of writing fables.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is bound with a common theme, a continuing story, and all of the Nordic fables in his book point to the same place: Ragnarök. The end of times. The apocalypse.

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It’s different than the film (which appears to share the plot of Mortal Kombat).

From the very start, we are told about Loki’s children who will fight on the wrong side in the last war. It’s charming to hear about the origin of Thor’s hammer, but the tale ends with a stark reminder of that weapon’s final use. Loki’s pranks are enchanting and hilarious, but each a bit darker than the other, and eventually the reader cannot escape the conclusion that this trickster will be the architect of a tragedy.

I studied a bit of Norse literature in grad school (a bit, mind you), and I was impressed at how well Gaiman told his stories in the style of the Norse storytellers, with all of the unexpected cleverness and depth hiding behind short sentences and simple dialog. It’s quite a challenge for a writer to make a story come alive while embracing older narrative styles, but Gaiman nails it.

It would be great to see more mythology reinterpreted with a theme. Imagine a collection of Greek myths where the gods fear they will be forgotten as they watch society advance without them, until Zeus and his children quietly climb down from Mt. Olympus to live as men. Or a book of Native American folklore beginning with many faces staring out to sea for inspiration and ending with the arrival of strange ships. Perhaps the simple inclusion of a coherent narrative could make any mythological collection into an unforgettable experience.

Sherlock Holmes is not Quite Dead!

It all started when I saw a cool haircut on Twitter. I didn’t know Lyndsay Faye (shame on me, as I was about to discover), but when her picture appeared on my feed I couldn’t help but comment on her amazing hair. I went on to lament that my own locks would never meet such majesty.

Then I discovered she is a writer…of Sherlock Holmes tales.

And her name isn’t Doyle.

I’m a bit of a snob about Mr. Holmes. No literary character has given me such inspiration and solace as Sherlock; I think of him as a kindred spirit. I don’t like to hear any discussion of the world’s greatest detective from people who don’t know the deerstalker doesn’t actually show up in the books or from the troglodytes who don’t recognize the name Sindey Paget. (Go sit in the corner–especially if you’re still asking yourself what a deerstalker is.)

So, I’m a little touchy about Holmes. As a result, I hadn’t read any of the non-original Holmes stories. Pop-culture’s interpretations of Holmes tend to be irritating, mostly because they center around the most boring aspect of the tales: his sexuality. Honestly, people, you can get more water out of a stone.

I planned to live my entire life without reading from the multitude of “new” Holmes stories, until Lyndsay Faye, the woman with incredible hair, responded to me on Twitter. “You look slammin’,” she said, in an attempt to mitigate my previous lamentation.

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You can see why I considered this a compliment.

I swooned, hit the floor, and blacked out.

When I awoke, I rushed to my local library (I still do that) and grabbed a book with her name in it: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

The table of contents boasted familiar names. Some of my favorites, in fact. Stephen King. Michael Moorcock. Neil Gaiman. But did any of them ever compliment my hair? No.

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And, seriously, why not?

I poured some coffee into a cup, waited for it to find the right temperature, and then poured myself into The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness.

If you’re a Holmes fan, the opening line will blow you away with it’s familiarity and humor. Faye’s yarn contains the Watsonian lexicon of obscure English words that makes Watson such a charming storyteller, and every paragraph is brimming with the warm (but always peculiar) friendship between him and Sherlock. The mystery is a very good one and, just like I often did with Doyle’s work, I found myself stopping to lean back in my chair to go over the details of the case in an effort to solve it on my own. (I got close.) Flipping through those pages was like stepping back into the old stories for the first time, and I experienced a familiar elation I never expected to know again so intimately.

I’ve shed my prejudice. There are dozens more Sherlock Holmes stories in this little book and plenty more on the bookshelves. It’s time I quit avoiding them.

I might even write one myself.

Old Favorites: Understanding Simak’s ‘The Visitors’

clifford_simakClifford Simak might have been a square. He once wrote, “My favorite recreation is fishing (the lazy way, lying in a boat and letting them come to me). Hobbies: Chess, stamp collecting, growing roses,” and every picture of him looks like the standard American Male from the 50s on his way to have his shoes shined and fight communism. But Simak gave us thought-provoking stories that still make me ponder and think.

He began publishing science fiction in the 30s, working regularly for editors like Hugo Gersnback and John w. Campbell. According to his friend, Isaac Asimov, Simak had a respectable “real” job, where he didn’t let on that he was a writer. (I hear there are still people who do that.)

