If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book next year, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com

Our March author interviews: Karen Pullen (3/1), Lowcountry Crime authors: Tina Whittle, Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant, and James M. Jackson (3/8), Annette Dashofy (3/15), Edith Maxwell (3/22) and Barb Ross (3/29).

Saturday Guest Bloggers in March: Maris Soule (3/4), and Virginia Mackey (3/11). WWK Saturday bloggers write on 3/18--Margaret S. Hamilton and on 3/25--Kait Carson.

Julie Tollefson won the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter's Holton Award for best unpublished manuscript (member category) for her work in progress, In The Shadows. Big news for a new year. Congratulations, Julie.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Warren Bull's new Lincoln mystery, Abraham Lincoln In Court & Campaign has been released. Look for the Kindle version on February 3.

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Once a Kappa" was published as a finalist in the Southern Writer's Magazine annual short story contest issue. Mysterical-E published her "Double Crust Corpse" in the Fall 2016 issue. "Baby Killer" will appear in the 2017 solar eclipse anthology Day of the Dark to be published this summer prior to the eclipse in August.

Linda Rodriquez has two pending book publications. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel will be released by Scapegoat Press on November 29th. Every Family Doubt, the fourth Skeet Bannion mystery, is scheduled for release on June, 13, 2017. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Linda here in June!

Cross Genre Publications anthology, Hidden Youth, will contain Warren Bull's "The Girl, The Devil, and The Coal Mine." The anthology will be released in late November 2016. The We've Been Trumped anthology released by Dark House Press on September 28th contains Warren Bull's "The Wall" short story and KM Rockwood's "A Phone Call to the White House." KM writes under the name Pat Anne Sirs for this volume.

James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for pre-order.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Excerpt—Must-Read Books for Writers

by Linda Rodriguez

Since I'm preparing to teach another class, I thought I'd offer Writers Who Kill readers another excerpt from my book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel—a handout I give to all my writing students, no matter the class. It's an annotated list of writing books that I feel are essential for people who are trying to write, books that I find essential for myself.

At the end of 2016, my seventh book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, was published. I took a popular course I taught for years on using depth of character as a springboard to a strong plot and turned it into a book designed to help the aspiring writer who wants to tell a story made compelling by the truth and complexity of its characters. In this book, I provide actual documents I've used to create my own published novels, demonstrating the methods I teach. You can find the complete book in trade paperback and ebook here.



Must-Read Books for Writers

I have a larger collection of books on creative writing than most college libraries own. I have been collecting, reading, and studying them all my life. And in one way or another, I have found them all useful.

Some recapitulate concepts, techniques, and tips from many other books, but they will perhaps have one I haven’t yet encountered—or they will express one or more I’ve met before in such a way that it sinks in more deeply than it did when I ran across it earlier. So I count those books still successful for me, if in small ways.

Many of the books I own deal with specific kinds of writing or with specific techniques—mysteries and suspense, science fiction, dialogue, plotting—and I’ve often found them extremely useful, frequently return to the best of them again and again.

When I wanted to narrow down my books to a most-critical shortlist for this blog, I found that repeatedly the books that shot to the top were books that dealt with the writing process as a whole, with being a writer and living a writer’s life. Each will have some specific techniques within, but the book as a whole is about the process of becoming and being a writer. They deal with overcoming negativity and fear, dealing with belittling from others, developing the discipline necessary to make a life as a writer, defeating the intimidation of starting a big project, and in one blessed case, how to make a writing life within the business of writing and publishing.

These are the books I recommend again and again to students and friends, to anyone who asks me for advice and help. They are books I still go back to time and again. They’re not the only good books on writing. I never get rid of any of my vast collection of writing books because they all have at least one thing to offer me. 
But these ten books are the ones I would keep if I could suddenly only have ten books on writing in my library.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life is at the top of the list because it is such a little gem. I’ve bought so many copies of this book to give to aspiring writers. I only wish it had been available to me earlier in my career. By the time, I discovered it I’d learned some of what it teaches the hard way. It rings true in all of its suggestions and guidelines because See is a successful writer and teacher who’s writing from experience. Living a Literary Life deals with things few other books do, such as how to have a writing career when you live far from the epicenter of publishing in New York or how to develop friendships and connections with literary and publishing colleagues if you know no one. This last may seem easier to do now that social media is available, but See’s suggestions in this area are even more relevant in a time when a handwritten note is remarkable. If I can recommend or give only one book, this is the one I choose.

Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer is the other book I’d give if only allowed to give two. Published in the 1930s and long out of print, award-winning novelist John Gardner swore by it and mentioned its importance in one of his own books on writing (see below), which led to it being reissued with a foreword by Gardner. This book deals with the psychology of the writer, with how to develop the confidence, the focus, and the discipline any writer needs and how to learn what your material, your individual forte as a writer is. It teaches us techniques to connect with our creativity and learn to see and experience the world as writers. It would be worth a fortune for its technique of “Act As If” alone, which has been picked up by many other writing gurus and self-help authors. It also offers the initial appearance of the fruitful technique of freewriting first thing in the morning (later built on by Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron among others). This book is a lifesaver for writers.

These two, above all the others, are immensely helpful to anyone who wants to write as more than a hobby. For the rest of the books on the list, I have no definite order. They offer different things to the writer and fill different needs, so it wasn’t workable for me to rank them by importance. Each would leave an important hole in my writing library if it were missing, however.

Uber best-selling Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the best general guides to writing extant. A master class in a book, it’s a tiny treasure house of useful and pithy advice on everything from getting and taking feedback, individual techniques like description, plot, and character, how to organize a workspace and structure your day’s work to his stricture on reading that I love to quote to students: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” And this is definitely one of the books you need to make time to read.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones marries Dorothea Brande’s freewriting morning pages technique to her own intensive yoga background to build a tremendously useful set of practices for writers to follow. This book focuses on getting in touch with your own creative spirit and defeating resistance and fear. It’s more modern in outlook than Brande’s and the borrowings from yoga are quite useful. It takes the important foundations of Brande’s book and adds to them, but you won’t find all those foundations here, so though I recommend this book highly, if you have to make a choice of only one, get Brande’s. (Julia Cameron has taken the same techniques and added another layer of 12-step spirituality and dogma to them in The Artist’s Way. Many have found that helpful to them, as well, but again you won’t find all the important fundamentals Brande gives you in The Artist’s Way, either.)

Award-winning children’s book author Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet is an intimate little book, the first of her Crosswicks Journals series. A meditative book about life and writing, it’s also a book about failure and rejection, about feeling guilty for taking time to write when earning no money from it, about the collision of family and writing, and about the humility that good writing requires. Some of the most important things I’ve taken from this book have been her focus on using journals and writer’s notebooks to do various writing exercises, which she gives you in the book, and her stress that real artists keep studying, practicing, and learning all the time in order to keep growing. You can learn much from this book, and it’s the ultimate writer’s comfort book when feeling down.

Leonard Bishop’s Dare to Be a Great Writer is a big book with a big title. Bishop was a grade-school dropout, thief, and hobo who became a critically acclaimed novelist and friend of Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller before becoming one of the top-rated writing professors in the country. His big, brash book is blunt in its advice, which ranges from discipline and structuring your life around writing to tons of techniques from tiny to large, from smooth sentence transitions to genre structures. This is a fabulous writer’s reference. Each separate entry is in alphabetical order and thus easy to look up and refer to. My copy sits next to my desk marked with a rainbow of Post-Its and bookmarks.

Bestselling mystery novelist Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Writer’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life is aimed at the writer of mysteries and crime fiction, but offers great help for all novelists. George provides another master class in this book with a detailed overview of how to construct a novel, a step-by-step analysis of her process from idea to final edits, and help with all kinds of technique, using examples from her own work and that of other commercial and literary novelists. Again, this is a book I return to time and again, always learning something. An example of one of her unique technique helps is THADs, Talking Head Avoidance Devices, ways to occupy characters when they must have a critical dialogue so that more happens on the page than just the dreaded talking heads as in a public affairs TV show.

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit is another older book, one that Carl Sandburg called “the best book ever written about how to write." This is a book about tapping into your own creative spirit and delight. Her chapter titles alone are a treatise on the writing life. Here are two examples: “Everybody is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say” and “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.” She stresses that any creative gift increases as we use it and with some lazy time, which she calls “moodling” and insists is critical to the really important big, slow ideas. Read this book to help find your creative center.

