Category Archives: writing craft books

Creativity for Artists: Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (published in 1929)

Book Review and Commentary   April 11, 2017

 

“Rodin lived inside his art.”

First, this book  is not about poetry. If you are an artist,  novelist, sculptor, painter or poet, or creative nonfiction writer then you probably have had moments, perhaps even weeks or months, when you entered a period of despondency and thought “What is this all for? Why bother? Maybe I should give up.” Art and struggle go hand and hand for most of us. You’ve probably read all the pep blogs about following your passion and keeping the faith, recognizing the common Van Gogh blues, blah, blah, blah.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke tell us that the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin “lived inside his art.” Who cannot look at  The Thinker and not ruminate with him. Rodin and Rilke were the deepest of friends and comrades in creativity.

 

Whatever kind of artist you are, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a voice worth listening to.  The letters were written in the early 1900s when Rilke was about 30 years old. He wrote ten letters to a young poet named  Franz Kappus, offering not only advice and  inspiration, but a philosophy on how to cultivate the creative spirit and be true to yourself and your art.

Rilke’s book is such a refreshing look at why a person writes  or creates art at all. He addresses doubt, loneliness vs solitude, nature, love, patience, demons and dreams,  absolute conviction, and passion. This is probably one of the most impressive of books I’ve read on this subject. The thoughts in this little 100-page book is a true source and one to keep on the night stand. I love to open a page at random and see what Rilke has to say to me for the day. Page 61 told me that “We must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance.”

This book is for any artist who wants validation to soldier on and  inspiration on how to live as an artist.

[This edition was translated by Joan M. Burnham, published by New World Library, 2000, ISBN 1-57731-155-8]

In you are fascinated by Rilke and want more of his insights about his life as an artist, you would probably enjoy You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett. This is the biographical story of Rilke and the artist Auguste Rodin, their friendship, their heartbreaking rift, and the reconciliation.  Unforgettable portraits of both creative masters.

REVIEW: “Much more than the story of Rilke as a young man serving as the personal secretary and confidante to Rodin. Laced with first-and second-hand accounts of the artists and their milieu, You Must Change Your Life is an examination of the gritty how and why of artistic creation, as well as an acknowledgement of the costs of such a life.” (Sarah Roffino – Brooklyn Rail)

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My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.

Mystery and Manners, The Nature and Aim of Fiction  by Flannery O’Connor (book review here).

How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career by James Scott Bell (book review here)

Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest
(book review here) 

Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee  (book review here)

The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)

How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Editor Brunello and Lencek  (book review here)

Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)

More Craft Books I’ve Read and Recommend:

Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps StructureSteven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay

Comments are welcome.

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Filed under Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction Writing, literature, Reading Fiction, short stories, short story blogs, writing craft books

Mystery and Manners, The Nature and Aim of Fiction

Mystery and Manners, The Nature and Aim of Fiction  by Flannery O’Connor

Review and Commentary,    February 20, 2017

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How does a writer write? Flannery O’Connor addresses this question in her  essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction. O’Connor’s grasp of writing is 5-star quality. In her short 39 years, she wrote 2 novels , essay, reviews, and  dozens of award-winning short stories.

O’Connor demands intelligence but also art. She says, “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.” So, we are left to understand that the meaning of a story must be embodied inside it. Clearly, we must experience the meaning of the story, not just state or label it.

The guidance in this essay is aimed at “story-writing” and offers precise insights about the creative process. No techniques here, O’Connor instructs that stories are organic and grow out of the material. If you are a seasoned writer, or a new one, this essay is a fast read and full of writing wisdom. I like her thoughts about “incarnational art” and the “process of understanding.”

She devotes a whole paragraph to “anagogical vision.” Curious about what that is and how it can affect your writing? Do you know how  “dramatic unity” functions in a story? These 10 pages are invaluable!

We all like to think that our fiction writing is an escape from reality with our fictional characters and fantasy worlds. Think again, says, O’Connor: “Writing fiction is a plunge into reality and very shocking to the system.” She reminds us that competence by itself is deadly. “What is needed is the vision to go with it.”

 “One thing that is always with the writer—no matter how long he has written or how good he is—

is the continuing process of learning how to write.”

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Provoke your writing! You can read the full essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction below (pdf).

The Nature and Aim of Fiction – Salem State University

Experience her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

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My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.


How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career 
by James Scott Bell (book review here)

Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest
(book review here) 

Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee  (book review here)

The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)

How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Editor Brunello and Lencek  (book review here)

Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)

More Craft Books I’ve Read and Recommend:

Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps StructureSteven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay

Comments are welcome.

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5 Comments

Filed under fiction, Reading Fiction, short stories, short story blogs, writing craft books

How to Write Short Stories & Use Them to Further Your Writing Career by James Scott Bell

How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell

Book Review and Commentary   November 15, 2016

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“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

Edgar Allan Poe

I love short stories and have been reading at least one a week for the past 4 years for this blog and for years before that. A short story is a great lunch companion, especially if you are reading some of the great flash fiction that’s out there these days. Did you ever wonder who wrote the first short story? Scheherazade and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, right? I suppose some might say the Bible were the first stories. Others claim Sir Walter Scott’s  The Two Drovers published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827 was the official  first short story published.

