Archive for the ‘About reading’ Category

Ten Writing Books That Have Helped Me

October 13, 2013

(At the risk of repeating myself, this is reprinted from a Willamette Writers newsletter column I wrote in fall 2012.)used books


There are so many great books on writing out there that I haven’t read yet, and many that I’ve read and enjoyed but didn’t have time to mention below, but here are a few that have made a difference in my writing life.

On craft:

“To write a breakout novel is to run free from the pack . . . to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published.” –Writing the Breakout Novel  (Donald Maass) This book startled me, at first made me nervous, then fired me up. The author’s advice on heightening tension to create a fast-paced story was the clearest I’d ever heard.  He taught me that for my novel to touch and thrill readers, and to render them unable to forget my story, I needed to create characters (especially my protagonists) with vivid desires and wounds and quirks. My characters need to be heartbreaking, heroic, and charming. And they must be believable as well as larger than life. A proverbial light bulb snapped on in my brain.  (There’s also a workbook for this one that I found helpful to use on a couple of projects.)

“This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions.” –Stein on Writing (Sol Stein) This one fascinated me—the author talks about advice (increasing tension, establishing credibility, composing dialogue) that lots of other writing teachers discuss, but Stein makes these topics fresh. He uses an acting exercise to illustrate the heightening of drama in a two person scene. He calls his method for fast revision “Triage.” And he gives some effective (often amusing) advice about the art of the love scene. This book is packed with wisdom you forgot you already knew. Sometimes you need someone to give you a little shake and wake you up.

“When a character believably shifts to a higher level of consciousness, energy is released. A surge of emotion is generated in the audience.” The Writers Guide to Writing Your Screenplay (Cynthia Whitcomb) This writing manual works not just for screenwriters but for novelists, playwrights, poets, all of us.  The sections on Set Ups and Pay Offs and on Character Evolution are particularly great. I know, she’s my sister, but that’s not why I love this book. I love it because it works and it’s written in an endearing and accessible voice—feels like having a long lunch with a brilliant friend who talks fast which is awesome because you listen fast!

“The quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.” –The First Five Pages  (Noah Lukeman) Here’s a book I found useful in unexpected ways. The title implies it’s all about refining the first 1000 words or so of your manuscript, but it is the seemingly simplistic advice on cutting and replacing words that worked the best for me on any page of my novel. In one of Lukeman’s exercises he has you remove all the adverbs and adjectives on one page of your manuscript, list them, cross out the cliché ones, change the strongest ones to less expected choices, put these new ones back in and then reread the new version of the page. Then do the same with nouns—list them and find replacements that are more unusual. Once, while teaching a workshop for the Oregon Writers Colony, I had each student take a paragraph or page of his/her manuscript and change every noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. One woman was working on a first-person story and when she read back the original followed by the rewritten version, people in the room actually gasped. The narrator’s voice came to life in a startling way. Seriously, even if you end up keeping just one improved sentence on the page, I think you’ll find Lukeman’s exercises are worth it.

“It’s not a question of gimmicks to personalize the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” – On Writing Well  (William Zinsser) Here is some very effective instruction on refining descriptions (of settings and characters) and on narrowing your story’s scope (why it’s better to tell a story by focusing on one year, or even one summer, instead of years of plot, for example.) One of my favorite chapters is about crafting a memoir, but it’s applicable to all writers.



“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”  –Bird By Bird  (Anne Lamott) There is some great advice on craft in this book (looking at a character through a one inch frame, for instance) but for me it was all about inspiration. Lamott’s writing is all heart—her pages are filled with quirky passages that make you want to write and make you proud to be in her authors’ club.

“You make a path boldly and follow it fearfully . . . the path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over. I hope birds ate the crumbs.”–The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) There are a couple of life experiences that the author relates in this book, metaphors for understanding and overcoming writing obstacles, that still resonate with me almost a decade later. The wood chopping scene, when she realizes how to get farther by aiming at the block instead of the piece of wood, struck home.

“My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongman.” –On Writing (Stephen King) It was fascinating not only to hear how King went from broke to bestselling author, but how certain life experiences steered him toward his genre: a recurring ear infection, dropping a bee-infested cinder block on his foot, observing an awkward girl at school who later became the model for Carrie. And the book also includes plenty of down-to-earth advice. I especially loved the section about a mentor advising him to cut out half the words on each page.


