Swag Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

On WritingI’m not the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, and I don’t write novel-length horror, so I wasn’t sure how useful I would find the much-lauded On Writing.  But it had been recommended to me countless times so I figured I’d get around to it some day.  Then the inestimable M Elizabeth Tait got me a copy for my birthday and I was plumb out of excuses.

This book was not what I was expecting.  Part memoir, part craft treatise, On Writing really hit that sweet spot for me between narrative and technical.  It skirted right between being a grammar book- which I love and own zillions of- and being a biography- which I love and own zillions of.  Both engaging and informative, heaven help me, I was hooked. *melts*

The book is split into three sections, but the first and last are both pretty autobiographical, so I’ll lump those together.

 

Memoir

Not sure how I missed the whopping huge hint in the subtitle, but I was not expecting a memoir!  Go figure!  This part was wonderful, particularly his childhood.  A little sad, a little funny, I found a lot to relate to.  There were struggles I’d never had, and other struggles lacking that I’d known, but it felt wonderfully real and sincere: the same sort of quirky, bizarre, magical childhood I’d had, stuffed with childlike ambitions and adult problems only half understood.

And then adolescence and adulthood.  Again, I felt I could relate- at least right up until the checks started pouring in, haha.  But still, it gave me hope.  Like maybe I just had to keep hustling and I too would eventually get my break.

 

Craft

Ahh, the meat and potatoes.  This is what I had come for, and On Writing didn’t disappoint.

Framed within the analogy of a toolbox, which I loved, Mr. King sets out the skills and rules that a writer will need to write a good story.  Personality and a sense of humor enliven this how-to section in a way that my other grammar books always seem to lack.  (Possible exceptions: The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank, which has a refreshingly light tone, and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which is just too absurd to be taken seriously.)

What are the tools Mr. King recommends?  Frankly, the same stuff we always hear recommended.   I don’t think there was any advice here that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already heard elsewhere.  Simple things- like reading other books, respecting grammar conventions, and writing what you love- that we all know already.  But as King himself points out, this isn’t an advanced course in creative writing.  This is the baseline stuff.  This is crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s so that some time after you’ve put years of your life into this, you have the foundation necessary to write amazing stories that grab your readers and never let go.

The craft section did not change my style or my process.  It didn’t give me some magic potion to make me sell books, or teach me the secret code for making publishing houses fling money at me.  Quite the opposite. This book, if nothing else, set my expectations straight.  And we all need that sometimes, that slap in the face to get us thinking right when it feels like the plane’s crashing down around us.

It will be hard.  Most of us will never make it to King’s level of success.  But the journey is worth the effort.  Love of writing is reason enough.

 

Conclusion

The thing that makes this book so unique on the craft shelf of my bookcase is the ‘memoir’ bit.  This isn’t just about how to write.  It’s about being a writer.  It’s about what it feels like to have stories bubbling out your fingertips, what it feels like to ask the bizarre questions, the creepy questions, the inappropriate questions.  What it feels like to get shot down over and over again, what it feels like to have that first tiny success.  It’s more than about the writing craft.  It’s about the writing life.

So my whole-hearted recommendation: Read this book!  Even if you don’t write horror and even if you don’t read his other books.  Read this one.

Free bonus?  Mr. Stephen King himself gave me full permission to read and write for 4-6 hours a day, every day.  I can get behind that.

 

Unrelated, but I’ll close this week on an ominous warning.  Tomorrow, I and my beloved family will fly out for the start of our entire-summer-long road trip.  I’ll try my very bestest to keep up with the Monday posts, but I cannot guarantee reliable internet access all over the country.  (Heck, I can’t even guarantee reliable internet access all over my house.)  So be ye warned! There will still be twelve posts in the next twelve weeks. Just… maybe at weird times.  Your safest bet is probably to subscribe (there’s a button over on the sidebar and I promise, promise, promise not to spam you), or just check back every now and then and scroll through the archives.

Wish me luck! *clutches dramamine*

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Swag Review: Writing Children’s Books

ChildrensBooksSome time ago, my parents-in-law gave me a copy of Writing Children’s Books by Lesley Bolton and Lea Wait. (The book is part of a series modestly titled The Only Writing Series You’ll Ever Need, which also includes how-to’s on grant writing, screenplays, and publication.)

This book is full of straightforward, basic information. I think if I had read it when I was first stepping into the world of writing, I would have found it much more helpful. It is a very good primer, with excellent tips on getting started, coming up with a plan, and what it takes to fight your way through traditional publication. (I will say, however, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Only one chapter of twelve is actually about writing and revising. The rest is about prep, research, publication, and the industry in general.)

Writing Children’s Books covers a lot of ground. Starting with the history of children’s books, it brings you up to speed quickly and touches on the broad array of audience ages- from infant’s board books to the awesome-for-all-ages free-for-all that young adult books have morphed into. It runs the gamut of experience from first toying with the idea of maybe writing a book, to the moment your sweet baby hits the shelves. A lot of detail gets glazed over, but the book goes over quite a bit of information. Like I said, very good primer.

