These Four Books Will Knock Your Writing up a Notch

I’ve read a lot of how-to books for writers. They tend to have grandiose titles, like How to Write the Next Big Book Everyone Talks About, and dispense obvious advice from writers who, curiously, are almost completely unknown. But a few have earned a spot on my desk, always within arm’s reach.

1 – Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup


If you read one book about writing, make sure it’s this one. Style explains everything you need to know about making your words sound cool. Managing long sentences. Describing actions. Lyrical paragraphs. (Even successive sentence fragments.) Every chapter felt like a mystery being unlocked, showing me how to use writing techniques that had previously been out of my grasp. This book is the key to good writing, and older editions are so cheap they’re practically free. [Buy it.]

2 – The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White


A little obvious, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of this classic (and remarkably brief) set of English lessons. It’s in the public domain, so read it online. It will only take a few minutes. Even though it is novice-level stuff that you’re supposed to already know, many authors produce poor writing because they never bother to brush up on the basics. Don’t be like that. Spend a few minutes with this book to make sure you’re not writing with a huge blind spot.

Still sounds lame? Well, I first heard about The Elements of Style from…

3 – On Writing, by Stephen King


That’s right. Strunk & White’s plain book about grammar is championed by the Schlockmeister himself. King has a reputation for being edgy, but this memoir  is all about the discipline of the writing craft, like learning grammar rules and making time to write every day. He almost succeeds in making it sound boring, but this book is a must for anyone who wants to know how a writer should get things done. Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors ever, so his advice on getting through drafts and completing projects is invaluable. [Buy it.]

4 – Write Like the Masters, by William Cane.


This one’s my favorite. I was skeptical about the title, but this little book, written by a rhetoric professor, will take your writing to the next level. William Cane explains the rhetorical devices of famous writers in such a simple, straightforward manner that you’ll soon be impersonating Dickens or Melville with ease. Write Like the Masters also explores the lifestyles and writing habits of these authors to demonstrate different approaches to the creative process. (Balzac’s use of coffee might feel familiar, while Faulkner’s absolute concentration on his projects will make you question your dedication.) Professor William Cane is a very encouraging teacher, and any writer who reads through to the end will feel a surge of energy compelling them to write, write, write like there’s no tomorrow! [Buy it.]

Old Favorites: Understanding Simak’s ‘The Visitors’

clifford_simakClifford Simak might have been a square. He once wrote, “My favorite recreation is fishing (the lazy way, lying in a boat and letting them come to me). Hobbies: Chess, stamp collecting, growing roses,” and every picture of him looks like the standard American Male from the 50s on his way to have his shoes shined and fight communism. But Simak gave us thought-provoking stories that still make me ponder and think.

He began publishing science fiction in the 30s, working regularly for editors like Hugo Gersnback and John w. Campbell. According to his friend, Isaac Asimov, Simak had a respectable “real” job, where he didn’t let on that he was a writer. (I hear there are still people who do that.)

He’s a foundational writer, to be sure, and what makes his work unique is his focus on ordinary, mid-western people. My favorite Simak story, The Big Front Yard, is about a country repairman who finds adorable aliens quietly fixing things in his basement. Rather than writing a Buck Rogers-esque hero, Simak tells us how an incredibly normal guy reacts to an amazing situation.

The Visitors is one of Simak’s last works, written in the 80s, and it gives an unusual take on alien invasion stories. After the opening chapters, the scenes start to become bare with little or (often) no scenery or setting described. Just a a page or two of exchanged dialog and then we’re off to the next chapter. You can almost picture it like a minimalist play, where characters step out onto a barely illuminated stage and say their lines in front of sparse props.


Like this. With aliens.

At the start of the story, a fisherman encounters an alien craft when he reaches back to cast and his rod snaps in half against a big, black box hovering over the river. The box sucks him up, stares at him, and spits him back out. Then the visitor, which appears to be a life form rather than a ship, begins eating trees and leaving behind strange “cellulose” blocks. The people of earth stand dumbstruck as more silent Visitors descend, eat more trees, and eventually to leave behind offspring in the form of small black boxes.

