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If You Want to Write … Start Here!

These writing guides deserve a perch on the bookshelves of writers both novice and veteran

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Tough, get-on-your-duff-and-write love, served up with a side dish of The Master’s salty good humor. King believes that you can become a better writer, and he pushes you to do so via reminders that pretentious language, the passive voice and adverbs are enemies of good writing. “Make yourself a solemn promise right now,” he urges us, “that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ to mean ‘tip.’” (Speaking of tips, start with King’s “Toolbox” chapter.)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. A let’s-get-real look at what it takes to be a writer. Lamott leavens the downside of writing (loneliness, rejection and despair, for starters) with some wickedly upbeat humor — and many practical strategies designed to help you do the thing you love. (When you feel like quitting, for example, turn to her chapters on “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts.”)

Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life. Compiled by Carole F. Chase, this collection of L’Engle’s short essays (many are only a few hundred words long) offers practical tips on writing techniques. It also touches on the spiritual aspects of creativity. Here’s some advice to treasure from the book: “But when you start to write, don’t think. Write. If you think when you’re writing, it’s no good.”

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. This is the book version of an article Leonard wrote for The New York Times in 2001 that was entitled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” he exhorts us. That means saying goodbye to detailed descriptions of characters, people, places, the weather and what’s going on in a character’s head.

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. The writing life as seen from the other side of the desk. Top-notch editor and agent Lerner pulls no punches: You’re facing rejection, an “eat or be eaten climate” and likely not much in the way of payment. Yet she also prizes even the most private forms of writing: “No combination of written words is more eloquent than those exchanged in letters between lovers or friends, or along the pale blue lines of private diaries, where people take communion with themselves.”

Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead) by Eric Maisel. Dip into this slim volume of writing affirmations for some quick confidence-builders. Maisel, a creativity coach, has heard just about every excuse imaginable for writers not writing — and knows how to rebut each one:

Excuse No. 64: “Reading four hundred novels would probably help me find my voice.”

Rebuttal: “I will only find my voice by writing many novels, including the bad ones I will probably have to write, and learning by writing.”

Excuse No. 166: “I need to nag my children about their dirty rooms.”

Rebuttal: “I need to write.”

You get the idea.

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