Another thing this book does well is that it is absolutely accessible. The language is clear and easily understood, the information is broken down into logical and digestible segments, and even the things that normally terrify me (You want me to show this stuff to other people? Send it to agents and publishers? Whaaaat?) are made somehow less scary. The authors lay it all out calmly and practically, and it maybe doesn’t sound too bad after all. It was a quick and engaging read that I generally enjoyed.

However, its handling of some pretty important pieces to the modern publishing scene seems outdated. The authors have little to nothing to say about indie- or self- publishing, and seem almost dismissive in their few mentions of digital publications. Traditional publication is really the only respectable venue in this book, whether it’s approached with or without the help of an agent.

Another shortcoming is that, in the book’s herculean task of covering all that information, a lot of detail gets lost. The book offers few concrete examples, and few specific resources on where to get more information. While there is an appendix which offers a list of resources, none of the resources are tied directly to the text, or organized by topic, so you’d still have to do quite a bit of hunting to find the information. Furthermore, we’re given a lot of things to do- such as submit to magazines, query agents, etc- without being told how to do them or where to get more information.  I feel like this could have gone from a very good primer to an excellent primer if it had put a little more effort into pointing readers toward other sources of information. As things stand, you’re pretty much left with… a google search? reading a rival title? guess work? Not sure…

My final analysis? A good beginner’s read that is quick and simple and unintimidating. If you’re new to the literary world, give it a read! But if you’ve already waded out into the wide waters of writing and feel like you have some sense of what you’re doing and where you’re going, it’s probably not worth your time- you’ve likely already gathered much of the information here. There are many other much more comprehensive and specific books out there for the intermediate and advanced writers.

(Looking for other writing books to try out? I found the following titles to be helpful: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and Davide Henry Sterry; and your particular flavor of Writer’s Digest Books’ market books– I have the Novel & Short Story breed mucking up my desk. Maybe give one of these a shot. And there’s always the vastness of the internet!  Tons of resources are available online. Some of my favorite websites for writing information and encouragement include Writer’s Digest and various agent blogs. Next on my writing books to read list? Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life.)

Swag Review: The Amazing Story Generator

(Sorry this is so late. [It is still Monday, right? In… Hawaii?] For the last three days, literally every single time (until a few hours ago) that I sat down to work on a blog post- not writing, not art or reading or outlining; just blogging- my children would make some horrific mess. Blow out diaper on the couch? Sure. Spill an entire bin of Israeli couscous? Go ahead. Pull out every single puzzle we own and pile up all the pieces in the living room? Why not. Dump a pitcher of orange juice across the floor? Please do! Sigh. C’est la vie d’une mère.)

coverOne of the writing gifts I received at Christmas from my fantabulous in-laws was The Amazing Story Generator, a mix-and-match collection of creative writing prompts by Jason Sacher. And it is trés fun!

Fun for all ages, in fact. My kids spent literally hours making me read random mishmashes to them. It’s pretty entertaining to listen to my kindergartener chortling to himself in the living room and then shouting, “Moooom! What’s this word?” ‘Incessant’, honey. And the next one is ‘hallucinations’.

But entertaining my children isn’t the point of this book. Inspiring me is. So how does it stack up?

Truthfully, this book probably won’t become my resident muse and go-to idea handbook. For a couple reasons. First, a lot of the ideas it turns out are so off-the-wall goofy that I have no idea where to go with them. They’re good for a laugh but I wouldn’t know what else to do with them. And two, a good chunk of the partial prompts would fit best in genres I don’t typically write. This could force me to stretch myself as a writer, P1050330but typically I just move on to the next random prompt. I suppose I could rip out all the ones that don’t work for me, but I think I’d rather gnaw off my own pinkie than mutilate a book.

That said, it does have a few things going for it. It’s an easy thing to share with friends and get talking about writing. A good coffee table sort of book. It’s light-hearted and it’s goofy and I can count on it to pop out on ideas that I would never have come up with on my own. And every now and then, when the planets align while the seventh son of a seventh son goes adventuring, I dredge up something actually good, something I not only can work with, but something I want to work with.

But its chief virtue is that it gets me thinking. And me thinking is (almost) always a good thing. Even if the prompt is completely oddball and not at all my style, just opening the book gets me into a writing mindset. So even if I end up completely disregarding the prompt, I at least feel somehow P1050331magically more creative.

Just for the sake of pointless fun, and the illustration of a point, I had my three year old, ever eager to help, flip to a random triplet prompt, determined to write a short story for it. He came up with: “Upon winning the lottery, a reformed hit man meets the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.”

Um… right. I’ll, uh… get on that. Actually, maybe I’ll just get to work on something else I need to write. But the seed is sown!

All in all, this is a fun book and a good warmer-upper before writing, but don’t expect it to imbue you with cosmic literary powers.

Swag Review: Write or Die 2

WoD1

All screenshots used with permission from the inestimable Dr. Wicked, the evil genius behind Write or Die.    THE MAN IS SCARY.

