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The Elements of Style: Fourth Edition
by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
105 pages (paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/Writing

I read this for the first time as a library book and was enthralled by it; my style, both academic and creative, changed for the better. I finally got it from BookMooch and read it again front-to-back; and my style will probably change again, though not as drastically, careful as I am now to preserve what beginnings I have of voice. As a point of reference, I currently have 19 Book Darts in the book, even with just one for the entire fourth chapter (Words and Expressions Commonly Misused). I think I'll reread it every year to refresh my memory and strive toward clarity (not necessarily conciseness, because my voice is not).

How can I describe The Elements of Style, truly? It's such a short book, and yet a long, absorbing read. All I can say is, if you're a writer and you haven't read Strunk & White, go forth and do so. Now.
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I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
343 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/YA

Over winter break, my friend and I (both shameless English geeks) decided to exchange book "assignments." She chose this (and I assigned her Tigana, to share the joy of GGK's prose). While our tastes differ dramatically--she disdains most fantasy, for one--I trust her judgment to a certain extent and I'm glad I had the chance to read I Capture the Castle.

Cassandra Mortmain lives in old Belmotte Castle with her sister Rose, her brother Thomas, her kind but outrageous stepmother Topaz, their steadfastly devoted servant Stephen, and her writer father--who produced one great work, Jacob Wrestling, years ago and hasn't written anything since. When Simon and Neil Cotton arrive from America (the story is set in England)--Simon has inherited Scoatney estate, which includes Belmotte--the Mortmain family changes for better and for worse. This is the story of Cassandra, told by her in three unique journals; but it's also the story of writing. Cassandra begins writing in an exercise book in order to teach herself how to write, and throughout the story her father is a shadowy background figure struggling (or in denial against) his writer's block.

This novel is old and obscure, but it deserves to be better known. Cassandra's voice is charming and the diary format works perfectly--I love the metatext especially, where Cassandra writes about writing, metaphor, inspiration, and creation. She feels young and old simultaneously, just as Simon says more than once. Certain parts were questionable--I didn't understand exactly why her father had writer's block for so long--but overall there were many other parts that I loved. The ending is bittersweet and wrenching (quite an open invitation for fanfiction); Cassandra's last journal entry is realistically abrupt, because she has truly grown up. At heart, this is a classic coming-of-age story.

Despite being purely "literary" fiction without a speculative element in sight, I quite enjoyed I Capture the Castle and recommend it to anyone fond of YA, or who has an interest in the unexpected details of writing.
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The Art and Craft of Poetry
by Michael J. Bugeja
339 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Writing

For me at least, this was a phenomenally useful book. I managed to write new poems from it--a half-decent villanelle and a free-verse on Newfoundland that I actually like--which is a rarity in itself. The process Bugeja teaches doesn't fit entirely with my own--for one, I have no wish to focus strongly on poetry--but for others, strictly completing the exercises will prove worthwhile. The first third of the book covers ideas, the second section covers genres, and the last details various forms. I found his explanations of form poetry especially useful, as he outlines exactly how to write a [villanelle/sestina/pantoum/etc.] instead of just giving the pattern and rules. I had some issues with the chapter on "extranatural" poetry--what speculative poems would fall under, I suppose--which focuses narrowly on Christianity, though Bugeja does include a disclaimer.

Poetry is a great side craft for prose writers to study, to strengthen their grasp of style and the sound, not just the meaning of words. And of course, style being my only personal strength, I love poetry. But regardless, recommended to aspiring poets (obviously) and writers.
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Writing the Short Story: A Hands-On Program
by Jack M. Bickham
213 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Writing

I had this book checked out from the library for almost six months and never finished it. I'm sure that the Map works for many writers, but I'm not one of them--I did try his index card system, and it was such a chore that I couldn't finish. Writing is supposed to be fun. Perhaps it will appeal to the more methodical, or to those who have trouble finishing a short story.

The Time-Out sections were useful, but I can't say the same for the rest of the book. Nevertheless, not really Bickham's fault, except maybe for being convinced that his is the only long-term successful way to write.

And that's all I have to say.
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Fiction Writer's Workshop
by Josip Novakovich
250 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/Writing

This book actually took me a long while to get through, considering its length. The chapters and exercises are best for the writer of mainstream fiction, but neither does Novakovich disparage genre. I took notes on much of the advice and prompts. Even the clearly experimental exercises--like writing the voice on an uneducated person with mispellings, dropped periods, misplaced commas, and repetition--would be useful for any writer, though not directly applicable to speculative fiction. The only quibble I had was that it assumes every writer can and should write with outline. Not necessarily true!

Overall, highly recommended for mainstream writers, and perhaps a less glowing rec for those involved in speculative fiction (the book does give some good advice on mysteries).
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Genre: Nonfiction/Writing
87 pages excluding appendix, 159 pages including appendix (trade paperback)

I picked this book up at the school library while searching for the MLA citation handbook--it looked interesting and helpful. Sadly, I really only got two worthwhile exercises out of the entire thing, and I had to deal with Allen's pretentious prejudice against genre writers the whole time. Just a few aggravating quotes: "This book needs customers to buy it, and the publisher and author are just as willing to accept money from deadwood, nonreading writers as we are from writers with some potential." [6] For love of the God that I don't believe in, if you dislike reading, why are you even talking a writing class or reading a how-to book on writing? (That quote was NOT sarcasm in context, by the way.)

Also: "Real writers buy books." [11] So "real writers" can't be poor and choosy about what they spend their hard-earned money on? Allen insinuates that people who make good use of the library are destroying the publishing industry and, of course, can't ever be real writers. Then he implies that "pop fiction" (genre) authors aren't "serious writers" [73] and don't write anything "that makes the world a more interesting place and makes people think something they haven't thought before." [74] Apparently Allen is under the impression that all genre fiction follows generic formulas. Perhaps if he ever bothered reading some decent fantasy or sci-fi, he'd actually know what he was talking oh-so authoritatively about.

And I didn't even write up all my notes, since some of them (like being annoyed at the appendix) are just personal quirks.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Apparently I can't write anything these days without sounding pretentious, so I've given up trying. Sigh. Just a word of warning, as "anything" includes my miniature book reviews.

161 pages (hardcover)

This concise little book is a creative writing guide for the young adult audience that still manages to pack in much worthy advice. Each chapter is only a few pages, covering topics from characterization to humor to fairytale retelling (a specialty of Levine's). The writing prompts were very useful, though again tailored for YA. Levine tells the reader repeatedly to have fun and save every word written. She also delves into how she worked through issues in her published novels, such as Ella Enchanted (a Newbery Honor winnter) and Dave at Night.

I've always loved Levine's expansion and dramatization of different fairytales--Ella Enchanted was my first "favorite book." Her style doesn't show as much in this nonfiction work, but I found it easy to read past the simple language for real gems about the art of writing. Levine even names one chapter "Suffer!" and that alone gives her a thumbs-up. What better advice for aspiring young writers? I only wish this book had existed a few years ago, when I first started writing stories.

Overall, Writing Magic would be a great resource for writers of all ages, though more as a quick read than a vital reference. The cover design is simply magical, and you all know how I'm a sucker for pretty covers.


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January 2011



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