A book fair opened last weekend in my town. I can't believe I actually kept within my budget. One of the best bargains I got was The Pocket Muse, by Monica Wood. I haven't read any of her other works, but I liked that it was hard-bound and heavy with thin glossy pages, compact but with excellent content.
I'd say my family has a decent stock of "how to write" books: The Writer's Path, The Writer's Block (very cute, cubical book of prompts,) The Observation Deck... but, they haven't all helped me much. They give vague advice about the philosophy of writing, like "explore the underside" that I either already knew or is explained too blandly or aphoristically for me to understand. Or, some have exercises like "write in sentence fragments and then expand it into a story" which is fun but I don't see why it's helpful. The prompts... I feel are only really interesting if I can read what other people have done with the same prompt.
My favorite of the collection is Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic. I loved Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales had such clever twists, but the style comes off a little clunky to me. Still, she has a lot of heart and the instructions come through with unparalleled clarity: exactly why characters ought to have both flaws and virtues, how an exercise with sentence fragments can show change in narrative voice and/or get to the bare essentials of a scene before the writer expands it-- things like that.
Many of these prompts were a lot more inspiring because they connected directly to the exercise, but weren't so vague. I love those kinds of prompts, with random requirements more than airy philosophies... "Write a romance, set in prison. Make an allusion to Titus Andronicus." beats "Exercise these tips mentioned to illustrate abstracts by writing about an unrequited love." any day, to me.
Now, actually, it's my second favorite.
The Pocket Muse comes with both the blander variety of prompts, but also...
tips on style, honing in on grammatical devices to improve writing
as well as some... non-grammatical stylistic suggestions,One way to enliven your prose is to avoid the use of the verb to be: am, are, is, was, were, etc. Very often you can trace a dull passage to the overuse of that pesky verb. Look at these two examples:
Eliminating the verb to be forces you to think about your method of expression, often yielding a more poetic and precise passage:
insights on how stories work,(A)pply highlighters in different colors to diagnose possible problems (in a piece):
Highlight abstract language ("she loved him/ with heart and soul") in pink; concerete language ("she counted his eyelashes/ numbered the knobs of his spine") in orange.
Too much pink... is the poem lazy, cliched, too generalized to imply very much?
Too much orange... There's no such thing as too much orange.
insights on how writers work,Do not confuse situation with complication!
For example, one student story I seem to see over and again concerns the depressed character considering a suicide. Even if the character is holding the gleaming gun to his sweaty forehead, this is not a complication. This is a situation. The situation might be tense or dramatic, but it... offers the story no egress.
What if the depressed person holding a gun to his head gets a phone call-- a wrong number? What if the [caller] is herself a person in trouble? What if she demands something of the depressed person?
Bingo, we're writing again. A good complication forces the character to act.
quotes from famous authors, "notes from the road" or experiences of published writers to brace those on the verge of publication, but also prompts for those just scribbling for our spirit.I possessed that stubborn, blind, lazy refusal so common in beginning writers: the refusal to complete our apprenticeship. The refusal to let time enrich our experience, our understanding of craft, our ability to see connections. The refusal to believe that early work is practice work, work that will lead us, if we continue to write, to the real work.
A writer's apprenticeship usually lasts ten years. That's ten years between the first serious word and the first published word. This pronouncement seems to horrify twenty-year-olds, who have boatloads of time, more than it horrifies forty-year-olds.
Respect your apprenticeship.
So, just blogging about this to say "highly recommended."
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