Best Books On Writing Well

ppp_prd_087_3d_people-cooperationOne of my workshop students recently asked me to recommend some books to him to help nurture his writing craft.  These are the ones I suggested: William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL; Strunk’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE; and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.  I don’t think any writer needs any other writing reference book.  And as much as these books will help (and they will), the most important thing toward developing your craft, of course, is to write every day.  Getting yourself into an excellent writing workshop environment is also invaluable — as with any field, having a mentor to help you along accelerates your development in whatever your chosen field.

Book Coach Ripoff

I recently stumbled across the “book coach” industry, in which individuals with certain marketing backgrounds charge a lot of thousands of dollars to help writers publish (usually self-publish) their works.  It seems that book coaches advise with respect to brand and marketing, and they counsel and/or edit and/or ghostwrite (for extra fees) as well.  They advise on website development in support of the book, oversee the self-publishing and printing process, and some also appear to promise introductions of their writers to literary agents and publishers.  The amount of money these folks get seems to be rather astounding, considering the mostly marketing advice they dole out — most of which is available online, for free, to diligent and determined writers.  Save your money on book coaches.  Generally, you can find better writing advice at any number of writing workshops; if your book is good, and you’re diligent, you can secure a literary agent; and, if you really need help, you can hire an excellent ghostwriter for less than some of these book coaches charge.  Moreover, if Amazon’s self-publishing procedures overwhelm you, just retain their CreateSpace service, and they’ll do it all for you.

Of course, there are also a few brilliant individuals who offer one-stop-shopping writing workshop and editing services, along with literary representation, to excellent writers.  And they charge a lot less!  (hint, hint)

On Likable Psychopaths

In fiction, generally, your protagonist should be likable.  You want to draw your readers into his or her drama.  No one’s really driven to follow or care about a character for whom they have no sympathy.  In most cases, your readers have to root for your protagonist.  A totally depraved protagonist, for example, is not inherently appealing — unless, of course, the author offers an appropriate context for a protagonist’s repulsiveness or antisocial behavior.  Dexter is a terrific example of a sympathetic, yet antisocial, protagonist — a charming serial killer with a certain moral code.

Even Hannibal Lector has a peculiar charm.  We follow a protagonist like that because he fascinates us — he has a twisted sort of a “likability quotient,” but an appeal nonetheless.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, perhaps, features an unlikable protagonist, but we read because we know he’s going to get his comeuppance.  Even Holden Caulfield isn’t especially likable, but there’s that slim chance there that he might win at the end.  Nevertheless, it’s a razor’s edge: it becomes impossible to keep a reader involved in your story when he or she has turned on the protagonist.

You can have a killer be sympathetic, of course, but then you need to carefully set forth his moral reasoning and logic.  Moreover, this has to be plausible and effective enough for your readers to buy into it.  Most of us don’t root for straight-up psychopaths.

Prefacing Dialogue With Thoughts

I often encourage writers to improve their passages of dialogue, whether in fiction or memoir, through the judicious use of a character’s internal thoughts or environmental descriptions.  Often these brief asides that precede a quote add contrast to what’s said, advance characterization, or simply break up long chunks of dialogue.  However, you can also overdo this.  Constant references to either internal thoughts or environmental descriptions that precede almost every line of dialogue are distracting.  I’m a big fan of the well-considered use of such references – in fact, they’re an essential ingredient to masterful writing – but you also should take care to not diminish the immediacy of the dialogue by interrupting too much to share such references.

Character Overload

Sometimes novelists, short story writers or memoirists make the mistake of introducing too many characters — specifically too many minor or walk-on characters — at the opening of their narratives.  Of course, more complex stories tend to rely on numerous characters.  Nevertheless, they each have to be ladled into the narrative soup, so to speak, at the appropriate times.  It’s one thing if an opening includes a walk-on character who will never reappear and is so obviously wallpaper — a waiter serving your two main characters, for example — but then don’t develop that waiter’s personality or “character.”  As readers, we’re looking from the first page to make an emotional connection to the protagonist and any other major character who appears at the start of the narrative.  Accordingly, we get confused, or even upset, when we connect to someone right from the top who we later find out will never reappear and didn’t really matter.  Establish your protagonist and your major characters first, and, in general, don’t crowd your opening pages with the development of other, less important, individuals.