He’s a foundational writer, to be sure, and what makes his work unique is his focus on ordinary, mid-western people. My favorite Simak story, The Big Front Yard, is about a country repairman who finds adorable aliens quietly fixing things in his basement. Rather than writing a Buck Rogers-esque hero, Simak tells us how an incredibly normal guy reacts to an amazing situation.

The Visitors is one of Simak’s last works, written in the 80s, and it gives an unusual take on alien invasion stories. After the opening chapters, the scenes start to become bare with little or (often) no scenery or setting described. Just a a page or two of exchanged dialog and then we’re off to the next chapter. You can almost picture it like a minimalist play, where characters step out onto a barely illuminated stage and say their lines in front of sparse props.

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Like this. With aliens.

At the start of the story, a fisherman encounters an alien craft when he reaches back to cast and his rod snaps in half against a big, black box hovering over the river. The box sucks him up, stares at him, and spits him back out. Then the visitor, which appears to be a life form rather than a ship, begins eating trees and leaving behind strange “cellulose” blocks. The people of earth stand dumbstruck as more silent Visitors descend, eat more trees, and eventually to leave behind offspring in the form of small black boxes.

The visitors never directly communicate in any way, but they do start to create gifts for the people of earth. Strange cars that fly are left behind, seemingly as gifts in exchange for all the trees the Visitors devour. Sadly, the crowds that rush to get the free flying cars become too dangerous and the gifts must be guarded by the military for the public’s safety. Next the Visitors create houses, all identical and a little too perfect. The sight of a shadow moving inside of one of these houses tells us that the Visitors have even replicated humans, and our protagonists have no idea what to make of this development.

As the story nears its end, it becomes clear to the reader that no end is in sight. One of the characters even admits as much, lamenting that their story won’t have a neat Hollywood ending to tie up the loose ends. At the final page, the story ends with some abruptness while our characters watch the situation grow beyond their comprehension and control.

The purpose of this story remained elusive for me until, near the end, one of the characters mentioned a piece of plot from the beginning of the book, something I had forgotten: before the visitors landed, one of our protagonists, a reporter, was on her way to investigate a situation on a Native American reserve. The puzzle began to take shape.

Flipping back, I remembered that the story began with a conversation at the barber’s about Native Americans trying to preserve forest land that companies wanted to use for lumber. Our protagonist thinks the trees should be left alone, at least for the pleasure of looking at them, while his barber thinks it’s unfair for the Native Americans to keep industry from growing. (It’s a brave man who disagrees with his barber.)

As we watch the DAPL fight unfold once again, I find Simak’s book useful. The Visitors may not have a simple, explicit point, but it does give the reader some small insight into the point of view of modern Native Americans. No matter what Simak’s aliens do to smooth things over, they can’t undo the damage done, even if they never meant any harm. Though we think of them as visitors, and even while they come bearing gifts, it becomes clear that these strange beings from the sky can’t help but be invaders.

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Relax and Unwind with A. K. Klemm’s Lily Hollow Novellas

andiA. K. Klemm’s Bookshop Hotel series will make you nostalgic for small-town America where everyone knows everyone’s business and nothing ever changes. This pair of novellas takes us to Lily Hollow, where our protagonist, AJ, opens up a bookstore that doubles as a hotel. Quirky townfolk invade the narrative, and AJ is always up to her short chin in local drama.

Both books reminded me of shows like Doc Martin or Northern Exposure, where friendly, colorful locals flood each scene with their idiosyncrasies. There’s a cranky woman running a book club who becomes obsessed with hats. An out-of-place teenager who hangs out with old people. Couples finding love well into their golden years. All of it wrapped up in charming dialog, similar to something out of Jojo Moyes.

While the setting is warm and wistful, the stories don’t lack for drama and conflict. What do you do when an estranged family member screws up your plans and moves in without asking? Or when a letter arrives on your doorstep from a lawyer who threatens to turn off your livelihood? How do you help the diner owner who suddenly can’t remember to turn on the ovens?

Klemm’s love for reading is evident throughout, as these stories are essentially love letters to her fellow bibliophiles. And what book-lover doesn’t enjoy a charming novella?

Readers can enjoy the debut, The Bookshop Hotel, and its sequel, Lily Hollow. A. K. Klemm promises that more Lily Hollow stories are on the horizon.

The Mountain of Kept Memory is the Escape You Need Right Now

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Rachel Neumeier’s books are always a pleasure, taking you down the sort of rabbit hole that begs you to clutch a warm cup of tea while the story carries you away.

