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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

Maybe you dream of writing but haven’t started yet, or perhaps you’ve been writing for a while but want to ratchet your craft to a new level. Wherever you are on the authorial spectrum, the writing guides below will furnish inspiration, instruction and insights aplenty.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. A gentle but firm-handed instructive companion for fiction writers, first published in 1934. Brande devised a nifty exercise to get around that “meddlesome, opinionated, and arrogant” internal editor who so often silences your true writer’s voice: Commit yourself to spend the first 15 minutes of every day writing whatever comes to mind. Then, without revising or even reading it, set it aside. Later in the process, as Brande shows, you can work in tandem with your inner critic to shape this raw material into solid stories.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. A master class between book covers. Writing professors around the country savor this title for its comprehensive look at creative writing — including the analysis of stories, exercises and assignments.

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. The novelist and teacher invokes passages from both his bad and his good writing to illustrate how ideas and stories emerge from the unconscious. If nothing else, read the chapter on yearning — a fundamental element that many writers overlook, says Butler: “There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.” Isn’t that, after all, why we write?

The Making of a Writer, Volume 2: Journals, 1963–1969 by Gail Godwin. A fascinating look at a work in progress — both the young writer and her writing. The themes that emerge as you read Godwin’s notebook entries may parallel your own: her desire to be a serious writer, her bouts of self-doubt, the endless conflict between writing and marriage.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. In this Zen approach to establishing a fruitful writing practice, Goldberg lauds the power of setting down the minutiae of a life: “We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal — The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson. Can journal writing sharpen such essential writing skills as notation, description and narration? Can it give you the tools you need to identify pivotal moments, deeper truths, underlying patterns — and shape them into stories? Johnson thinks it can — and shows you how. “Just below the surface of quickly jotted facts,” she writes, “there’s always a more interesting story waiting to be claimed.”

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. I tend to be skeptical of writer’s block (I’m a Midwesterner), but Keyes won me over with this entertaining and motivational book. It’s comforting to learn that certain familiar insecurities plague even the most successful writers. (Cynthia Ozick, for one, admitted, “I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”) Keyes helps you recognize what’s holding you back — and then vanquish it. “The more I read, and write,” he says, “the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than inner conviction.”

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