On career strategy:

“Your agent’s job is to hold on to your belief in your work so he can get you the most favorable possible contracts and relationships with publishers.” –Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) Ok, I know, this is my own book, but hearing about the business side of things from my agent’s (and co-author’s) half of the book (how Ann gets an editor interested in your novel, her most common reason for rejecting a project, advice on writing a great query letter) is fascinating and her writing style is charming. The section on how a book auction works is thrilling.

“You will probably work with your agent for a long time. You owe it to yourself to choose one you like and enjoy, one who lets you feel free.” –The Career Novelist  (also Donald Maass) Again Mr. Maass taught me things I didn’t realize I needed to know but was grateful to learn. Like what kinds of agents there are out there so I’d know how to focus my search. And when to give up one’s day job. Wonderfully straight forward and easy to grasp.


Book By Book

November 15, 2009

After A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT was published, I was honored to be the guest at a Mother-Daughter book club founded by Cindy Hudson. These women and their girls had been reading and exchanging their thoughts about literature since the daughters were in elementary school. And they had great insights, fascinating questions. I loved the experience.

 bk by bk

Now Cindy shares her advice on how to start your own Mother-Daughter reading club in BOOK BY BOOK published by Seal Press in September. Visit her website at She talks about book lists, club guidelines, who to invite, and tips on how to help the club adapt as the girls grow up. A great idea. I highly recommend both the book and the concept. I wish I could have been in a reading group with my own mom.

If you like Hogwarts . . .

October 15, 2009

magic castle 

When I did my reading at Wordstock, a young girl from the audience asked if I had any book recommendations for Harry Potter fans. Here are a few: 

If you like that British flavor, you might like: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet  by E. Nesbit; Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie; The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis; Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll; The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

flying carpet



On the Scifi end of supernatural there’s: The Hitchhiker’s Guide series by Douglas Adams and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.





For more contemporary kid supernatural adventure try Story Time by Edward Bloor and The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu.





I also highly recommend The Alphabet of Dreams and The Dragon’s Milk series by Susan Fletcher. Feels like you’re really there when prophetic dreams come true and dragons take flight.

B&W dragon

For that mysterious and magical tone there’s Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit; The Light Princess by George MacDonald; and The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw.

 maybe a butterfly





Okay, now I’m hungry for a good read! (And a good write.)

Favorite finds at Wordstock . . .

October 11, 2009

I was only able to attend Wordstock for a few hours, but I picked up three gems.

B Nelson cover





When I did a reading from THE FETCH, I shared the stage with Blake Nelson and was delighted by his reading from DESTROY ALL CARS. Very funny. Very original. The inner workings of a teenaged boy unfold for the reader through samples of the boy’s writing: journal entries, essays, and school assignments. It’s brilliant. And a hoot.

tear thief

When I wanted to make myself a lanyard for my nametag, I begged a piece of ribbon from a friendly children’s publisher (Barefoot Books.) While in their booth, I found a beautiful and sweet picture book called THE TEAR THIEF. The story is strange (about a being who takes stolen tears to enhance the light of the moon) and the illustrations are charmingly eerie. A delightfully ethereal combination.

9 horses cover





Also, in the Powell’s booth at Wordstock I picked up a copy of NINE HORSES by Billy Collins. I’d heard a recording of this man reading his own poetry and fell in love. So far my favorite is “Litany” which I suppose you might call a spoof. “You are the bread and the knife . . . however, you are not the wind in the orchard . . . ” Go get one of this guy’s books. Wonderful stuff.

More books I love . . .

September 11, 2009

Even though I write supernatural novels, I have non-supernatural favorite books, too.

owl on books

Three newish novels that I loved:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – not only a great story and a fabulous setting (the circus) but it made me cry twice. And at moments I was not expecting. So well done.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows — what an original premise. And beautifully written. Delightful. It delivered (among other things) three such satisfying moments I actually cheered out loud. It’s like a cross between 84 Charing Cross Road and an Austen romance.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold – just my cup of tea. Magicians, a love story, a mystery. And it’s a page-turner.