The visitors never directly communicate in any way, but they do start to create gifts for the people of earth. Strange cars that fly are left behind, seemingly as gifts in exchange for all the trees the Visitors devour. Sadly, the crowds that rush to get the free flying cars become too dangerous and the gifts must be guarded by the military for the public’s safety. Next the Visitors create houses, all identical and a little too perfect. The sight of a shadow moving inside of one of these houses tells us that the Visitors have even replicated humans, and our protagonists have no idea what to make of this development.

As the story nears its end, it becomes clear to the reader that no end is in sight. One of the characters even admits as much, lamenting that their story won’t have a neat Hollywood ending to tie up the loose ends. At the final page, the story ends with some abruptness while our characters watch the situation grow beyond their comprehension and control.

The purpose of this story remained elusive for me until, near the end, one of the characters mentioned a piece of plot from the beginning of the book, something I had forgotten: before the visitors landed, one of our protagonists, a reporter, was on her way to investigate a situation on a Native American reserve. The puzzle began to take shape.

Flipping back, I remembered that the story began with a conversation at the barber’s about Native Americans trying to preserve forest land that companies wanted to use for lumber. Our protagonist thinks the trees should be left alone, at least for the pleasure of looking at them, while his barber thinks it’s unfair for the Native Americans to keep industry from growing. (It’s a brave man who disagrees with his barber.)

As we watch the DAPL fight unfold once again, I find Simak’s book useful. The Visitors may not have a simple, explicit point, but it does give the reader some small insight into the point of view of modern Native Americans. No matter what Simak’s aliens do to smooth things over, they can’t undo the damage done, even if they never meant any harm. Though we think of them as visitors, and even while they come bearing gifts, it becomes clear that these strange beings from the sky can’t help but be invaders.


Relax and Unwind with A. K. Klemm’s Lily Hollow Novellas

andiA. K. Klemm’s Bookshop Hotel series will make you nostalgic for small-town America where everyone knows everyone’s business and nothing ever changes. This pair of novellas takes us to Lily Hollow, where our protagonist, AJ, opens up a bookstore that doubles as a hotel. Quirky townfolk invade the narrative, and AJ is always up to her short chin in local drama.

Both books reminded me of shows like Doc Martin or Northern Exposure, where friendly, colorful locals flood each scene with their idiosyncrasies. There’s a cranky woman running a book club who becomes obsessed with hats. An out-of-place teenager who hangs out with old people. Couples finding love well into their golden years. All of it wrapped up in charming dialog, similar to something out of Jojo Moyes.

While the setting is warm and wistful, the stories don’t lack for drama and conflict. What do you do when an estranged family member screws up your plans and moves in without asking? Or when a letter arrives on your doorstep from a lawyer who threatens to turn off your livelihood? How do you help the diner owner who suddenly can’t remember to turn on the ovens?

Klemm’s love for reading is evident throughout, as these stories are essentially love letters to her fellow bibliophiles. And what book-lover doesn’t enjoy a charming novella?

Readers can enjoy the debut, The Bookshop Hotel, and its sequel, Lily Hollow. A. K. Klemm promises that more Lily Hollow stories are on the horizon.

The Mountain of Kept Memory is the Escape You Need Right Now


Rachel Neumeier’s books are always a pleasure, taking you down the sort of rabbit hole that begs you to clutch a warm cup of tea while the story carries you away.

Like much of Neumeier’s work, The Mountain of Kept Memory feature two leads, brother and sister in this case, who take turns with the narrative. Men and women coexisting without a romantic subtext is always a welcome feature to me. Perhaps this is because I’ve always made friends easily with women. Or maybe I’ve just had enough with romance stories. I tend to roll my eyes when an adventure story introduces a love interest, because it invariably slows down the actual plot, but when men and women meet in a Neumeier story I have come to expect an interesting relationship.

Against a familiar backdrop (a medieval-esque fantasy world on the brink of war) we meet a pair of brave characters who turn out to be a lot of fun. Princess Oressa is a grown woman who enjoys sneaking around her father’s palace, climbing the outer walls, and eavesdropping on important meetings. (Exactly the sort of subtle trickery I would enjoy if I wasn’t a clumsy, 6’6″ monolith who couldn’t sneak past a cactus.) Shy Oressa turns out to be terribly clever, while her outspoken brother is a natural leader. They make quite a team.

