Suzanne Strempek Shea
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Reading Suggestions

Craft Books

Though I make my living as a writer of fiction and non-fiction books, and journalism, I have no formal training in writing. Most of what I've learned about my craft has come from the daily habit of sitting down to do the work, and from reading what others have written in newspapers, magazines and books. Vital to my progress have been titles covering craft, inspiration, and the business of writing. Here are a few of my many favorites:

"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott (Anchor Books, $13.95).
I absolutely love this book and have given it to people who'll never care to write more than their name. The subtitle is the reason - the advice and anecdotes that bestselling novelist, memoirist and essayist Lamott offers can apply to anyone, or any profession. We all need to get off our duffs and do our work, we all need to realize that the first version of anything won't be perfect, we all need to turn off the self-defeating negativity in our heads (which Lamott likens to a radio station with call letters that can't be printed in a family publication).

The title alone is a slogan I lean on often, taken from a story Lamott tells about her brother once having had three months to complete a grade school project on birds and only beginning it the night before it was due. Their father, himself a writer, sat down with his son and gave the advice to just take the project bird by bird. Word by word is how to build a story. Day by day is how to build a life.

"Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft" by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Longman, seventh edition published in 2006, $70.20)
Yes, $70.20 is a lot for a book. But consider this book a semester of learning. At the very least. "Writing Fiction" is the most widely assigned standard text in creative writing classes nationwide, but it's far from stuffy and scholarly, making it a fine fit for the serious at-home writer who wants to grown and learn. Burroway, an acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright and author of craft books, and Stuckey-French, a respected short story writer and novelist, examine the writing process, and elements including story structure, characterization, place, point of view and theme. Each chapter is crammed with excerpts, complete short stories, author interviews, and assignments and exercises. File it under your most necessary writing books, or on the shelf containing those you grab often to flip open and learn something each time.
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss (Gotham, $12)
You can read all the writing books in the world but if you don't know where to put a comma or a period, you'll succeed only in turning off prospective agents and editors. Born as a British radio show titled "Cutting a Dash" (yes, there are countries in which punctuation is so regarded as to merit a program on a national radio network), "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" is a surprisingly fun book for those who are only semi sure when to use a semi-colon. Truss began her career as a literary editor before becoming a writer whose work has included stints as television critic and sports columnist for The Times of London. So don't expect an academic tone to this tome that has become an international bestseller. Do expect, once you're done reading, to spot improper punctuation all around you - including (shockingly often) in your own writing.
"A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions," edited by Jay Woodruff (University Of Iowa Press, $27.95).
This book was first printed in 1993 but the fact that a writer or poet always needs to revise hasn't changed in the past 15 years, and probably won't in the next 1,500. Reproductions of handwritten and typed drafts in various stages hit home the fact that even such big shots as Tobias Wolff, Tess Gallagher, Robert Coles, Joyce Carol Oates and Donald Hall don't deliver pristine copy the first time around. Interviews with each further dissect the process regarding specific pieces and provide enlightenment as to just what went on inside the heads of some of our country's most acclaimed literary figures as they crafted the pieces.
"Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood (Story Press, $14.99)
"Emotions affect every other element of fiction - dialogue, action, character development, plot, theme," Ann Hood writes. With that kind of power, they'd better be as rich as a writer can make them. Rather than via over-the-top, flowery, adverb-heavy descriptions, the best writing delivers emotions in ways that can be wonderfully subtle, or so unique that the line is automatically copied into a notebook for future inspiration. Hood offers a sort of dictionary of emotions in 36 chapters beginning with "anger" and ending with "worry." Each chapter includes a short essay on a specific emotion, then a set of bad examples followed by good ones. Exercises that help hone understanding of the emotion and new ways to relay are the final element in each. In full disclosure, Hood included used a passage from my first novel as a positive example of excitement. Also in full disclosure, I picked up this endlessly useful book even before I met her, or knew that fact. The idea of a book solely on such a critical factor in telling a story was enough to make me pick it up.
"Write From the Heart: Inspiration and Exercises for Women Who Want to Write" by Leslea Newman (Ten Speed Press, revised and expanded published in 2003, $14.95)
With apologies to the author, I ignore the "Women" in the title. I have used this book while leading writing groups that have included both genders. No one's complained, no one's not gotten the ideas, everyone's benefited. Answering that old self-tripping question of "What do I have to write about?" Newman answers "Nothing much. Absolutely everything… Everyone's life is mysterious, beautiful, stunning magic. It doesn't matter if you've lived in the same town your whole life or traveled around the world seven times. What matters is your ability to open up to the breathtaking and spectacular adventure that happens to be your life. Your job is to experience it, see it, feel it, live it and write it down."

From there, she leads the reader down aisle after aisle of exercises that'll quickly get any writer starting a story, creating characters, determining and working with point of view. One of my favorites is the assignment to go eavesdropping, a key skill any reader needs to hone if they hope to deliver believable dialogue. The book includes wisdom on the publishing world, and Newman, with 50 books on the shelves and three forthcoming, knows her stuff there, too.

"78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might" by Pat Walsh (Penguin, $14)
Here's another person who knows what he's talking about. Walsh is founding editor of the well-known independent publisher McAdam/Cage and over the years has sorted through Alpine-high mounds of manuscripts in search of the next big book. He's also a self-described cynic, but the straight-forward gloves-off method with which he gives the low-down on his field, and your chances in it, truly will help anyone who hopes to be published.

"I do not believe presenting the publishing situation sunny-side up is doing writers a service," he says. "I will not tell you there are three easy steps to getting an agent, simple tricks to get editors to pay attention to your book, or secret handshakes that will get your book published. I will tell you that the competition you face is stiff, the odds against you formidable, and the journey ahead arduous. I will tell you that after reading this book you should be better prepared to avoid mistakes and act productively. This is all any book on publishing can ever honestly give you."

Among the 78: You Cannot Tell a Story, You Have a Tin Ear For Dialogue, You Preach. Among the 14: You Do Your Homework, You Are Patient But Persistent, You Learn From Rejection, You Have Fun.

I'll add to the 14: You Read Pat Walsh's Book.