Three novels that helped me break in:

writer at work

Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and White Oleander by Janet Fitch were very inspirational to me while I was in that strange land just before getting an agent. Once I’d written a first draft of A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT, and was starting to rewrite before I let anyone see it, I thought about what recent books I’d admired. These three were at the top of the list. How did these two women create such vivid descriptions? What made their characters’ thoughts so original? I looked carefully at several striking passages in Kingsolver’s novels (the opening and the distinct voices of her narrating females in PB and the fascinating use of the nature themes in PS.) With Fitch’s book, I was so blown away by her style of metaphors, I actually photo copied random pages from White Oleander and highlighted every time she said something in a unique way. She could be wonderfully startling on average twice per page! So I took my own draft of SLANT and highlighted the lines I thought were in the same category. If I came to a page where I found no original phrases, I rewrote it for freshness. So, thank you Miss Kingsolver and Miss Fitch.

Three “series” I can’t seem to get enough of:






The Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King – about Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. So well-written. And so much fun. If you love the Conan Doyle books, and carry a secret torch for the detective, this is your series.

The Get Fuzzy books by Darby Conley – these collections of comic strips about Bucky (a cat who longs to eat a monkey some day and who gets carried around town in a baby pack,) Satchel (a dog who answers all knock knock jokes with bark bark bark,) and their human, Rob Wilco, is completely addictive.

Deep Thoughts (Deeper Thoughts, Deepest Thoughts, and so on) by Jack Handey — ridiculous, but too much fun. During my teacher credential program I tried to read one of these books of philosophical insights out loud to two fellow students, but we kept having to pass the book around because we were laughing so hard the tears made it impossible to see the page.

Three (semi-supernatural) classics that I have reread the most often in my life:


Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – the perfect example of an English gothic romance. The protagonist falls for and marries a widower who she fears is still in love with his dead wife. He has that Mr. Rochester passion and ice. The housekeeper is so much fun to hate (and fear.) And the exquisite ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter seems to be always watching and laughing.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – the writing might be a bit old-fashioned, but the story remains chilling. A governess comes to a remote country estate to care for two small children that she comes to fear are possessed by the spirits of the dead grounds keeper and his lover.

The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern and William Goldman – an irresistible adventure and romance with all the fun stuff (clever sword play, impossibly high cliffs, death defying magic, mysterious pirates, a six-fingered villain) and a completely original alternating narration that is still, in my opinion, the best example of an author’s voice inserted into the text. Only times two. It’s a hoot.

 Again, I’d love to hear your favorite books, as well!

For lovers of supernatural books . . .

September 4, 2009

Here are some other books I recommend if you like the supernatural. books

One for Sorrow (Christopher Barzak) is about a boy who becomes a little too attached to the ghost of a former classmate–really interesting and spooky.






Skellig (David Almond) is deceptively simple, but very effect. Hard to describe. When read aloud it sounds like a children’s book, rather than YA or adult, but it’s very cool. All I can say is, try it.

wingsAlphabet of Dreams (Susan Fletcher) has a wonderful dream magic in it. And the unique settings and descriptions are fabulous. 

Millais St Agnes Eve

 One of my favorite books from my YAhood is The Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart) about Merlin’s early life. The magic is so real, I knew it was true. I was convinced it happened just that way. (And maybe it did.)castle_scene





A YA classic that I didn’t discover until I was in my twenties is A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) and again, it’s hard to describe. Charming. Completely





Talking about classics, nothing’s more fun than Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie) which I went back and read to my mother out loud during her last months. It was much funnier than I’d remembered and the way magic (fairies, flying, etc) is intermingled with mundane life (having spats, a first kiss, etc.) is brilliant.


The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova) may be a little long and slow for some (I thought it kicked in at about page 330) but it’s not only a supernatural adventure about Dracula, it’s a wonderful way to travel without leaving your house. You get to see fabulous cities and walk through museums and ruins and historic libraries, religious archives, secret treasuries. I felt like I was going on little out-of-body vacations whenever I’d get in bed and open the book.


By the way, if you know anyone who’d like to win a signed copy of SLANT, visit:

Sharing book recommendations . . .

August 22, 2009

If you’ve already read A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT . . .

 painting by C. E. Halle





. . .  and THE FETCH . . .

D. Rossetti painting 

. . .  and it seems like a long time before UNDER THE LIGHT comes out . . .

 Waterhouse painting

(Can you tell I love Pre-Raphaelite paintings?)




. . . and you are looking for ideas of other good books to read . . .

I suggest:

TITHE by Holly Black (fairly recent) and THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman (not recent at all—more of a modern classic.) There are other reading suggestions for lovers of supernatural romance on the website where there is currently a very nice review of SLANT.


Please feel free to leave a comment here giving your own book recommendations. I’d love that.