Archive | January, 2012

“What Writing Books Should I Read?”

31 Jan

I spoke with a writers group last week and, during the question-and-answer time, one of the participants asked for suggestions on books that might help her in her writing. I immediately thought of a few of my favorites ( Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King), but then gave the question a little more thought.

Which books would I recommend to those of you who have dreams of writing or who need resources on particular writing topics?

Which books would other writers recommend?

After posting the question on my Facebook page (“Writing with Cheryl”) and doing a little bit of research on popular writing books, I thought I’d provide you with a couple of lists of books that you might want to check out at the library or the bookstore (I’ve included the books’ links at Amazon or other site).

This first list includes books that focus on advice from writers in the form of essays and memoirs; I really enjoy this style of writing book, because it lets you in on the process from a successful writer’s experiences. (I will post a list on more practical, how-to writing guides later in the week).

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life,  by Anne Lamott. (From the book: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King  (“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.)

Ernest Hemingway on Writing (“Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing — that it takes off ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.'” Despite this belief, by the end of his life he had done just what he intended not to do. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, friends, fellow artists, and critics, in interviews and in commissioned articles on the subject, Hemingway wrote often about writing. And he wrote as well and as incisively about the subject as any writer who ever lived.)

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg (For more than twenty years Natalie Goldberg has been challenging and cheering on writers with her books and workshops. In her groundbreaking first book, she brings together Zen meditation and writing in a new way. Writing practice, as she calls it, is no different from other forms of Zen practice —”it is backed by two thousand years of studying the mind.”)

Knit Together; Discover God’s Pattern for Your Life, by Debbie MacComber. (Fans will appreciate novelist Macomber’s lively, positive outlook and the behind-the-scenes look at her personal highs and lows. Macomber joyfully recounts the often arduous road to success, interspersing these difficulties with faith issues such as dreams, risks, success, balance, relationships, work, laughter, gratitude, blessing and worship. Within each chapter, she draws upon Psalm 139 and unequivocally assures readers that God has created every person with a worthy purpose, a dream to be followed and happily realized. Practical as well as inspirational, the guide debunks common misconceptions that hinder dream actualization.)

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. (Slender though it is, The Writing Life richly conveys the torturous, tortuous, and in rare moments, transcendent existence of the writer. Even for Dillard, whose prose is so mellifluous as to seem effortless, the act of writing can seem a Sisyphean task: “When you write,” she says, “you lay out a line of words…. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.” Amid moving accounts of her own writing (and life) experiences, Dillard also manages to impart wisdom to other writers, wisdom having to do with passion and commitment and taking the work seriously. “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…. Something more will arise for later, something better.”)

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle (For years, beloved author Madeline L’Engle has commingled her writing with her faith in such titles as A Wrinkle in Time. In Walking on Water, L’Engle takes a fresh look at what it means to be a Christian artist and what separates Christian art from that which is supposedly secular. This first-person account draws the reader into L’Engle’s mind frame and sphere of reference–uncloaking her frustrations with bad art (from poetry to painting) that claims to be religious–and explains how the true artist can only serve the world by imitating the ultimate Creator, the Lord Himself. When asked to describe where faith stops and art begins, L’Engle explains that there is no separating the two–“it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.”)

Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, by Ray Bradbury. (“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on  a land mine. The land mine is me. After the  explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the  pieces back together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!”  Zest. Gusto. Curiosity. These are the qualities  every writer must have, as well as a spirit of  adventure. In this exuberant book, the incomparable  Ray Bradbury shares the wisdom, experience, and  excitement of a lifetime of writing. Here are  practical tips on the art of writing from a master of  the craft-everything from finding original ideas to  developing your own voice and style-as well as the  inside story of Bradbury’s own remarkable career  as a prolific author of novels, stories, poems,  films, and plays. Zen In The Art Of  Writing is more than just a how-to manual for the  would-be writer: it is a celebration of the act of  writing itself that will delight, impassion, and  inspire the writer in you. In it, Bradbury  encourages us to follow the unique path of our instincts  and enthusiasms to the place where our inner genius  dwells, and he shows that success as a writer  depends on how well you know one subject: your own  life.)

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Display of Literary Lights, by John Winokur. (Here are literary lions on everything from the passive voice to promotion and publicity: James Baldwin on the practiced illusion of effortless prose, Isaac Asimov on the despotic tendencies of editors, John Cheever on the perils of drink, Ivan Turgenev on matrimony and the Muse. Here, too, are the secrets behind the sleight-of-hand practiced by artists from Aristotle to Rita Mae Brown. Sagacious, inspiring, and entertaining, Advice to Writers is an essential volume for the writer in every reader.)

