Sunday, January 23, 2011

Great Books for Writers

I’ve been reading books about writing for three decades, and each in their own way has been helpful. Two of the more memorable ones during that first decade were The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. As I began to focus on mysteries, my how-to collection expanded to Writing the Novel From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block and How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz.

From there, I went on to Writers’ Digest’s collection of how-to books covering everything from scene of crime, to poisons, to weapons, bones, PIs, and police procedure. I’ve read Forensics for Dummies by D.P. Lyle, more books on writing mysteries by Michael Seidman, G. Miki Hayden, and Hallie Ephron. And of course, there were the punctuation and grammar books, including two favorites: Elements of Style by Strunk & White and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.

So, when a colleague recommended Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing, I had to give it a try. This book, isn’t a step-by-step, how-to guide, but rather a thoughtful collection of essays mixed with interview segments about the act of writing, being a writer, and the all important—but often overlooked—preparation for writing. With more than forty years of writing and publishing experience, author Betsy Warland discusses this topic with a depth I’ve rarely heard before.

Some of her topics might seem mundane, such as pencils, tables, and computers, but there are much more to these topics than meets the eye, and that’s really what the book is about. Digging deeper into the act of writing; thinking about what one is doing, and why; pondering what works and what doesn’t in your own work, and how problem areas might be solved.

This is one of those books that you’ll want to pick up repeatedly as you work on your prose and poetry. Warland clearly identifies common problems, such as what she calls billboarding: writing unnecessary and intrusive commentary, or scaffolding: the necessary writing during initial drafts to build narrative, but which writers often forget or refuse to remove during revision. A couple of essays were a little obscure, or perhaps too complex, for me to fully understand and digest on the first read. Still, I leaned so much that I highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about writing well.

Not surprisingly, Warland has her favorite writing books as well, including Aspect of the Novel by E.M. Forster, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brand and A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. It seems I still have some reading to do. So, tell me, what are some of your favorite books on writing?

Coming in March 2011, THE OPPOSITE OF DARK,

My Alex Bellamy mysteries can be purchased at

1 comment:

Marian Perera said...

I've got How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz - it's a rather battered copy, but I think the book's out-of-print, so it's all the more valuable to me. The information of publishing probably needs updating, but the advice on writing is still quite timely.