Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 1

Today, part one of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” was featured at The Caffeinated Writer. Enjoy!

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 1: The Craft of Writing

What’s the most important rule of writing a novel? Get your butt in the chair and write. Got that? Good. But what’s next? What will take you from hack to Hemingway? Here’s an idea: read.

Read the kinds of things you want to write, of course. Then read things thataren’tlike what you want to write. Read classics. Read poetry. (I’ve heard that Ray Bradbury read poetry every day. Reading his work, I believe it.)

But if you really want to write, then make sure you read books abouthowto write, and how tobea writer. And then read them again. While there’s no shortage of writing advice out there on the internet, do yourself—and your readers—a favor and dig a little deeper. Make these three kinds of writing books a part of your regular reading diet:

  • A book aboutthe…

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What’s in the box?

An old suitcase full of books, sheltered from the rain in front Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. And not just any books. Unknown, mysterious books in sealed brown cardboard boxes. The key to unlock a box’s mystery? Five euros. Who can resist? Not us!

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I felt like a kid at Christmas as we picked up different boxes, giving them a shake, feeling their weight. Is a heavier book a better book? Hmm, how to decide… In the end I went with the first one I’d picked up. Reasonably weighty. No second guessing–let’s do this.

We took it inside, slapped down five euros and ran up the stairs with our prize to one of the funky reading rooms. The sign on the suitcase had promised “classics & mysteries.” What would ours be?


And….. it’s a Stephen King novel I’ve never heard of. Given how many books he’s written and how few I’ve read (two, I think), it’s not a big shock that it’s one I’m unfamiliar with. Not sure it’s a classic or a mystery–but it’s probably mysterious.  It’s gotten decidedly mixed reviews on goodreads, but after I get through my current pile of reading, I’ll give it a try.

In the evening we went to our church’s community center near Châtelet for Creative Night. The girls enjoyed a painting lesson as well as working on decorative letter kits we’d picked up earlier in the day.


My creativity definitely trends toward the written and the musical (and I’d already spent the afternoon rehearsing), so I was happy to chill out with friends at the event while the girls had fun being artistic.

Audacious Writing Week, Day 2… and excerpts of eloquence

It’s Audacious Writing Week……… Day 2!

So far so good. Made my goal on Monday, more than 3,000 words written in five different scenes in the final act.

Yesterday, on my way to a coffee shop near Saint-Michel (for my third writing session of the day), I took a wrong–yet serendipitous–turn and came across this statue of that most celebrated of essayists, Michel de Montaigne.


Michel de Montaigne, by Paul Landowski. Situated across the street from the Sorbonne.

Notice his shiny shoe: apparently students think it’s good luck to give it a rub before an exam. Of course, this is the guy who is largely responsible for popularizing the essay form. Not sure how many students want to thank him for that…

Today, instead of hitting a coffee shop, I met with my writing group for conversation, a bit of critiquing, plenty of eating, and yes, even some writing.


The writing group spread: camembert, baguettes, pickles, salami, prosciutto, ham, coffee… my contribution was the chocolates from Jeff de Bruges. They say you can never go wrong if you show up with chocolate!

Whereas yesterday was all about getting some scenes into shape, today has been mostly work on backstory, world building, and solving story problems. So not as much “real” writing, but crucial stuff nonetheless. And I’m already well on my way to my daily goal: just 850 words to go.


Before I sign off today (and get back to drafting/outlining/world-building), here’s a lovely little morsel from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence (which I’ve been re-reading on my writing breaks). From Chapter 1, Alliteration:

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies,’ you will be considered the greatest poet who ever lived. Express precisely the same thought any other way–e.g. ‘your father’s corpse is 9.144 metres below sea level’–and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.

Why does The Tempest still get put on every year by a theatre company near you… even though nobody has spoken like Shakespeare for hundreds of years… even though there’s no shortage of playwrights, no shortage of plays… Is it the universal truths he serves up? Perhaps. Or is it his use of language, his turn of phrase? Maybe it’s actually the alliteration after all…

Where to write

If you’re going to write, you might as well find a beautiful place to do it. I’m happy to write at home, on the couch, on the floor, at the dining table, or even at a desk, but I also love to get out and find new places. It’s Paris, after all; time to make the most of it!

Coffee conundrum

Coffee shops here, sad to say, can’t really compete with what we’ve got going on in America. Expensive joe in small cups in places that aren’t terribly laptop friendly. And even most cafés that are good for setting up the computer don’t have the greatest coffee. So, while I never imagined it happening here, Starbucks has become my friend. I’ve found a few I like (and they’re just like you’d imagine), but I’ve got my sights on one that I just learned about that’s nothing like what’s back home in the States. Stay tuned.

One great coffee place that recently opened is run by the famed Shakespeare & Co. (which also has a room in the bookstore where you can read or write or hang out as well). Good coffee and views of Notre Dame? Absolutely!


Writing very quietly

If the coffee isn’t that great, why not just hit the library? Why not, indeed! We have a membership at the American Library in Paris, which is great for checking out books (I just picked up three by Ray Bradbury) and videos, but it’s a bit sterile as far as the writing environment goes. But this is Paris, so have no fear, an opulent library isn’t far.

