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Essential Reading: Back to the Books

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2016_Septembe _Now Reading_Heather V_for websiteThe summer months lend themselves to extra time for reading, but they can also provide time to steal moments for writing. With school back in session and our lives returning to a more solid schedule, it’s easy to let September guide the way for new writing, and for the revision process. In this month’s Essential Reading we are hitting the books and highlighting some of our favorite go-to titles on the craft of writing. We’re suggesting the books we love to reference when in the practice of writing and revision. I, personally, have a section of my bookshelf—full of books with dog-eared pages and sticky note tabs—dedicated to this subject. These books welcome me home to me every time I am consumed with the daunting task of revising my own work.

I have been editing and rewriting the final draft of a novel for the last month, and have relied on a book suggested in my MFA program at Rosemont College. While I am not at the beginning of my novel writing process, NaNoWriMo founder, Chris Baty's No Plot, No Problem: A Low Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days is still helpful when editing and revising. This informative book is great for people who need to get their work on the page, and fast. Eight of the nine chapters address the process of getting the bones of a novel onto the page, but the final chapter specifically guides the reader/writer through the process of editing and polishing a manuscript. The text is written more like a conversation with a close friend than a textbook; it pokes fun at the process, yet inspires the reader to revise. With a bit of humor and a large tool box, No Plot, No Problem really does make me feel like editing is less of a chore, and dare I say even fun. Our staff also had some of their old and new favorites on the craft of writing to share.

Our newest Poetry Editorial Assistant Juli Anna J. Herndon read and enjoyed Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance earlier this summer. She says, "Rules for the Dance is a thorough, yet concise, handbook for reading and writing metrical poetry. Aspects of meter, rhyme, and music are broken down into short, digestible chapters with excellent in-text examples. Oliver's reading of metrical 'irregularities' is fantastic, and her feel for the way form supports content leads to some insightful readings of well-loved poems. The book anthologizes many well-loved metrical poems as well, although at times I thought Oliver's choice of poems was a little odd. Why, for example, did she choose George Herbert's 'The Flower' rather than his superior 'Jordan II' or 'Love III?' Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Requiem' is another strange choice; was this poem, rather than any one of his delightful and metrically vigorous poems for children, chosen simply because of the solemn subject matter? Despite some of these questionable editorial choices, the anthology does collect some excellent examples of meter in the English language, and Oliver employs these poems skillfully within her own prose. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who wanted to deepen their reading of metrical verse, but not without also leading the way toward a more exacting anthology."

Ginny Kaczmarek, Poetry Editor, found it difficult to choose only one favorite book about writing, so she didn't. She writes, "Here’s a little smorgasbord from my personal library. Frances Mayes was one of my undergraduate professors, and her The Discovery of Poetry is a classic. Covering everything from 'The Origin of a Poem,' to how to interpret and write about poetry, Mayes includes a Poet’s Handbook with suggestions for writing, revising, and publishing. Her friendly tone conveys passion for her subject, as in this line comparing metaphor to Roman augury, 'the root that says unlike things have mysterious, informing links which we can discover.' Educational passages are buoyed by a good selection of relatively diverse, canonical poems. Another practical book on my shelf is the Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms  by Babette Deutsch. This one is exactly what it sounds like: an alphabetical listing of poetic terms from 'abstract poem' to 'wrenched accent.' The text is very user friendly with many examples throughout. Trying to make a living from your writing? Check out Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids  by Christina Katz. With upbeat, you-go-girl prose, Katz focuses on practical advice for building a portfolio of clips in order to write for magazines or other nonfiction markets. Many of her tips and tricks apply to fiction and poetry writers too: Identify Your Audiences, Draft Your Query, Develop Multiple Income Streams, and Seventeen Ways to Avoid Writer Mama Burnout. Lastly, a lovely book for teachers: Kenneth Koch's  Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to ChildrenKoch believes that children can enjoy poetic heavies like Blake, Donne, and Lorca—as long as they’re taught with joy. This book features lesson plan ideas and stories from Koch's long career as a poet and world-renowned teacher. Brilliant, inspiring, and invigorating."

Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo shares her writing conference experience and craft pick, "This summer, I had the good fortune to attend a nonfiction conference called HippoCamp, which boasted many benefits to the avowed memoirist—chief among them, the chance to hear Mary Karr speak. I’ve been dog-earing and memorizing quotes from her latest book, The Art of the Memoir, since it came out. While I’ve read my share of craft books for nonfiction writers, this particular one hits a note that I come back to, time and again. It is a comprehensive work, exhaustive in its exploration of the genre, and is written very obviously by a voracious reader. Every example, every theory, every gripe is footnoted with a quote or reference from another excellent work (all collected in the back of the book—thanks, Mary). But beyond that, the book is written with Karr's signature spitfire wit. She sounds, throughout each chapter, like the wise, smart, tough-as-nails aunt who takes you out to a beautiful lunch and sets your fool-ass straight with a smile. It’s a guide written with the kind of care that makes it widely accessible, and the ever-alluring I-don’t-give-a-hoot attitude that makes it uniquely Mary. For those who have already finished the Karr library, you’ll find something else in this book that not only solidifies the author as an authority on the subject, but also as the beloved, flawed character you know and love. In this work, Karr emerges as a teacher, even a mother at times—a person who has devoted her life to ushering the rest of us into who or what we were meant to be. In all the recaps I’ve read about HippoCamp (though admittedly, not in the one I’ll debut here soon!), one quote from Karr's speech kept reappearing: 'Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.' For my money, you just can’t get better advice. Thanks, Aunt Mary."

Amanda Jaros, Blog Editor, contributes, "The most influential book I have read on the craft of writing is The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. This book, which is aimed at personal essay and memoir writers, completely redefined how I understand writing, how I read, and how I write. Gornick says that every piece of writing has a situation and a story—the thing that happened and the why, the passion, and the emotional insight that brought the writer to the page. Knowing the difference between situation and story, and being able to incorporate that knowledge into your work, is the key to great writing. Gornick guides the reader through examples from well-known and respected writers, and explains things along the way. Some of her examples get a bit long-winded, but her analysis of persona and narrator, the differences between essay and memoir, and the need for dynamism in your work are quite profound. I highly recommend this book for writers who want to take their work to a more authentic and thoughtful place."

What are your go-to books when writing and revising? Share with us in the comments below. For more Literary Mama craft writing suggestions please visit our Goodreads page.



Abigail Lalonde lives in Philadelphia with her husband, daughter, and three cats. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Sanitarium MagazinePretty Owl Poetry, Crack the Spine, and Memoir Mixtapes. She writes about books and writing on her website.

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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.

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