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Sunday, April 18, 2010


I was avoiding cleaning the bathroom (hey, someone's got to do it) by surfing. I hit my usual spots, fashion, perfume, Amazon, and of course Consult the Editor. I know all the contributors, some of them I know for quite a while. It was not surprising that I could identify them by their voice without looking at the name.

But it reminded me of a tip I learned about writing. Blogs make for great stepping stones. Just as the short story used to serve novelists, so blogs can kick off a career. They are great for practicing and building a style and voice. Each post can be tailored to the blog it serves to learn how to reach an audience.

We can be sloppy in journals. Books that provide exercises can be dangerous since they can fool us into thinking we are writing. But blogs count. People might read them. These paragraphs are a great way to hone skills. I believe blogs are equal to personal essays such as those published on the op-ed page or Modern Love in the NYTimes, and should be written and rewritten until the piece is perfect, not spit blogs out.

If I were following my own advice I wouldn't be posting this without more attention to detail, but the cleaning is waiting. I can rationalize that I make my living as an editor. But you writers out there, think about how many people are exposed to your work in one post. Then blog on.

Friday, April 16, 2010

More Good Books for Writers

Building on Sandi's recent posting and my last one, here are four excellent books on writing fiction that I frequently recommend to novelists.

Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. Clear, practical discussions and exercises for novelists, with plenty of examples. After you've done as much work on your book as you think you can, pick up a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and do the exercises from beginning to end. I'd bet money that you'll find a way to make your novel more compelling in any number of ways.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. One of the best books I've ever come across on the mechanics of plot and structure and how they interact. Extremely user-friendly.

Gotham Writers' Workshop: Writing Fiction. Each chapter in this book has been written by a different Gotham Writers' Workshop faculty member and covers a particular element of the novel--plot, character, theme, point of view, and the like. What makes this book one of my favorites: Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral" is included in its entirety in an appendix, and is referred to repeatedly throughout the book in order to demonstrate various concepts.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


which means educational objects,such as coins or tools used by a teacher to illustrate every day living. In philosophy, things that are real.

It is also the title for a book just out by Marion Roach Smith who teaches a class called "Writng What You Know." The book explores the craft of memoir. Best book on writing non fiction I have ever read.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

If a picture is worth a thousand words...

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an example is worth... I'm not sure, but a lot. In any case, here are a few of the books I frequently recommend as particularly good examples of one literary challenge or another.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Building tension. Chaon is a master at ratcheting up the tension with practically every scene in the book, and at weaving together the strands of this unnerving story.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Spare prose creating an emotional response in the reader. I use this compact novel to illustrate how a first-person narrator can evoke great emotion in a reader (namely me) without being the slightest bit emotional himself. The writing is tightly controlled; the voice is pitch perfect.

Hiding Places by Daniel Asa Rose. Pinpointing the organizing principle of a memoir. One of the daunting challenges faced by this author was figuring out a way to thematically link the facts of his own Connecticut childhood with the larger story of his family's escape from the Holocaust. He succeeds brilliantly in finding a framework through which we can see the connections.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Second-person narration. Hamid fully succeeds at the difficult task of writing an entire novel in the second person without being annoying. The plot strays just a bit at one point, but I'm so impressed with the second-person narration that I don't care.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Ambitious scope of story. Wroblewski is not afraid to tackle big themes in his beautifully written novel, and the world he creates is large and deep and rich enough to support his undertaking.

Of course there are plenty of great books that could be added to this list under these and other categories, but I'll stop there for now.