Writing is Like Yoga: Books for Improving Craft and Career

Writing is like practicing yoga: it’s truly a practice. You work at it all the time, and you re-visit the basics of your craft on a daily basis. You might have your off days.  You have other days when you’re hitting on all cylinders. Hopefully, you improve over time.

If you’re like me and work mostly alone, you need an occasional class, conference, or book to perk you up, force you to work on improving your craft, or help you figure out some way to pay the bills from your writing.  Many of us have read the classics on writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. All of them are wonderful and have encouraged thousands of writers.

If you’re into writing for the long haul, you might need something new to help you muddle through that first draft, reach your readers in meaningful ways, and get the reader’s attention and eyes on your book in the first place. Here are several books I’ve found helpful recently. If you have some to add to this list, I’d love to get your suggestions!

Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go, by Les Edgerton (This is a great little book on the basic craft of fiction. While the emphasis is on first scenes and first chapters, there’s also lots of good guidelines on stuff like backstory, foreshadowing, and structure.)

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, by Lisa Cron. (This book goes into the role of story in human culture and what goes on in the reader’s head when she reads fiction. Very readable and helpful in looking at the big picture of fiction.)

Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone In Between, by James Scott Bell. (This book, quite frankly, pulled me out of a ditch on my current novel. I was hopelessly stuck as to where to go with the story, and this little book helped me get on track and get going. It’s only 85 pages, but it’s a small gem of a book that can make you sit back and think.)

Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, by Lauren Sapala (Many writers are content to work holed-up in a room, all by themselves, talking only to their cats. Marketing and publicity don’t come easily to those of us who are practically hermits. Lauren Sapala will gently convince you to crawl out of your hole and –gasp– engage with the rest of humanity for fun and profit. An excellent book.)

If you have other writer-ish books to recommend, please feel free to comment!

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us,” along with two novels and two resource books on leading young people to take care of the earth. 

 

 

 

Having It All, Losing It All, and Finding Redemption

When the economy crashed in 2008, I watched the stock market tank, careers end, and fortunes lost with a sense of deja vu. I had been through it before and come out a different person.

My book, Ginger’s Reckoning, was written as self-therapy for dealing my own financial crash and destroyed career. My husband and I became millionaires in our early thirties. My husband was an investment banker, and I was a trial lawyer. We seemingly had it all – a charming house in the nicest neighborhood in town, European cars, designer clothes, vacations at exclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Then it all came crashing down. The company my husband worked for was shut down by the federal government and investigated by the FBI. I lost my job as a lawyer. Our income was zero.

I learned a lot during that time. Fortunately, a friend had wisely advised us to save our money when times were good, so we didn’t starve, lose our home, or go without the basic necessities of life. But our lifestyle had to change drastically. I quickly learned how to cut household expenses to the bone. I learned to do without. I learned what was really important to me – and it wasn’t necessarily the money I missed from my former life.

In my novel, Ginger Jordan walks away from her home right before it and all her other assets are seized by the government. She leaves in the middle of the night with only a backpack stuffed with a few clothes and personal mementoes. She goes back to her college haunts in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, which was also where I spent many happy days as a poor but culturally fulfilled UT student.

Ginger’s journey continues to some of my favorite places in Europe, ending up in Moscow. At the time I wrote the book, I hadn’t been to Moscow. The scenes in the book were based on an old 1980’s era travel book I found in a used book store. Oddly enough, once I did visit Moscow in 2005, I was amazed that the hotel where we stayed was spookily similar to the hotel I had described in my novel years before. It was a world apart from my (and Ginger’s) capitalistic world in America – food was hard to come by, a restaurant refused us service (because we were Americans), the hotel wouldn’t let us change to a larger room with enough beds for our kids (because we didn’t have permission from…somebody), and we had to be vetted before entering any store (including the mall beside the US Embassy). When politics went south, we got out of Moscow only after I got in our facilitator’s face and yelled at him to take us to the Delta Airlines office. Fun times!

In the novel, Ginger comes to terms with her drastically changed circumstances while in Russia, backed into a corner but helped by family and close friends. In the real world, I too came to terms with my own dark night of the soul in Russia, stripped away from all that was familiar and comfortable.

I hope you enjoy my novel, Ginger’s Reckoning, featured as an Amazon Countdown Deal Friday, March 30 – Monday, April 2.

Blessings, Cindy

 

Short, Wonderful Novels: A List of Favorite Quick Reads

For a book lover, nothing beats a really good novel you can read and savor in the space of a weekend – or even in one long sitting.  I just finished reading Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.  I started the book the day before yesterday, found myself seriously engaged in it, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.  It was a truly marvelous book.

