Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Writing Book Dilemma

            More than forty years ago I bought my first how-to book on writing. I can’t remember the title now--I’ve long since donated it, but I do remember reading it cover to cover and marking passages I wanted to remember and work on in my writing. I was 19 years old then and struggling to earn enough money to get back into college to finish my final two years and get a degree in journalism. I was living in the YWCA in Colorado Springs and staying in a tiny room right off the basketball court working as a clerk typist and dreaming of the day I might become a writer of fiction or non-fiction.
            Buying any book was a major investment back then since I was trying to save money. Lunch was a 20 cent hotdog and dinner every night was a ten cent can of soup (yes, soup only cost ten cents!) but I did try to budget for buying books. Most of the time, I got all my reading material from the local public library, but I sprung for the three dollars to buy that writing book.
            It began a trend for me. Ever since then, I am always on the look-out for new books on writing. My circumstances improved and now I find myself with whole bookcases of books on writing. That little old book of mine would definitely get lost in there. But it did get me started. Back in those old days I spent most of my evenings reading my writing book doing the exercises or just writing stories into a ringed binder. Every time I buy a new book on writing I think I’m going to get all the way through it and even try some of the exercises. I don’t, but I find that I do manage to learn something new or try something different as a result of almost every book I buy.
            This year I’m resolving once again to clear out some of my book shelves and I started looking through some of those writing books. Which to get rid of? Which to keep? Wow, what a dilemma! Well, it’s going to be a slow process because I know there are hidden gems in almost all those books. I’m going to start looking through them and seeing what they have to offer and blog about what I find in some of them.
            I’m going to start with what is closest to me--the books on my desk. I always keep several books on my desk next to my computer in case I need them. Do you keep reference books by your computer? Yes, we can always look things up online, but it’s comforting not to have to leave my WIP page to get a quick answer.
            During all those years writing TV news, I always kept an AP Stylebook handy and I still have it there. It’s great for looking up things quickly like numerical use or street numbers. I also have a Chicago Manual of Style but it’s kept back on the bookcase for weightier issues. AP is great for quick, easy questions--everything from what a baseball box score looks like to whether or not to put a hyphen in hanky-panky to what a hedge fund is.
            I also keep a Grammar Desk Reference from Writer’s Digest nearby too. I like its simplicity. It’s divided into four parts, including grammar usage, rules, and punctuation and you can find can easily find the answers to any grammar problems fairly quickly. I like using it because it allows me to look for answers while keeping my current work up on my computer screen. It’s good to go through sometimes too, just to get a refresher in things like the use of dangling modifiers or proper pronoun agreement. The authors use actual mistakes in newspapers and magazines to show improper usage, just as a way of letting us all know that mistakes often make it into print.
            When I’m editing I need Browne and King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers close at hand, though I always keep it nearby. The book is well worth reading and the checklists at the end of each chapter are wonderful to go through while you are editing. I still find myself referring back to it when I have questions about my writing.
            What about your favorite writing books? Anything that you keep on your desk or can’t do without? I’d love to hear about it.  If you leave a comment, you get entered in a chance to win one of my favorite writing books--Ten Steps to Creating Memorable Characters. (okay, yes, it’s the book I co-authored)


  1. Great post, Becky! I'm like you, I grab up every writing book I can find - and I'm not actively writing. I just think it's important to keep tabs on what might work for others. I think my all time favorite is one by British author John Braine entitled "On Writing" because it gave the implicit instructions that writing should be no less important than eating, sleeping or breathing. I also love everything by Natalie Goldberg. "Writing Down the Bones" was eye opening and lovely. Finally, I still have my "go-to" Strunk and White and four different dictionaries and a favorite thesaurus that was given to me by my first executive editor. The dedication inside reads, "Make word choices of such colorful nature that readers may taste the hues of sunrise."

  2. Terrie
    Thanks for the comment and thanks for letting me know about Natalie Goldberg. I'm going to check out her books. After you mentioned Strunk and White, I realized, yes, it's here right here tucked in between my AP Style Guide and my self editing book.

  3. Hi Becky
    I too am a writing book collector. Natalie Goldberg is awesome, so is anything by James Scott Bell and Donald Maass. Just bought the newest edition of Plotto by William Wallace Cook. Now just to have the time to read them and time to write.

  4. Kendra
    I love Donald Maass too. I've been to a couple of his short workshops and I recommend them to everyone. He can really help writers to get the most out of a scene. You've made me curious about Plotto though I may have to hold off getting it just yet because I just got a couple of new plotting books.


Romancing the Rails

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