I’d love to know what writing memoirs and guides you enjoy as well.

Rainy Day Writing Links

26 Jan

In  my part of the world this morning, it is very rainy and gloomy and very un-January like. I’d like nothing better, on days like this, than to sit all day in front of my computer, wandering aimlessly from site-to-site…watching youtube randomness, pinning things onto my Pinterest wall, reading articles from my favorite online magazines, and watching old television shows on Hulu. (I did, seriously, just finish watching the pilot episode of “The Wonder Years.” Talk about good writing.)

To help you make it through your rainy–or sunny, windy, or snowy, depending on your geography–Thursday, I’m hooking you up with some great online links. These should keep you adequately entertained and inspired for the next couple of hours. (And, if all else fails, go get schooled by Kevin and Winnie all over again.)

Just click on the links.

“10 Ways to Tell if Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel”

“How to Write a Great Non-Fiction Book Proposal”

Read the winning stories from The Writer’s 2011 Short Story contest

“When You Must Write  a Poem–Sell it!”

“5 Online Communities for Writers”

“A tall order, gramatically” (told only the way Dave Barry can tell it)

Have a great, writing-filled day!


25 Jan

I know it’s mostly a metaphor about life (and a powerful, beautiful one!), but I still get all inspired to write whenever I hear this song. It also sorta makes me feel like I’m in church (hands raised, fists pumped, ready to tackle the world).



Today is where your book begins.

Always Writing

24 Jan

I love this quote: “If I fall asleep with a pen in my hand, don’t remove it. I might be writing.” (Danzae Pace)

Writers are always writing. They are writing when they are sleepy; they are writing when they are in the pick-up line after school; they are writing when they are on vacation; they are writing when they are on their lunch break; they are writing when they are in a church service; they are writing when they are talking to a friend; they are writing when they are taking a shower.

I don’t mean that you, as a writer, are always literally writing with a pen in your hand or a computer next to you. But I do mean that you are always in a state of writing. You are always open to whatever is happening around you, and how that might evolve into words on a page.

I will make a confession here and say that some of my best writing has been done while in the bathtub! I’m a big fan of long, hot, bubble baths and I have completed many articles in my head, developed character ideas, and written many a poem while lounging in the tub.

I have also come up with some of the best ideas ever while driving down the interstate. Thank goodness I had a notebook in my car so that I could write them down (as soon as I stopped driving, of course!).

And I can’t even count on my hands the number of times I have been struck by an idea while in the midst of a conversation. As I hear others talk about their lives (or hear a funny or emotional comment), I seem to immediately process that with the thought that it could evolve somewhere into my writing.

If you are a writer, you want to always be aware of things around you. Notice what other people are saying, notice what that billboard says, and notice the feelings that you have as you experience events and emotions. I truly believe that writers (and other artists, as well) are much more aware of their surroundings than “normal” people are. (And that you can probably spot the writer in the crowd at the coffee shop; they are the ones with their heads leaned slightly into the conversations around them.)

As you go about your day today, keep your eyes and ears and minds open to the world and its people around you. What in your daily meanderings speak to you? What might find its place in your writing?

(And on a practical note: Go out and buy a notebook that you can keep in your purse, your car, by your bedside, anywhere that inspiration might strike you. You want to be able to keep track of all the great ideas coming your way!)


Generating Ideas for Magazine Articles (Part 2)

20 Jan

You know the old adage that you should “Write what you know.” Well, it’s an old adage for good reason. It’s natural to write about the things you know about and feel comfortable with — whether it’s a hobby you have, a place you visited, or a special expertise you possess. Let’s break down your knowledge into four specific areas (personal experiences, personal interests and passions, talents/areas of expertise, and experiences) and think about how they can help you develop marketable article ideas.

Personal Experiences

Personal experiences are among the best sources for article ideas. For many writers, such experiences provide the source of most of their ideas. And it’s natural that they are. When we experience something that we have learned from, or enjoyed, or have been inspired by, or that has simply made our life easier, we want to share it with other people. As writers, we find that our natural instinct is to sit down and write an article based on that experience.

As you look at the things you experience, consider two sources: the mundane things you experience on a daily basis and the bigger moments in your life. Both types of experiences can develop into marketable articles.

