On Our Book Shelves

What coffee house is complete without a selection of good reads to round out the experience?
Here's one we recommend for this week.

Secrets of a Freelance Writer

By Robert Bly

Review by Karen Lange
Launching into a freelance writing career can be downright intimidating. Resources abound in the form of books, websites, and classes, but knowing which ones to trust can be tricky. With that in mind, I did a little research before purchasing this book. What did I find? I learned that Robert Bly has been freelancing for decades. His credits include more than 60 books too, so I figured he had a bit of insight to share.

This handy guide begins with a hearty pep talk on how any writer, with the right knowledge and tools, can make a comfortable living in the freelance industry. Three essential elements, Bly says, are necessary for success:

Number 1 – a new attitude

Number 2 – dedication

Number 3 – a businesslike approach
These elements provide the stamina and purpose to forge ahead. Marketing our writing is next, and of course, is necessary for successful freelancing. Bly encourages us to ditch the “poverty mentality” and aim high, setting our sights on success, not failure. His cheerleader approach should encourage even the most timid writer.
He provides an overview on how to get started, an intro to high profit writing, and how to set up a freelance writing business. Commercial writing is discussed, along with setting fees, and finding markets. I like his advice in the fee department, while each writer needs to define their own, his thoughts cover all the angles that we need to consider to be a polished professional.
Self-promotion is covered as well, since it is an essential part of marketing. Want to write your own e-zine but don’t know where to start? Bly has you covered here too. He even gives us advice on setting up a website for our freelance business and tools to ensure client satisfaction. Trouble shooting, resources, and plenty of examples round out the book for a complete and honest picture of what the writing life can look like.
Whether writers wish to aspire to the six figure income that Bly says is possible or not, this book is stuffed with info and advice to launch a successful freelancing career. Secrets of a Freelance Writer is worth the investment even if you choose the smorgasbord approach and choose tidbits of his advice. Still not sure? Next time you’re in the bookstore, pick up a copy and flip through it. I’m pretty sure you’ll come away with something useful, or at the very least, some good food for thought.

The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

Review by Karen Lange

The Elements of Style is small enough to fit into a pocket or purse. Yet it is packed to the brim with great advice for writers. How did Strunk and White manage this feat? I’m not sure, but I’m glad they did.

The Introduction contains Mr. White’s take on how the book came about. While not an absolute must read portion, I found his insight interesting as he illustrates Element’s timeless qualities and shares how he became acquainted with Mr. Strunk.

Chapter One, entitled Elementary Rules of Usage, reminds us about the proper use of possessives, commas, conjunctions, pronouns, and participial phrases, to name a few. Consult this chapter to refresh your semicolon use memory. Do you use it with independent clauses or dependent clauses? Choose one, and then check here for the answer.

Elementary Principles of Composition are addressed in Chapter Two. The authors tell us to “Choose a suitable design and hold to it.” They encourage us to organize our thoughts, transferring them in like manner for the reader to understand. Active and passive voice are discussed, as are tenses and tight writing. This chapter contains my favorite piece of advice, where they tell us:

“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

A Few Matters of Form is the title of Chapter Three, with a discussion of colloquialisms, exclamations, numerals, quotations and more. Chapter Four elaborates on Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, telling us, for instance, when to use allude and elude. Chapter Five closes with An Approach to Style, and includes a handy list of reminders. Awkward adverbs and overstating a point are among the helpful principles here.

I purchased this book for my children when they were in middle school. Little did I realize how appropriate it is for students and adults. This book is 100% user friendly and is proof that good things really do come in small and timeless packages. If my copy ever wears out, I’m buying a new one.

December 12, 2010

The Writer’s Idea Book
By Jack Heffron
Review by Karen Lange

Need ideas? Jack Heffron, former senior editor at Writer’s Digest Books, has a few to share. Four hundred to be exact, if you count each one of the prompts included here. I purchased this book because I wanted prompt ideas to use with writing classes. Its claim, “How to develop great ideas for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays” far exceeded my expectations. Heffron doesn’t just list a bunch of prompts; he encourages us to think and explore to stretch our skills. Having fun is key, and he further elaborates by sharing the things that help make our writing shine. His philosophy consists of general writing truths that keep those creative juices flowing.

What are these truths? First, we must “show up”. In other words, make time to write. Second, acknowledge the difficulty. Yes, “showing up” on a consistent basis can be hard. Next, joy and gratitude play a part in this equation, and these are a result of the first two truths. Heffron continues by explaining what the enemies of creativity are and talks us through those as well.

The book consists of four parts: Bending and Stretching, Exploring, Finding Form, and Assessing and Developing. Each part’s chapters cover steps to guide us on the creative path, with a liberal sprinkling of prompts. Chapter Eighteen, entitled Of Sonnets and Toasters, for example, discusses “appliance fiction”. Never heard of “appliance fiction”? I hadn’t either, but it’s an interesting way to tie fiction and technology together. Add in related exercises, and you’ve got a great start to fresh writing ideas.

This book is helpful and informative from start to finish, but ideas and prompts can also be sampled and used whenever you like. I’ve used this for teaching creative writing to teens and adults, and for my own writing adventures. It’s a great resource for all genres and levels; I plan on keeping this one around for a long time.

Writing for Quick Cash
By:  Loriann Hoff Oberlin
Review by Karen Lange

What writer wouldn’t like to make some extra cash? There are ways to do it; the trick is knowing where to look.  Ms. Oberlin’s book is a great place to start; she offers advice and resources based on her years of experience in the writing world.