Like much of Neumeier’s work, The Mountain of Kept Memory feature two leads, brother and sister in this case, who take turns with the narrative. Men and women coexisting without a romantic subtext is always a welcome feature to me. Perhaps this is because I’ve always made friends easily with women. Or maybe I’ve just had enough with romance stories. I tend to roll my eyes when an adventure story introduces a love interest, because it invariably slows down the actual plot, but when men and women meet in a Neumeier story I have come to expect an interesting relationship.

Against a familiar backdrop (a medieval-esque fantasy world on the brink of war) we meet a pair of brave characters who turn out to be a lot of fun. Princess Oressa is a grown woman who enjoys sneaking around her father’s palace, climbing the outer walls, and eavesdropping on important meetings. (Exactly the sort of subtle trickery I would enjoy if I wasn’t a clumsy, 6’6″ monolith who couldn’t sneak past a cactus.) Shy Oressa turns out to be terribly clever, while her outspoken brother is a natural leader. They make quite a team.

The opening lines made me smile:

Oressa, curled beneath her father’s throne, her arms wrapped around her knees and her knees tucked up tight to her chest, was precariously hidden behind generous falls of the saffron-dyed silk draped over the seat and back of the throne. This sort of thing had been easier when she’d been twelve. Or even sixteen. Now that she was a woman grown, she had to work much harder to stay out of sight.

To save their country from war, Oressa and her brother explore the eponymous Mountain of Kept Memory to learn the secrets of the dead gods. They find, instead, a cache of ancient technology and a pile of confounding mysteries. The war grows more fierce while the mysteries deepen, forcing our pair of protagonists into a dangerous race for answers.

While the story is satisfyingly dramatic and exciting, it is also a lot of fun. I laughed at Oressa’s attempts to understand men, and felt a kind of sympathy with her brother when he realizes, once again, that his sister has found a new way to complicate his life. And I kept turning pages hoping to understand the ancient puzzle they had uncovered.

The calm reprieve provided by The Mountain of Kept Memory has been much appreciated. It seems I cannot get through five minutes of my day without enduring caustic, political rhetoric. I don’t know about you, but that kind of talk makes me weary, makes me want to leave the planet. This escapist adventure was exactly what I needed.

Forgotten Books: Frank Herbert’s ‘Whipping Star’ is Bizarre Experience

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that expected me to learn so much in so little time.

I found my co13437226_277048829312635_1009455740_npy amidst old volumes in a used bookstore. I’d never heard of it. This copy tore itself apart as I read, because the simple act of turning a page was enough to fragment the stiff paper. It held itself together just long enough for me get to the end. By that time, the final sections were barely bound, with the preceding pages having fallen out as the spine progressively withered.

The plot is intense. Our protagonists approach an alien sphere, interact with the most mysterious creature in the known universe, and learn that every life in the galaxy is about to die–all of this at the very start. Like drinking from a fire hose, we crash into the rest of the setting as the plot unfolds, meeting fascinating aliens and intricate political situations only long enough to know they exist before Frank Herbert rushes us to the next baffling sentence.

iO9 explains it as well as one can:

Herbert’s Whipping Star takes place in the far future after humanity has made contact with several other extraterrestrial civilizations. Together, they form the ConSentiency — a kind of intergalactic government akin to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. But this system proves to be too efficient for its own good, enacting knee-jerk laws that disregard their own downstream consequences. In turn, a shadow organization is created to disrupt the system and slow it down.

The Whipping Star universe appears to be as well thought-out as any sprawling sci-fi series, but this enormous story has been crammed into a tiny paperback. The world-building is as engrossing as it is overwhelming. The plot moves at breakneck speed, with nearly surreal details that often made me stop and wonder if I understood what was going on. As another blogger so well put it:

Frank Herbert had an imagination quite out of this world, and this is perhaps his weirdest whim. The one Caleban left is called Fanny Mae – seriously – and she is the manifestation of a star – a sun. And what she manifests as is an enormous beach ball.

That’s just one piece of the insane puzzle.

Another facet provided by Wikipedia:

Fannie Mae agreed to the contract with Abnethe in return for education. Calebans have great difficulty understanding and communicating with the more limited species of the ConSentiency (and vice versa), but Fannie Mae is curious. Abnethe’s wealth provides the best tutors in exchange for Fannie Mae’s agreement to take the whippings. Abnethe has an insane sadistic streak, but a court-mandated Clockwork-Orange-style conditioning session leaves her unable to tolerate the suffering of others. Abnethe needs a Caleban to take the whippings because she still craves a way to satisfy her sadistic urges and Calebans do not broadcast their pain in a way that is easily recognized by other species.

Still, I loved it. And I’m not alone, based on reviews I’ve read. It’s a plot so complex Tolkien couldn’t follow it, but the blinding, bizarre narrative is compelling to the last word.