My darling hubby purchased a copy of Write or Die 2 for me for Christmas and I’ve been dabbling in it ever since. (For anybody who missed it, this was one of the writing programs showcased in A Writer’s Toolbox from last August.)

As previously mentioned, I am a devoted user of Scrivener when pounding out rough drafts. Knowing this, Husband eyed the software list for the least-Scrivener-esque program there and, after a bit of investigation, settled on Write or Die. When I made the list, all those months ago, I admitted that the only Write or Die exposure I’d had at that point was goofing around on the online sample version with only the default settings, so I was eager to get to the meat-and-potatoes of the real deal.

Scrivener is fantastic for organizing my long projects and for storyboarding. However, when I’m writing in Scrivener, unless I’m really in the zone or know exactly where I’m going, I have this tendency to… dawdle. I think about it. Tap out a few words. Maybe flex my fingers. Snitch some almonds from the cabinet. And if I’m not careful, I’ll spend an hour ‘writing’ and find myself with a scant couple hundred words (as well as a slab of cake, a cup of mint tea, and a small army of paper cranes.) I have three kids. I don’t have time for all that jazz. If I’m really honest with myself, I can admit that, unless I’m engaged in a writing sprint with people who will mercilessly tease meager word counts, I’m an absurdly slow writer.

Enter Write or Die. Write or Die is like having a sprint partner living on your computer, ready to go any moment you are. This sprint partner accepts no excuses and gives no quarter, but doesn’t give a whole lot of childish taunting when you don’t hit your goals- it just calls you a quitter. (Which kind of counts. ‘Cause nobody calls me a quitter.) So when I’m having a hard time getting going on Scrivener and I just need some words on the page, it’s nice to have a program like Write or Die breathing down my neck at me. It’s pretty much the spirit of NaNoWriMo jammed into a computer program.

So peaceful. So stimulating.

So peaceful. So stimulating.

Write or Die has three modes, which are basically the ambiance in which you’ll be writing.

Stimulus This is nice. I get to choose a soothing background image that fills the writing space, and an accompanying background noise, such as heartbeats and ‘aural hug’s. So long as I keep writing, they remain in place. If I stop writing, they go away and I am less stimulated. It’s kind of like a cross between the Reward and Consequence modes like that. I do pretty well in this mode, and lean toward a forest background with a rainstorm.

D'awwww

D’awwww

Reward Anyone who only did chores as a kid when your mom was waving a bag of Skittles from the kitchen would probably do well in the rewards arena. Rewards are earned for writing a set amount of words and can be visual (cutesy pictures waggling in the background every however-many words, or even a customizable folder of your favorite images) or audible (I personally prefer kitty purring, but you can also pick Tibetan bowls or Pavlovian bells, if that’s your thing).

Consequence For those who like writing under duress (*raises hand*), there is the consequence mode. Not that I love having giant hairy chelicerae dangling over my fingers, but there’s just something about ducking punishment that gets my butt in gear. I find the threat of an alarm particularly motivating, since my writing so often takes place when I’m in a room with children who I dearly hope will soon be and remain asleep. And for when I’m really feeling some self-flagellation, I can step into kamikaze mode, which literally eats the vowels from my words if I stop writing for too long. Consequence is my most effective workspace in Write or Die.

Geh! Don't touch me!

Geh! Don’t touch me!

This isn’t to say that Write or Die is perfect for all writing ever. It does have some drawbacks that I’m still trying to work my way around. It’s not the best for longer stories that require a lot of continuity and I’m still working out if it’s even possible to do a whole book in here without just having an obscenely long block of text. So far, the best I can manage is to write it by scenes and paste the scenes together in another program (usually Scrivener). Likewise, editing is… yeah, I’m not even sure how this would happen in this format. Again, I usually have to look it over in a completely different program. And having the threat of horrible noises hanging over my shoulder, or the sudden appearance of puppies on my screen, doesn’t usually produce the most thoughtful of works. Sometimes I’m so busy trying to beat the clock (because DARN IT I want so badly for that wpm speedometer to be awesome) that I have a hard time really working out what I’m writing at all. Drafts written in this program require heavy editing. (And see above about that.)

But. Write or Die also has some fantastic things going for it. It usually helps me pick up the pace for action scenes and imbue a level of stress I can feel (because again, I’m all about the punishments). It’s really good for brainstorming and freewriting exercises. I’ve found that, even when I do pour a lot of thoughtless junk onto the page, I can almost always pick out at least one gem from the mess to polish up. Likewise, it’s pretty good for rough drafts on new short stories. And most importantly, it gets my butt in gear even when I open it not feeling like I want to write. In my opinion, these things far outweigh the shortcomings listed above.

All in all, if you find that you’re like me and can use the occasional kick in the rear (or kittens! or beaches! or rainstorms!) to get into your writing, it’s probably worth your $20 to buy the program, and it’s definitely worth your time to at least check out the online version for free (right here!). I doubt you’d regret either.

How about you folks?  Any readers have any Write or Die experience?  What do you love/hate about the program?  Let us know in the comments below!  Happy writing!