When To Use Sentence Fragments

A sentence fragment is one that doesn’t contain both a verb and a noun – either of them are missing.  And, yes, they should be used, especially in dialogue.  Fragments add a certain conversational and informal tone to the narrative, and thus they’ll help to characterize your speakers.  Fragments are also very useful in narrative to highlight, emphasize or especially reinforce an important statement.  A fragment, when used effectively, adds pop, life or even lyricism to the writing style.  Still, you have to be careful not to overuse sentence fragments because they can easily become jarring or annoying — what’s “lyrical” with the judicious use of a sentence fragment becomes “atonal” if too many are used.

Executing Proper Points of View

A lot of writers seem to be confused about the proper use of point of view.  For example, in several new works I’ve read, the author, from a third-person perspective, “gets behind the eyes,” or gets into the interior thoughts, of any and every character in the manuscript.  But that’s not how a third-person point of view, whether limited or omniscient, is supposed to work.

Generally, a fiction writer will present his or her story from either the first-person, third-person limited or third-person omniscient point of view.  In a first-person point of view you can get into that character/storyteller’s mind.  In a third-person limited point of view, you can likewise get into that particular character’s mind — but, strictly, no one else’s.  Of course, you might have two strong protagonists and may want to structure your story from both of their points of view.  That can be done if you know what you’re doing, and if you intend to structure your story in that way.  The Harry Potter series is a good example of this approach.  The story is told mostly from Harry’s third-person limited perspective; at times, though, the limited point of view shifts to other characters — but, again, not every character.  In general, don’t give yourself free reign to just jump into several characters’ minds.  Especially don’t do it unintentionally.  The final, popularly used perspective is that of third person omniscient.  Here, you look down on all the action as if you were omniscient, and you can comment, somewhat objectively, in the detached voice of the author, on the characters or events that transpire.  But still, this doesn’t mean that you can get behind the eyes of any of the characters.  Dickens and a lot of older, classical novelists expertly structure their novels in the third-person omniscient point of view.

The adherence to strict point of view perspectives has become less important in newly published works.  As a general rule, though, it’s neither recommended nor considered acceptable to lurch back and forth into the minds of any characters that you choose.  Once you decide from which perspective you’ll present your story, stick to it.


Characters and Chit Chat

In an attempt to position dialogue as conversational, many writers fall into a trap of inserting throat-clearing words or expressions at the start of characters’ quotes.  All of these words, such as “well,” “uh,” “God,” “umm,” and “so,” among many other culprits, are familiar prompts in actual conversation but they often muddle what should be otherwise sharp narrative dialogue.  It’s fine, of course, to distinguish one of your characters with a tendency to speak with such mannerisms, but when several characters preface their comments with “Well . . . ” then you have a problem.  It can become difficult for readers to distinguish between characters when each of them start their sentences in similar ways.  More to the point, the otherwise unintentional inclusion of meaningless words at the opening of quoted dialogue doesn’t make the narrative appear to be conversational — it makes it distracting, burdensome and slow.  Unless you intend to intentionally use such throat-clearing to stylize one or two characters, it’s better to cut these empty words out of your quotes.

The Right Title For Your Book

Creating the right title for your novel or nonfiction work is critical.  It not only should communicate what your story is about but it ought to catch the eye of the reader, and, more importantly, the agent or editor you’re trying to solicit.   I always found that the best titles have double or even triple meanings.  Take SWEET DATES IN BASRA, by Jessica Jiji.  Her novel is a story about a Jewish boy who falls in love with a Muslim girl in idyllic, 1940s Basra, Iraq.  This title works on several levels: 1. From a literal perspective, the dates — the actual fruits — from Basra were among the sweetest in Iraq; 2. From a poetic, sentimental perspective, the title reflects a lost Iraq that no longer exists, e.g., the sweet dates of the protagonist’s youth; and 3. From a narrative perspective, the sweet dates represent the very few times these two lovers had a chance to meet.  That’s a literary trifecta!

How Much Is Too Much Dialogue?

There’s nothing wrong with too much dialogue in a novel, per se, but, if not well written, at times it causes the flow of the story to lag.  When employing long sections of dialogue, it’s important to be sure not to be repetitive or to include chitchat.  Try to avoid the sorts of banal conversations that are realistic in life but not necessarily scintillating in literature.  Good writer effectively sets off important comments by preceding them with expository paragraphs or internal thoughts.  For example, if a character says that it “would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here,” have him muse for a bit about them, or about their mother.  Perhaps there’s a contradiction in his character that can be exposed in this way?  Here’s the right way and wrong way to do it:

  • Jill wished she could see Jack.  “It would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here.”  OR –
  • Uncomfortable?  No, Jill thought, it’s you who’s uncomfortable.  It’s not so much that she was dying to see Jack and Sally, it’s more that she was dying — period.  And she was pissed that Michael couldn’t deal with it.   “It would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here.”