The opening lines made me smile:

Oressa, curled beneath her father’s throne, her arms wrapped around her knees and her knees tucked up tight to her chest, was precariously hidden behind generous falls of the saffron-dyed silk draped over the seat and back of the throne. This sort of thing had been easier when she’d been twelve. Or even sixteen. Now that she was a woman grown, she had to work much harder to stay out of sight.

To save their country from war, Oressa and her brother explore the eponymous Mountain of Kept Memory to learn the secrets of the dead gods. They find, instead, a cache of ancient technology and a pile of confounding mysteries. The war grows more fierce while the mysteries deepen, forcing our pair of protagonists into a dangerous race for answers.

While the story is satisfyingly dramatic and exciting, it is also a lot of fun. I laughed at Oressa’s attempts to understand men, and felt a kind of sympathy with her brother when he realizes, once again, that his sister has found a new way to complicate his life. And I kept turning pages hoping to understand the ancient puzzle they had uncovered.

The calm reprieve provided by The Mountain of Kept Memory has been much appreciated. It seems I cannot get through five minutes of my day without enduring caustic, political rhetoric. I don’t know about you, but that kind of talk makes me weary, makes me want to leave the planet. This escapist adventure was exactly what I needed.

Forgotten Books: Frank Herbert’s ‘Whipping Star’ is Bizarre Experience

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that expected me to learn so much in so little time.

I found my co13437226_277048829312635_1009455740_npy amidst old volumes in a used bookstore. I’d never heard of it. This copy tore itself apart as I read, because the simple act of turning a page was enough to fragment the stiff paper. It held itself together just long enough for me get to the end. By that time, the final sections were barely bound, with the preceding pages having fallen out as the spine progressively withered.

The plot is intense. Our protagonists approach an alien sphere, interact with the most mysterious creature in the known universe, and learn that every life in the galaxy is about to die–all of this at the very start. Like drinking from a fire hose, we crash into the rest of the setting as the plot unfolds, meeting fascinating aliens and intricate political situations only long enough to know they exist before Frank Herbert rushes us to the next baffling sentence.

iO9 explains it as well as one can:

Herbert’s Whipping Star takes place in the far future after humanity has made contact with several other extraterrestrial civilizations. Together, they form the ConSentiency — a kind of intergalactic government akin to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. But this system proves to be too efficient for its own good, enacting knee-jerk laws that disregard their own downstream consequences. In turn, a shadow organization is created to disrupt the system and slow it down.

The Whipping Star universe appears to be as well thought-out as any sprawling sci-fi series, but this enormous story has been crammed into a tiny paperback. The world-building is as engrossing as it is overwhelming. The plot moves at breakneck speed, with nearly surreal details that often made me stop and wonder if I understood what was going on. As another blogger so well put it:

Frank Herbert had an imagination quite out of this world, and this is perhaps his weirdest whim. The one Caleban left is called Fanny Mae – seriously – and she is the manifestation of a star – a sun. And what she manifests as is an enormous beach ball.

That’s just one piece of the insane puzzle.

Another facet provided by Wikipedia:

Fannie Mae agreed to the contract with Abnethe in return for education. Calebans have great difficulty understanding and communicating with the more limited species of the ConSentiency (and vice versa), but Fannie Mae is curious. Abnethe’s wealth provides the best tutors in exchange for Fannie Mae’s agreement to take the whippings. Abnethe has an insane sadistic streak, but a court-mandated Clockwork-Orange-style conditioning session leaves her unable to tolerate the suffering of others. Abnethe needs a Caleban to take the whippings because she still craves a way to satisfy her sadistic urges and Calebans do not broadcast their pain in a way that is easily recognized by other species.

Still, I loved it. And I’m not alone, based on reviews I’ve read. It’s a plot so complex Tolkien couldn’t follow it, but the blinding, bizarre narrative is compelling to the last word.

David B. Coe’s ‘The Outlanders’ and its Wonderful, Timely Message

Fantasy readers arthe_outlanders-ebooksite-200x300e lucky to have David B. Coe, because he possesses enough talent to succeed in any genre of writing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Outlanders. This book also contains an important theme, which made it a comforting read as a venomous election cycle came to an end.

