Book Review: The ABCs of Writing for Children

Review by Betty Winslow

The ABCs of Writing for Children.
Compiled by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books
November 2002
258 pgs.
Writing-related

The title of this book implies a linear, nuts-and-bolts approach to the subject of writing for children, but in reality it’s almost a stream of consciousness on the subject, collected by Koehler-Pentacoff from the minds of 114 authors and illustrators and loosely arranged into 46 chapters with titles like “First Times,” “What Is the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?,” “Rejection,” and “Picture Books.” Each chapter is full of highly personal stories, tips, and anecdotes, which are fun to read (although the way some are repeated in several places had a slightly disconcerting “deja vu” effect on me: wait, haven’t I read this already?).

Although I found the book’s arrangement a bit hard to navigate and the introductory italicized titles for each small anecdote seemed to me unnecessary and often confusing, I knew I would enjoy reading what Koehler-Pentacoff had to offer, since I love children’s books and I find the people who write and illustrate them interesting. Reading what Jane Yolen, Doug Cushman, Patricia McKissack, Ruth Heller, David Adler, and R. L. Stine (among others) had to say about writing children’s books, inspiration, rejection, censorship, book signings, and a host of other topics was bound to be good! It was, too, and I also picked up some practical tips on writing, learned more about the stories behind the stories kids love, and discovered a bit about what makes these people tick.

I think that last bit is important. Children’s authors and illustrators may not be movers and shakers in the eyes of the world, but their work affects the children of the world and thus the future of mankind. Therefore, I for one like to keep abreast of what’s going on in children’s literature. And this book tells you some of that.

Unfortunately, I had to get beyond a few more problems to get to the good stuff, including misplaced or missing punctuation and words (and a few extra or misused ones) and a wonky index that led me to the wrong Cushman several times as well as to a few pages that didn’t contain what I thought they were going to.

On the plus side, I also found some helpful back-of-the-book features, including a glossary, a resource list, a writer-related bibliography, and the aforementioned (and somewhat less helpful) index.

All in all, if the world of children’s literature interests you, I think you’ll find the extra effort it takes to get through this book is worthwhile and you’ll come away with a lot to think about. You’re also liable to come away with a list of books you somehow missed along the way and want to read now. Go for it! We may be grown-ups, but no one is too old for well-written and wonderfully illustrated children’s books!

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books

2000

264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

Review: Ask the Pros: Screenwriting 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting
101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran
Lone Eagle Publishing Company
2004
205 pp.
Amazon.com price: $12.57

Review by Patrick Beltran 

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is not your typical screenwriting book. Edited by Howard Meibach (of Hollywoodlitsales.com fame) and writer-director Paul Duran, this book does not attempt to teach you how to write a screenplay – at all. The book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.

Now, I have to admit that when I first sat down to read it, I did not think I was going to like this book or find much value in its approach to screenwriting “education.” A big fat frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list, in book form, for screenwriters? Containing such hoary gems as, “what makes a screenplay great?” (that was the first question of the first chapter). As a well-read wannabe, I prepared for the worst; I expected to find all the same questions and answers that I’d already read and heard in various forums, and in a thousand different ways, from every screenwriting seminar, how-to book, and advice columnist on the web.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started liking the book – and my total shock when I realized that I was actually learning from it.

Based on the “Ask a Hollywood Pro” forum from hollywoodlitsales.com, the premise of the book is deceptively prosaic: Gather a long and impressive list of working Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, agents, studio executives, etc. – and get them to answer, in detail, the most common questions that screenwriters always ask about writing, selling, making movies, and breaking into the business. Arrange the answers according to question topic and the profession of the answerers, pepper the pages with sidebars to give extra details and relevant definitions, and voilà, you have Ask the Pros: Screenwriting.

But the real value, I discovered, comes not from the individual answers but from the collection itself – from seeing how each answer compares, side-by-side, with answers by similar professionals responding to the same questions. Look, we’ve all heard stories about the capricious nature of Hollywood, about the Politburo-like mindless conformity that supposedly permeates the corridors of power and leads executives to march in lock-step, regularly rejecting mega-blockbuster scripts like, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (“You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s just no Greek demographic.”). Intellectually, we know that’s not the whole story – we know that good scripts rise or fall for a lot of reasons, and that somewhere on the other side of that monolithic Wall there are individual human beings with differing tastes, opinions and abilities.