The first example is what not to do – you don’t want to be repetitive and have the sentiment in the expository writing or the internal thought to be repeated in the quote.  Rather, as in the second example, use the opportunity to (1) break up a longish string dialogue and thus keep the reader focused; and (2) add complexity to the character by highlighting contradictions.

How To Write a Thriller

I had an opportunity recently to chat with a fellow writer about the elements of a terrific thriller.  We  both agreed on the following points, and that all of these ought to be present:

Get right into the action, and explain later what happened and why; make sure the structure incorporates cliffhangers, a race against time, and danger always lurking near the protagonist; give the protagonist the initiative to solve the problem; make sure the protagonist’s personal stakes are high; make your protagonist plausible and heroic, but not a superhero; and outline very carefully before you start to write.  Of course, as with all great writing, each sentence should be exquisitely written.  The joy of thriller writing is found not only in suspenseful plot but also in the beauty of words in perfect context.

Whether to Write Memoir or Fiction?

Have been thinking a lot lately about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of writing a memoir or novel.  If your story is peculiar or infamous — for example, if your experience is war-related or concerns a particularly unusual health challenge — memoir is the way the go.  The reason, of course, is that readers will specifically want to learn what it was like to be a prisoner of war, or what it was like to undergo some 60 operations and organ transplants.  They don’t necessarily seek someone’s imaginative narrative in this regard.  But what if your unique story isn’t especially dramatic?  What if the scope of your circumstances are relatively banal and concern such issues as religious conversion, or family strife, or dating pratfalls?  While such generalized experiences can certainly be the building blocks of a terrific memoir, they also provide inspiration for gripping fiction.  The advantage of fiction, here, is that the author has greater freedom to build tension and structure the events from the most effective literary perspective.  Conversely, the writer’s ability to tell is relatively hamstrung in memoir — things happened as they happened, and no one’s real life takes an ideal fictional arc.  Instead, we have ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and “what actually happened” doesn’t always make for scintillating literature.

Another consideration: as tough as the U.S. publishing market is for fiction, it’s a lot more challenging for memoirs by relatively unknown authors.  So unless you’ve hit a million Twitter followers, fiction may present the most marketable opportunity for your story.

When To Use Real Names in Memoirs

A talented student-memoirist asked recently whether he should identify characters in his memoir by their real names.  There’s no simple answer, but at the drafting stage of your memoir writing go ahead and use real names. Having the actual person in mind will greatly assist with your characterization and storytelling.  However, this question of true identity is one that any memoirist will need to revisit with a publisher once he or she secures a publishing contract.  The most important thing, of course, is not to libel anyone in your manuscript. Also, if applicable, you’d definitely want to change someone’s name if there are moral concerns (e.g., if someone was raped, etc.). A final concern is that in some states, such as California, individuals have a legal right to publicity. That means you may need their permission if you identify them in a book (unless they’re a public figure).

Use the Right Verb!

Verbs are to literature as vitamins are to good health.  The right verb is the most critical part of any sentence – that’s what will communicate urgency and strength.  If a writer fails to use the right verb, and especially if he or she overly relies on “to be” and its conjugations, that writer will tend toward an overuse of adverbs (the literary equivalent of junk food) in an attempt to add urgency and power to the narrative.  Adverbs, past perfect tense and emphases such as exclamation points weaken powerful writing.  As a general rule try to discipline your craft by using “–ly” adverbs only when you absolutely must.

The Proper Use of Prologues

We reviewed a couple of prologues and first chapters in our workshop this past week.  One prologue was grounded in an event that occured long before the story opens in chapter one; the other concerned an episode that would be revisited in the future, in subsequent chapters in that respective manuscript.  This second prologue was designed as more of an overture — an exciting vignette to wet the reader’s appetite for what would come.  Both were expertly written, but the former prologue was more effective.  In general, if you’re going to use a prologue at all, make sure it describes an episode that takes place at time before the reader enters the story in chapter one.  Ideally, it should concern a main character — but not THE main character — and it should impart certain information that will assist the reader to better understand the acts or character of the protagonist as the reader moves deeper into the manuscript.