This book isn’t just a listing of potential avenues to pursue; it is a handbook to guide writers through the process.  Oberlin provides tips on organization, necessary tools to get off on the right writing foot, and ways to develop a journalistic style. Writing possibilities are out there, she says, often in little known places. Where? Try magazine fillers, greeting cards, teaching writing workshops, newsletters, or photojournalism. These gigs can often lead to other writing opportunities. She even includes tips on writing query letters and studying the markets. The final chapter covers a bit about the book business with thoughts on finding an agent, self publishing, novel writing, and pitching a book. The Appendix includes a listing of resources for further study and support. I liked the well rounded approach to this book. Oberlin not only tells you where to submit or cultivate work, she shares important info like writing tight and how to conduct interviews. Her style is friendly and practical. She’s been there, done that, and shares what works and what does not. Writing for Quick Cash offers timeless, useful advice for writers at most any level.

Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint
By Nancy Kress
Writer’s Digest Books
By Karen Lange

Need help with characters? I do. Since non-fiction is more my thing, I was hoping that this book would assist me with character development. It does! Author Nancy Kress makes good on her promise to provide “Techniques and exercises for crafting dynamic characters and effective viewpoints”.

The author of sixteen novels, Kress is well versed in what makes characters tick. From defining what  readers want to putting it all together, she outlines everything needed to create compelling characters.
She defines how to assemble your cast of characters and put each one in their proper place. Chapter
One includes a mini-bio sheet listing traits, marital status, and other important elements so brainstorming
can begin immediately. I like handy tools like this – it helps us hit the ground running, putting things into practice.

We are encouraged to “audition our players” to consider, for example, if we are genuinely interested
in the character. Kress also challenges us to ask:

“Is this character or situation fresh and interesting in some new way?”
“Do I find myself thinking about him/her in odd moments…inventing bits of dialogue?"
These kinds of questions, she says, help determine whether or not a character will make the grade
for a great book.Chapters include clear how-to details on point of view, dialogue, emotion, backstory,
how characters “learn”, and more. Exercises are sprinkled liberally throughout to help bring motivation,
turmoil, and depth to characters. Kress covers how to develop and use humor, love, and action – including
how to handle fight scenes. The appendix contains a checklist of critical character points which acts as a
handy rubric to guide the process.

I enjoyed Kress’s friendly style and encouragement. I came away knowing that I had the tools to create
good characters. This is a book that will remain on my shelf in the trusted resource category.

Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson Barnes and Noble Publishing

Karen Lange

The cover caught my eye - Edit Yourself, A Manual for Anyone Who Works With Words. Of course I had to take a peek. And yes, you guessed it, I couldn’t resist. I bought it. What writing goodies did I find? A bunch! Just over one hundred pages, the book has two parts:

Part One: What Editors Look For

Part Two: What Editors Cut, Change, and Compare

Part One encourages us to cut the fat by ditching the superfluous nouns, verbs, articles, and prepositions. Ross-Larson offers instruction and examples to illustrate. For instance, the phrase, “do a study of the effects” can be changed to “study the effects”. He rounds out the first chapter with overweight prepositions and the remedy for weak modifiers.

The next chapters cover word choices, pronouns, good sentence construction, active and passive voice, consistency, and tools. This is good, helpful info that we can apply immediately. He stresses the practice of efficient word use for crisp writing. I agree. What is our writing without these key elements?

Part Two shares what editors want, with examples listed alphabetically for easy reference. For concise writing, he reminds us to forget the fancy stuff; change “albeit” to “although”, and “ameliorate” to “improve”. Editors want clean, appealing pieces. There’s even a short listing of Latin words, phrases, and abbreviations to keep us from sticking our writing foot in our mouth.

Edit Yourself was a good, inexpensive investment. It’s been a handy little resource and a great reminder to keep my writing sharp.

The Measure of a Man-- by Sidney Poitier
Robin Williams

Sidney Poitier’s spiritual autobiography, The Measure of a Man, is a great read. Though he is one of America’s most famous actors, the information it contains is valuable for everyone in every field of endeavor, no matter their ethnicity or race. The 1960s were a magical decade for Poitier, a time during which he was fortunate enough to star in a trail-blazing and morally-significant series of movies. This body of work earned him the first ever Best Actor Oscar for an African-American. As Poitier reflects on his life then and now throughout the book, he makes some piercing observations on today’s world and he gives great advice for artists.

First, though Poitier asserts that there is freedom of expression, he still insists that the artist should have integrity and that he is responsible for the images he projects to the public. Poitier once turned down a $750 a week job because the black man he was asked to portray was demeaning and lacked dignity. He turned this job down, even though his wife was pregnant at the time and he desperately needed $75 for her delivery hospital bill. “My work is who I am … I decided that the work I did would never bring dishonor to my father’s name.” (p. 69)

Though Poitier insists on the dignity of a man’s work, he still never criticizes the black musicians and singers and actors of yesteryear; those who couldn’t obtain roles that were dignified and respectful. He states that they laid the groundwork and made today’s generation of black artistic multi-millionaires possible.

Then too, Poitier discusses how today’s children are being damaged, perhaps irreparably. Their need for immediate gratification, their demands for material goods without having earned them is without limits and the world will have to pay for this.

Overall, it was a book with great insight and depth.

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