The tricky part of writing genre fiction is making the same old plots seem fresh and new. Readers are quick to toss aside any book that seems too familiar. Then, of course, we’ll throw the next one away for not being familiar enough. We fantasy readers are a demanding lot, but, fortunately, Coe knows what he’s doing.

The Outlanders  succeeds the outstanding novel The Children of Amarid, and in this sequel the author faces the challenge of writing about a modern world that exists alongside a magical one. Coe is very good at world-building, and this story gives fantasy readers two worlds for the price of one. But the real heart of the tale is found in its people, and, as Coe knows, that is the secret to making any story a good one.

The novel opens with a simple scene: a woman is looking at a piece of paper. Sonel, the leader of a magical order, has received correspondence from the neighboring, modernized society–the first formal communication between their peoples. The contents of the letter are bland, boilerplate,  but Sonel is struck by the paper, which she barely has words to describe:

The paper itself was a message. Immaculately white, its edges were as straight
as sunbeams, its corners so sharp they seemed capable of drawing blood…Yet, despite the distance it had traveled, it came rolled in a precise, narrow cylinder and tied with a shining, golden ribbon of silk.  Indeed, it looked so elegant, so unnatural in its perfection, that Sonel had known before she read the terse response to her own letter of several months before, what the flawless, ornate lettering would say. She pictured her own note, embarrassed at the thought of how it must have appeared to its recipients. She had used the best parchment available to her, had employed the
most skilled scribe in Amarid, and had tied her letter with the fine, blue satin
used for all of the Order’s communications. But compared with this missive
from Lon-Ser, her image of that first letter seemed to wither and fade. In her
memory the parchment looked dingy and rough-edged, the lettering coarse and
uneven, the blue satin crude and inadequate. The letter from Lon-Ser’s leaders
made a mockery of her effort.

Hoping to stop a pending invasion, a mage named Orris ventures into this modernized land, bringing his mystical gift to people who no longer believe in magic. Orris isn’t exactly a diplomat, to say the least, and his struggles to understand an advanced society are evenly matched by his lack of charm. His presence as a mage is seen as a threat by a local ruler, and Orris quickly finds himself hunted by the most dangerous men in the land while looking for a way to save his home from war.

The story of two cultures clashing as their inevitable collision draws near is captivating, but the real story is how this conflict affects the characters back home. Unable to agree on exactly how to deal with this new threat, the mages, sworn to protect their lands, are bitterly divided. You can’t help but feel frustrated as our protagonists’ noble efforts are swallowed up in bureaucracy and prejudice. I wanted to scream at the characters and tell them to just get up and walk away, washing their hands of the nasty affair.

Fortunately, the characters in this book are better people than that. No amount of bullying or mockery will turn our hero, Baden, from his goal of keeping the order of mages together and unified. Baden refuses to demonize his political opponents or return their mockery, and he also insists that the discovery of their technologically advanced neighbors should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Baden fights the good fight to the end, always steadfast in his belief that these different people, if they will work together, can move forward to something better.

And that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.


Stay gold, Owl-Master

Check out David. B. Coe’s site to read more about The Outlanders, and the anticipated new edit he’s releasing for us. It’s wonderful when a writer has the opportunity to revisit an established work and give it a fresh look.

Frederick Turner’s Apocalypse is My Favorite So Far

A book titled Apocalypse: An Epic Poem isn’t something you run into every day, but neither is its author, Frederick Turner, who, among other things, writes science fiction epics in the form of long poems.

Frederick’s biography reads like a character from a book. An Oxford educated man who grew up in Africa. He met J.R.R. Tolkien. Alongside Carl Sagan, he advised NASA on issues like terraforming. As a poet, he has been nominated for the Nobel prize numerous times. He teaches karate. The number of works attributed him is a dizzying list that would make even established scholars feel inadequate.

I recall meeting him at a party, where our conversation turned to the theory of evolution; we shared an uplifting discussion of the way that Darwinism, in our opinion, fits in quite well with religion, like a hand to a glove.

His fiction is absolutely fascinating. Apocalypse: An Epic Poem is 10,000 lines of perfect iambic pentameter, telling a captivating story about the end of the world, along with illuminating insights about philosophy and humanity. The story is often the sort of “hard” sci-fi that leans on Turner’s scientific knowledge (he’s probably the first poet to use the name Chandrasekhar in iambic verse). But for every step he takes in the rugged real world, another foot is firmly planted in the ideal, the thoughtful lyricism of contemplation and beauty.  One line may reminisce on a finer point of ethnobiology while the next may invoke a song lyric, or a religious text, all with flawless, enchanting delivery.