Today I joined the Bibliothèque Mazarine, fifteen euros for a year’s access. If you’ve been to Paris, you’ve probably seen the dome of the building it’s housed in:


View from the Pont des arts (the Love Lock bridge–although the locks are gone now)

It’s full of old, rare books and is run with military precision. You must clear security, check in, and then are assigned a specific place to sit. Don’t even think about talking or eating or drinking or taking photographs unless you want to lose your visa and be on the next flight to wherever the French dump enemies of the state. But once settled inside, it’s a wonderful place to work. I think I’ll be spending more time at the library than ever before.


Don’t worry, I found these photos online. I didn’t want to lose my privileges on my first day!

“Writers… of a larger reality”

Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t want her books to be sold like deodorant. And neither do I (assuming I ever sell any).

Last night I finished polishing up the second draft of my opening set of scenes, about 7,500 words, or roughly 25 pages. (People always ask me how many pages I’ve written, but it’s much easier to think in terms of word count since words per page can vary so much. Some use 250 per page as their guide; I prefer 300. Not sure why–probably because I came across that number first.) It feels good, and it’s just in time for the girls’ Christmas break and a little sightseeing and a visit from family.

Of course, as soon as I move on to the next big chunk of the book, I come across a passage that might make more of a dramatic impact if it came earlier–back in the middle of those 25 pages I just finished revising. But I’m resisting the urge to fiddle with it. After all, second draft won’t be the final draft. Moving on!

Now, the real reason for this post is a chance to reprint this wonderful speech–with that line about deodorant–by Ursula K LeGuin, author of fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and more (check out The Lathe of Heavenit ain’t Katniss Everdeen’s dystopian fiction…).


Photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch

It’s one of those acceptance speeches that is actually worth reading. Not just “I want to thank the academy… my agent… my family…” She does that. And then she succinctly and persuasively defends the nature of her art, the art of writing, holding up its value in an age under the sway of profit and market forces.

There’s another fantasy author you may have heard of, who’s sold a few books in his time: J.R.R.  Tolkien. He didn’t write the Lord of the Rings because he consulted the findings of a focus group. It was a sequel his publisher wasn’t expecting, probably didn’t want, but which so many are so grateful he wrote.

Isn’t that how the best art is? Not the result of the marketing machine, it’s something we didn’t even know we were looking for, but something that speaks to the depth of the soul.

Now, without further ado (you have to say that kind of thing when introducing someone about to give a speech), Ursula K. LeGuin:


Speech in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long — my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book 6 or 7 times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

Ursula K. Le Guin

November 19, 2014

This text may be quoted without obtaining permission from the author, or copied in full so long as the copyright information is included:

Copyright © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin

The Elements of Eloquence


I chanced to pick up this book today from one of the shelves lining the narrow stairway at Shakespeare & Co. as people were crowding up behind me. I literally glanced at the cover, snatched it off the shelf and pushed my way on up the steps to the reading room, found a place on one of the ancient couches and opened it up to read:

“Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.”

With that opening gambit, I was hooked. The author, Mark Forsyth, goes on (skipping a bit) to say:

“Shakespeare got better and better and better, which was easy because he started badly, like most people starting a new job.”

An astonishing assertion, perhaps, but he makes a good case for his position (which I won’t trouble to quote here). At which point he declares:

“Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense anymore.”

Yes, yes, yes!

Forsyth then gets into the meat of his introduction, laying out his program for the book, which is to elucidate, chapter by chapter, the various “rhetorical figures” that form the basis of great writing. Not sure what the rhetorical figures are? You’re not alone. While Shakespeare learned (or learnt if you’re British) them in school, they don’t get taught much anymore. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter, that they don’t work, or that they’re somehow irrelevant.

“The one line from that song or film that you remember and don’t know why you remember is almost certainly down to one of the figures, one of the flowers of rhetoric growing wild.”

Again, yes.

Do you use words? Do you do any writing? Any writing at all? Then read this book. How wonderful it would be if facility with words wasn’t just the province of the chosen few, the so-called geniuses, but something ready to hand for all who wish to communicate. Read this book. At the very least you will be entertained, for Mr. Forsyth knows his craft. I’ve been by turns amused, enlightened, impressed and amused once again with each successive chapter (and did I mention that I just picked it up today?).

If you write, read this book.

(I’ll save you the web search: find it on Amazon here.)

Bibliophiles in Paris

If you speak English and you like books, you have to go to Shakespeare & Co., just across the Seine from Notre Dame. Everyone knows this, which is why the little warren of narrow corridors and the single stairway among the stacks and stacks of books is a perpetual human traffic jam. If you suffer from claustrophobia, just take a picture from outside and move on.

We’ve seen plenty of bookshops in Paris, but it was a pleasure to find one full of ones we could read. I picked up a copy of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (I read most of it in a day–you can see my review on Goodreads) and had a nice chat with the American from California who sold it to me. He’s also a writer who came to Paris–and decided to stay. Hmm…

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The cat that lives in the shop


Looking across the Seine

Perhaps even better than visiting Shakespeare & Co. was getting to the American Library near the Eiffel Tower and getting a membership. Like Shakespeare & Co., they’ve packed as many books as possible in their rows and rows of shelves. We promptly checked out eleven books.


Crossing the bridge to get to the library

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The stacks and our stack

We were at the library on Saturday, a big day for weddings; crossing the bridge back to our side of the river we passed two different couples getting photographed as well as a modelling shoot (I didn’t get a picture of that).

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