Embodied Writers at Naropa University

I spent a few days recently at Naropa University, researching my new book FINDING BUDDHA IN AMERICA, and was very impressed with the writing program they run there through the well known Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics.  The school attracts not just Buddhists but experimental writers, and their four-week, highly regarding Summer Writing Program featured readings and performances by Anne Waldman, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), Amiri Bakara and Laurie Anderson.  Have to say I was most impressed with Anne Waldman, a well-known poet, Vajryana Buddhist, and co-founder of the school.  Her muscular poetry, set to music performed by her son, Ambrose Bye, reminded me of something that Jim Morrison of The Doors might be doing if he hadn’t become disembodied back in 1971.  Very cool stuff out there in Boulder, Colorado.

Foreshadowing in Novels

Foreshadowing is a very important literary device in which crucial future events, or sometimes characters, are introduced early in a story in an indistinct or nonchalant way.  You don’t want to make it too obvious — you don’t want to give away the clues to your mystery or otherwise spoil the suspense.  Rather, foreshadowing can be useful to introduce either a character who becomes critical in a later scene, or a setting or circumstance that you will return to later on.  Basically, foreshadowing is the technique by which you introduce a minor thing that will become a major thing.  When executed properly, that major thing will not come as a surprise or appear to be a crutch, because, in an unrelated context, you’ve already presented that character/setting/circumstance to the reader.  Foreshadowing promotes suspense and page-turning.  And also trust from your readers.

How to Write a Memoir

We’ve had a lot of interest in our workshops recently in memoir writing.  Because of the well known memoir-related scandals in years past (think James Frey, Margaret Jones, Greg Mortenson), some publishers either have shied away from such works, or demand a lot of documentary evidence that the episodes described actually happened.  Still, there’s a market for the unique and fascinating memoir, and it can be among the most natural first works for new authors to tackle.  One pitfall many writers run into, however, is in deciding which life events to describe, and which ones to leave out.  Some writers don’t leave anything out — and that’s a problem, because what’s fascinating to the memoirist may not be all that interesting to a third-party reader.  Moreover, too much information can lead to a meandering narrative and diminish the punch that the writer aims to deliver at the end of each respective chapter.  A memoir, in structure, ought to somewhat resemble a novel — there needs to be a narrative arc, characterization must be developed, the reader should get hooked early in the story, tension and suspense must not be dissipated, and you’ve got to communicate a sense of emotional depth.  Not everything that happened to the memoirist will contribute to a successful memoir, from a literary point of view.  Therefore, it’s important to recognize what to include, what to reduce, and how to arrange all the pieces of your experience to share with readers what we all want from a good book — universal truths to which we all can relate.


The Importance of Courage to Writers

I sometimes advise my students and authors that, to be a good or great writer, it’s more important to live with courage everyday than it is to even write everyday.  Here’s a particularly profound example of this, from this week’s New Yorker magazine interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia:

Natalia lived her life with Solzhenitsyn as if in a foxhole: the foxhole of persecution in Moscow, and the foxhole of isolation and common purpose in the US. During their years (of exile) in America, 1976 to 1994, in the remote town of Cavendish, Vermont … Alexander barely left the property. He worked. And she worked alongside him, an integral part of his creative process. All the while, Solzhenitsyn believed that the Soviet Union would collapse and that he would return home. “In 1979, when the Soviet war in Afghanistan began, some of our friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg were arrested, and a new darkness descended in the Soviet Union,” Natalia said. “Even then, Alexander would say, apologetically, even as we were discussing where he would be buried in the West, ‘You are right: I can see no fact that supports any notion of my returning home. And yet, while I’m not trying to be prophetic, I also know that I will return. I see it.'” In 1994, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, and spent his last years in a house in the woods outside Moscow. He worked until the final days of his life.

Too Many Flashbacks

In recent workshops I’ve been seeing a lot of flashbacks in my submissions.  Nothing wrong with flashbacks but they have to be judiciously used, and typically only to illustrate a character’s history.  They should be short.  They have to be dramatized (shown, not told), and they have to contribute something to the forward movement of the narrative.  In other words, flashbacks are nothing more than spice to the meat of your story.  Too many flashbacks, too many long flashbacks, and too many appearing early on are signs that you’ve entered the story at the wrong time.