John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is hugely helpful to novelists in particular. Gardner is widely considered one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, and he taught many other critically acclaimed writers, such as Raymond Carver. Gardner, as I mentioned earlier, was responsible for bringing Dorothea Brande’s book from obscurity, and his own book is a grand follow-up to hers, but aimed at novelists and not all writers. Gardner goes deeply into the need to create a kind of dream-state in the reader’s mind as well as the benefits of repeated revisions. There’s much in here about making a writer’s life for yourself today and much as well about the benefits and difficulties for novelists of MFA program that are centered on poetry and short fiction.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is, like, Stephen King’s book, part autobiography of the writer and part guidebook to the world of the working writer. Though not as absolutely useful in practical terms to the writer as King’s book, Dillard’s is full of strange beauties and a real sense of the writer as one who is, or should be, dedicated spiritually to her art. One of my favorite writing quotes comes from this book: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

These are the ten gems of my collection that I originally recommended to all of my classes. I’ve since added two other books to the list. The first is a new book just recently published, Writes of Passage, a collection of essays from successful writers (including me) who are members of the national writers organization, Sisters in Crime, essays about almost every aspect of writing a novel in general and mysteries in particular. These essays cover craft issues, problem-solving tips, the business of writing, as well as inspiration and encouragement for the inevitable slough of despond.

The second is a book by the great master storyteller, Ursula K. Le Guin, called Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Le Guin takes issue with the prominence of conflict as a necessity in modern novels and pushes for change as the catalyst of story instead. She explains each aspect of craft in lucid terms, illustrating it with excerpts from great writers, such as Virginia Woolf, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Mark Twain, and offers charming and challenging exercises. This book is a self-directed master class with one of the finest writers living.


You may, like me, be a collector of books about writing, but even if you never buy or check out from the library any books on writing other than these, you will want these twelve books, and you will find them helpful over and over again.

Linda Rodriguez's book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel is based on her popular workshop. The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited was recently published. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is chair of the AWP Indigenous/Aboriginal American Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community.

10 comments:

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks for all the references, Linda. I read Stephen King's book. Not only was it fascinating to hear how he got started and of all the trials he's faced in his life, but his instruction--he made it sound so easy, but it's not.

I just finished reading Donald Maas's book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. His point, that the most memorial books are those that touch our emotions and become a catalyst of change in our lives, is valid. When I thought of those books, such as Ray Bradbury's One More For The Road, his last published book, I realized that even though he was considered a science fiction writer--his writing reflected the pathos of the human condition. He was ruthless. We, who think we are in control--nothing could be further from the truth.

Mysteries usually focus on the cerebral a aspects of solving the mystery. But I'm realizing they should be much more than that. Your focus on the character-driven novel is fundamental. Emotional changes start and end with the main character.

Margaret Turkevich said...

I have your book with me in my revision cave.

Warren Bull said...

Linda, I've read some of the book you mention. They have influenced and helped by writing. I'm going to read the rest of them. Thank you.

Linda Rodriguez said...

I will be answering comments but not until later in the day. My elderly cat died this morning, and I have to take care of everything connected with that--and spend some time grieving.

Donna Volkenannt said...

So sorry to hear about your cat, Linda.

Thank you for the recommendations. I own a few of them and have borrowed a few from the library, but the others also sound helpful and inspiring.

Julie Tollefson said...

Looks like I need to make room on my Books about Writing shelf! I have a few of the ones you've mentioned, but not all. Thanks!

So sorry about your cat. Be well.

Shari Randall said...

Linda, I am so sorry to hear about your cat. Sending hugs - Shari

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, I'm sorry about your cat. I have lost a lot over the years as well as dogs, and they become a part of my family.

I have a very long shelf of books on writing. Some are those you mentioned.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, you're right. emotional depth and complexity only make any novel, including a mystery, more satisfying for the reader.

Margaret, I hope it's helping you.

Warren, I think you'll find they are all useful in their own way.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Donna, thanks for your kind words. I think you'll find the others motivating.

Julie, they'll make good additions to that shelf.

Thank you, Shari and Gloria for your kins thoughts.