Short novels tend to swiftly whisk us off to another world and keep us there, capturing our full attention, but just for a day or two.  Short novels typically have just one or two main characters, tight writing, and a plot that moves.  I love big fat novels that allow you to wallow in their complex worlds for weeks, but short novels are like perfect chocolate truffles: short-lived, delicious pleasures.

Here are some of my favorite short novels (of about 200 pages or less):

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (Set in post-Civil War Texas, an old man is charged with returning a young girl captured by the Kiowa tribe to her surviving relatives. Riveting.)

Dai Sijie and Ina Rilke, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (A gorgeous story of two Chinese boys living on their own, books, and love for a girl)

Jane Mendelsohn,  I was Amelia Earhart (A beautifully written novel of what might have happened to the famous aviator)

Tracy Chevalier, Girl With a Pearl Earring (A classic story of a young girl, based on the painting)

Rick Moody, Hotels of North America (Quirky)

And because it’s Lent and some of us are not giving up chocolate…

Joanne Harris, Chocolat  (A priest in France has a hissy fit when a new chocolate shop opens during Lent. A bit longer than 200 pages, but a quick read.)

Cynthia Coe is the author of the short novel Runaway Kitty, along with several other books. 

 

 

Big, Fat Novels for Snowy Days

It’s snowing in many parts of the country, and down here in the Smoky Mountains, most schools have closed due to illness.  For many of us, it’s time to stay inside and snuggle with a really good book. 

I don’t know about you, but there’s a time and a place for big, fat novels spanning hundreds of pages – summer vacations, blizzard conditions outside, school out and cooped up inside.  You need a lot of time for a novel of more than 500 or so pages, and you sure don’t want to have to lug such a thing on an airline flight with you. 

Most of my own writing tends towards the short and concise, but I dearly love a good, long novel with multiple plot lines, lots of interesting characters you really get to know well, and a story spanning several years.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.  This was the “it” book of a couple of years ago.  I couldn’t put it down.  A young boy finds himself in an art museum during a terrorist attack and develops a certain attachment with one piece of art that mysteriously disappears before the first responders arrive.  Arguably too long, but it’s a lot of story for the money. 

Russka, Sarum, London, Paris, and New York by Edward Rutherfurd.  If you like historical fiction spanning generations, these books are for you.  As a history major, I was in hog heaven reading these books and learned oodles of history as well. 

War & Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky).  Okay, if we’re talking big, fat novels, we’ve got to include War & Peace.  Yes, I’ve read it, and I loved it.  (I confess, I skipped the military history stuff).  If you like Downton Abbey type stories, you’ll love this book, too.  This fairly recent translation has gotten great reviews. 

Stay safe, stay well, Cindy

 

 

 

  

Bestselling Novels – Is There an Algorithm for That?

A Review of The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers

What makes one book “take off” and sell a zillion copies?  If you love novels (or write them), you surely have pondered this question.  But is it possible to answer the question of what makes a bestseller using science and a computer?

Yes, it is.  In their new book, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers have done just this.  It’s all about pattern recognition, which computers do quite well.   The authors, a former editor and an English professor, fed the manuscripts of 20,000 contemporary novels into a computer program and came up with commonalities of books that “take off” and become bestsellers.

Proof that their algorithm works?  The two authors the computer targeted as most likely bestsellers are two authors who are very famous and household names.  (I won’t spoil the book by telling).  Many of the books ranked highly by the computer are indeed bestsellers, including the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey.  (Love it or hate it, you probably need to have read this book – and other recent blockbusters – to fully appreciate this research.)

As a writer myself, The Bestseller Code gave me very valuable insights as to “what works” and what I need to avoid in my writing.  I was thrilled to find that books with characters who are “femme noirs” are likely sell lots of books, at least for now.  I wonder if this research will need updating in future years.  But for the meantime, this book gives writers truly valuable information to use in their work, along with interesting information for bookworms and those who just plain love to read. The tone is conversational and easy to read.

Does The Bestseller Code give us all “the secret” or “the code” for writing a surefire winner of a novel?  I’ll have to say no to that one.  The book the computer picked as most likely to be a bestseller is a novel I had never heard of, though by a very fine writer you probably have heard of.  (Again, no spoilers here.)  The book is certainly not one I’ve ever heard anyone rave about.

This leaves me with the assurance that there is still a certain “magic” to the art of writing.  No matter how much you meet the criteria of good technique, careful plotting, and lovely language, there is still something indefinable about a really good novel that makes you say “I love this book,” that makes you never want it to end.

Cynthia Coe is the author of several nonfiction books and the author of the upcoming novel, Runaway Kitty.  Her blogs are www.sycamorecove.org and www.spiritualearthed.org . Her author page on Amazon.com is: http://amzn.to/2d0TV2g