But what are the elements of a good short story?  I’ve been writing short stories and novels for some 20 years, and creatively speaking they demand the same skills and practice for storytelling and characterization.  A short story traditionally focuses on one incident,  a single plot, a single setting, often limited to a few characters, and proceeds over a short period of time. At its core, it produces a single narrative effect and that’s why it works so well with an afternoon pot of  tea and a tuna sandwich.

For readers,  we want drama, suspense, a unified impression, vivid sensations, action, climax, thrilling characters, and a satisfactory resolution. And we want it in one sitting and in less than 6000 words. This is not a small achievement! How does a writer do it? Lots of hard work and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

Author Kurt Vonnegut offers eight essential tips on how to write a short story:

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

But this really doesn’t give you enough if you are a  new to writing short fiction or struggling to be a successful short story writer out there in the highly competitive publishing market.  And I can tell you from experience, becoming a short story writer has just as many challenges and obstacles as becoming a novelist. These days, writing the story is one side of the work; then there’s the “getting it published” or marketing it yourself.

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Fortunately, James Scott Bell has written a book that addresses both writing and marketing. This book will grow your writing skills on voice and POV, give you the keys to make your reader feel the characters in your story, and the discover the best structure for short fiction.  How do you find your story? Need a road map? Bell has got it for you. And once you get your story written, Bell gives you tips on getting it edited, into a professional electronic format, with book cover. And he identifies publications submission options as well as advice on getting it up on Amazon.com if you choose to self-publish. The beauty of this book is that it gives you the full distance, from start-up to writing down the bones and to getting it to readers.

Bell uses examples from the best writers (Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Stephen King, and many others) and gives you 5 excellent short stories to read to set the bar for you. One big disappointment, though, in this book is that Bell didn’t spot a single female author in all his examples and writing samples.  Our literary world is loaded with talented and smart women writers. Why was there no mention of Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Daphne du Maurier,  Joyce Carol Oates, Kate Chopin, Kelly Link, Mary Shelley, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf (some of whose short stories can be found here on this blog site via the index).

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James Scott Bell is an award-winning (Christy Award) best-selling author of seven thrillers, and several writing craft books: Voice, the Power of Great Writing; Super Structure; Just Write; The Mental Game of Writing; and more.

 

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My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.

Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest
(book review here) 
Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee  (book review here)
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane        Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)
How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration,
Editor Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek  (book review here)

Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)

Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps StructureSteven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay

Comments are welcome, please!

10 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, crime stories, fiction, Fiction Writing, horror blogs, mysteries, Reading Fiction, short stories, short story blogs, suspense, tales of terror, writing craft books

Creating Characters, The Complete Guide

Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction

From the Editors of Writer’s Digest, Foreword by Steven James

Book Review and Commentary   September 27, 2016

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“Because the character is in the plot, and the plot is in the character.” Wise words from Steven James in his foreword , a national bestselling novelist, with a Master’s Degree in Storytelling, and writing instructor for over 20 years. Good writers are always looking for the best tools to use to develop characters.  In Creating Characters, you’ll learn all kinds of tips and insights from a variety of experienced authors.

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What I liked best about this writing craft book is the variety of approaches to character development. This is not just one teacher’s view, nor one way to build your characters. We have over 20 authors’ advice.  A treasure.

Screenwriter and novelist Chuck Wendig gives you “25 Things You Should Know about Character.” How the character is your vehicle through the plot, finding the 3 beats for your character, finding the darkness inside, and more.

Novelist Joseph Bates discusses how  external motivation and internal motivation achieves the conflict for suspense.

Having some troubles with Point of View? Nancy Kress, author of 33 books, covers first person to third to omniscient POV and describes each in easy detail. This is critical in character development to get the right POV.

Do your characters know the difference between profanity, swearing, and vulgarisms? There are skills in handling all. Elizabeth Sims, prize-winning novelist knows first hand. I found this chapter very insightful.

James Scott Bell, best-selling suspense writer has got you covered on how to “Relate to Readers with a Lead Character.” How do you build sympathy for your character? There are 4 ways. How do you hook the reader on the first page? What are the rules for successful exposition? Bell has 3 you need to know and “do the iceberg” is one of them. I really loved this–so clear!

Literary agent Donald Maass will tell you what you need to know about creating a powerful three-dimensional villain that can also sway  readers’ hearts.

Award-winning author and novelist David Corbett will show you how to “Push Your Character to the Limits.” His pages on the role of contradictions is five-star. Jungian psychology, the Shadow, and subtext.

What about character arc? Oh this one  has 4 veteran authors showing you the path:  Joseph Bates, James Scott Bell, Jeff Gerke, Jack Smith. Everything from creating the character arc, to the arc within plot, to that critical moment of truth, and how to rethink the characterization using the direct method and the indirect method.

Highly recommended writing book, and I think good reading material before you start that next novel.

 

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My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.

Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee  (book review here)
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane        Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)
How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration,
Editor Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek  (book review here)
Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)

Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps StructureSteven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay

Comments are welcome, please!

10 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, fiction, horror blogs, short stories, writing craft books