Ordinary, mundane moments — your commute to work, exercise regime, date night with your significant other — can become articles such as “De-Stressing Your Morning Commute,” “Soccer for Grown-Ups,” and “Fun Stay-at-Home Dates.’

Bigger moments — the birth of a child, failure of a relationship, summer vacation — can become articles such as “10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Having a Baby,” “Be a Better Listener,” and “Disney on a Budget.”

Think back on your life and recall moments that were especially meaningful to you. They may be humorous moments (a fun vacation), significant moments (college graduation), emotional moments (birth of a child), life-changing moments (a divorce), sentimental moments (conversation with a grandmother), even small or seemingly routine moments (watching a sunrise).

These experiences — whether they taught you something, or entertained you, or changed you in some way — can develop into effective, marketable articles. They might develop into an informative piece on how to handle a certain situation, a descriptive travelogue on a specific trip, or a personal essay on a memory from childhood.

Any time you are writing about something close to you, that intimacy in understanding and feeling will shine through in your writing.

Personal Interests and Passions

What are you particularly interested in? What hobbies or special activities do you engage in? What causes or topics are you particularly passionate about?

If you love something, it’s a perfect subject to write about. After all, won’t you be more passionate in your writing if you are passionate about the topic to begin with?

Think about the many things that personal interests and passions could encompass. Do you love photography, or wineries, or reality television? Do you crochet, or run marathons, or grow blueberries? Are you passionate about single-parent issues, or health care reform, or breast cancer?

Those interests and passions can easily develop into the types of articles that magazines need.

Talents/Areas of Expertise

Another important area of “what you know” revolves around those things that you are good at — whether a physical talent or skill (such as running track or playing a musical instrument), psychological talent or skill (listening to and counseling others), or a professional area of expertise (teaching math or coaching softball).

The nature of feature writing is such that, once you have a byline in a publication, you are considered an expert. If you are a freelance writer, you are marketing yourself as an expert on a topic or issue. While you will back up your own areas of expertise with quotes and information from other expert sources, starting with something you are good at or know well is a great way to begin.

All magazines — both general magazines and those that specialize in certain nichés (such as hiking, teaching, music, or gardening) — need articles on specific skills, and they need skilled writers to write about those things.

Generating Ideas for Magazine Articles (Part 1)

18 Jan

(The following information–and future posts I will be publishing in the next couple of days–come from work I am currently doing on my newest book on feature writing. I hope that it helps as you start developing ideas for stories you want to have published in the new year.)

The first thing to realize in searching for publishable ideas is that all effective magazine articles fill some perceived reader need. A feature writer’s goal is to come up with ideas that will in some way help, entertain, inspire, or otherwise reach into the reader’s life and needs. When you fill a reader’s need, you are in turn filling an editor’s need since an editor’s main concern is the reader.

In thinking about readers of magazines, consider the following needs that the professional writer consciously or unconsciously plays to.

1. Readers want to be entertained, and reading is one of the ways they have fun. Their sources of entertainment can range over everything from traveling, to cooking, to sports, to hobbies, to pop culture.

2. Readers strive for emotional and physical health. They want to know how to make all aspects of their lives better.

3. Readers sometimes have problems with human relationships. Most problems relate to raising a happy family and maintaining nurturing relationships. Few things are higher on the list of worries, for most people, than family and love.

4. Readers need help with their daily work. They want to do their work more quickly, easily, and productively.

5. Readers want to be well compensated for their work and be financially secure.

6. Readers want to be inspired by something bigger than themselves. They want to read stories of hope and courage. Such stories nourish their spirit.

In other words, readers want to be happy, healthy, loved, financially secure, and spiritually challenged. Editors are eager to get ideas that address any of these issues in a unique way.

Because of readers’ needs, most magazines therefore emphasize how-to stories:

(1) how to do something or

(2) how to be something.

Other types of articles that fill such readers’ needs include everything from personal experience pieces, travel articles, informational stories, and short pieces. As long as a reader’s need is being met, then the possibilities for article types, topics, and ideas are truly endless.

As you consider your plans for writing in this new year, consider the types of magazines you want to write for and then think about their readers.

What specific needs do those readers have?

What types of articles can help fulfill those needs


What specific articles could YOU write?

17 Jan

One of my favorite poets is providing my morning inspiration.

To succeed, you must believe you can succeed.

You must open yourself up to the opportunities in front of you.

You must believe in your dreams.

You must…well, what Emily said!