Frederick Turner’s style is notable for its faithful adherence to the rules of poetry. This is not the free-formed, arhythmic verse that has become so fashionable, with passages on existential angst floating alone on nearly empty pages. No, Turner’s work follows simple, straightforward patterns, and in doing so he demonstrates how following the form frees the words, and frees the imagination, rather than holding anything back. The lines of his epic poem flow effortlessly, and the passages are captivating for their wordplay as much as for their content.

Read more about it from Turner himself, in a post titled Apocalypse Is Here, And It May Be More Fun Than You’d Think.

And check out Apocalypse on Amazon.


‘The Other Wind’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

It can’t be said enough: Le Guin’s writing is amazing.

I just read The Other Wind, the last Earthsea novel. Le Guin pieces together nearly unremarkable clauses into unforgettable tapestries, writing with every bit of subtle power one would expect from the words of Hemingway.


Tehanu was off her horse, had tossed the reins to Yenay, was walking forward down the slight slope to where the dragon hovered, its long wings beating quick and short like a hovering hawk’s. But these wings were fifty feet from tip to tip, and as they beat they made a sound like kettledrums or rattles of brass. As she came closer to it, a little curl of fire escaped from the dragon’s long, long-toothed, open mouth.

She held up her hand. Not the slender brown hand but the burned one, the claw. The scarring of her arm and shoulder kept her from raising it fully. She could reach barely as high as her head.

I read this scene like a kid watching a scary movie, edging off of the couch and letting food fall out of my mouth as I read on, praying for Tehanu as I turned the page.

It’s a short book, but it has everything. So often I feel like I have to sacrifice my desire for good writing in order to read a good story, but once in a while someone can do both.

Old Favorites: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip

Rachel Neumeier got me thinking with her blog entry about bringing out the best old books into the spotlight, because I love telling people about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
It’s from 1974, and it’s a real gem. The writing style has the mythic weightiness similar to Ursula K. Le Guin’s prose, with every sentence feeling like a fragment of a dark, ancient legend. The magic in the story is beautiful and fascinating. The scenes are as exciting as they are intimate.
Overall, it’s a very thoughtful book, and it features an unforgettable heroin. For a fantasy story, I really think it was ahead of its time in terms of writing style and character complexity. It’s hard to find a better book.
The best part is how well The Forgotten Beasts of Eld holds up over time. Whenever I pour myself into those old pages (my copy is older than I am and pretty well-traveled) I get sucked into the mystery and the magic all over again. Not a lot of books can keep giving like that.

Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is the Perfect Mystery Story

I’ve always avoided Agatha Christie in the same way that girls in my high school would drop their books and run the other way if they saw me at the other end of the hall. This aversion to her works happened because of those boring commercials for Agatha Christie inspired movies. These made-for-TV flicks always looked like slow-moving parlor dramas, the sort that I suspect are designed to make squirmy adolescent boys want to play outside.

Did you know that her books have been translated into more languages than any other work of fiction? And that only Shakespeare and the Bible can outsell her collected works? And she met The Doctor in that episode about a transmogrifying bee? (Or something like that. I stopped paying attention by the end.)

I wanted to give her a try, so I started with her breakout work, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. With a dull title like that, it has to be awful, right?

I was hooked after a few words. Christie was obviously a sly genius with great wit. I laughed in every chapter while trying to keep track of the clues. The book’s ~70,000 words flew by while I chuckled at her jokes and scrutinized the evidence. My spare time, when I wasn’t reading the book, was spent going over the details of the case, certain I could crack Christie’s mystery.

Did I figure out who did it? Not really. I had my suspicions about the ending (which proved correct), but I couldn’t figure out the details even though they were right there in front of me! I was floored when detective Poirot finally explained all of it. This book is as smart as any of the Holmes stories (which are still my favorite), but it’s packaged with a fun writing style that Aurthur Conan Doyle always reached for but never managed to grasp.

Final grade – A+

Can you solve Ackroyd’s Murder? I dare you to try.