Well, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting puts that diversity of opinion in stark black and white, right on the page for all to see. Sometimes the effect is comical: for example, one of the questions the producer-experts answered was, “How much does [script] coverage affect your [development] decisions?” One producer said, “coverage is very important”; a second one’s answer started off, “coverage is a waste of time”; and a third one said, in essence, “It depends.” Other contrasts weren’t so dramatic, but everywhere I looked, I detected subtle shades of difference in approach, attitude, and expectation. I suddenly realized – hey, these guys are professionals, and even they don’t agree on the best recipe for wannabe success.

This was the first, best lesson I learned from reading this book: When it comes to an artistic, creative endeavor such as making movies or writing screenplays, there is always more than one right answer.

The second best thing about Ask the Pros is its sidebar blurbs. I especially like the “Buzz Word” definitions, which explain various “Hollywood-speak” words in ordinary English. These are terms that most of us in “flyover country” (everything between NY and L.A.) don’t use in day-to-day life, but that regularly appear in industry magazines such as Variety. For instance, did you know that “tyro” means first timer? (As in: “Tyro scribe Jim Jones just sold his spec script ‘Drinking Kool-Aid’ to DreamWorks for an undisclosed six-figure sum”). Or that Praisery is another word for public relations firm? And if you ever see a film directed by Alan Smithee, you’ll know (after reading Ask the Pros) that this is a Director’s Guild-allowed pseudonym, and it is probably being used because the real director didn’t want his or her name associated with what he considered to be a train-wreck of a picture.

Ask the Pros also includes a CD-ROM with a demo copy of the latest version of Final Draft script formatting software. If you’re serious about your wannabe status, and if you want to have any real hope of ever tasting success on the other side of that Wall, then you absolutely must invest the money to buy a scriptwriting software package. I don’t care, save your dimes for a year if you need to, cause this type of software gives you 50 spoons’ worth of traction when you’re digging for that next killer script. Final Draft is one of two packages recognized and used throughout the industry (the other one is Movie Magic Screenwriter). The demo CD enclosed with this book has a full-featured copy of Final Draft that you can take for a time-limited test drive. If you like it, you can activate the full copy simply by purchasing and entering a valid serial number.

Bottom line — Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is useful for getting inside the heads of the many Hollywood professionals interviewed. Although the book won’t help you with the mechanics of writing a script, it will give you a clearer picture of how the whole Hollywood success thing works (or doesn’t). It also helps prepare you for what you’ll encounter once you type “The End” and want to scope out which section of the Wall you’ll slam yourself into first. It’s a first-rate spoon, this one: I give it an A. Now go, young wannabe tyros — dig and be happy.

Patrick Beltran is a screenwriter, independent producer, and freelance writer who works as an IT professional during the day to pay the bills. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three daughters

Book Review Barbara Wallraff Word Court

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done
By Barbara Wallraff

Review by Andrea M. Chester

Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done reminds me of my favorite English professor, and her charming way of correcting us. She taught her pupils to love the flow of a well-written piece, whether it was penned by Shakespeare, or Kipling, or Mark Twain. She made using good English seem relevant to our everyday lives, fun and flexible, and useful.

The author, Barbara Wallraff, is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, a benchmark of correct usage to many readers. Ms. Wallraff reassures her readers that they already know a lot more about good use of language than they think they do. She also wields a deft stick-pin, ready to puncture the over-inflated ego of those who think they’re the only ones who ever speak well. She’s funny, knowledgeable, and approachable.

The book is an amusing compilation of her columns, reflecting questions her readers have written her over the years. Some of them seem priggish. (As my teenage daughter would say, “Like, who cares?”) Others pick on some of my own peculiar notions about the way we speak, or should speak. Yet, for all its authoritative judgments on what’s standard and what’s preferred, this book is entertaining, rather than stuffy. It’s useful, rather than just another rulebook to collect dust on the shelf of the English Department at the community college.

More and more, new words, or old phrases with new meanings, crop up in our language. English is one of the most “wordy” languages in the world. With so many words, we can be more precise than most other languages allow, but we can also get into more trouble with those words. (For instance, would you rather someone said you were “a sight” or “a vision?” The words mean the same . . . or do they?)

People who wish merely to speak with each other may not be concerned with whether their choice of words carries the full flavor of their ideas. After all, in the time it takes to read 100 words, most of us can hear and process more than 400. We can talk ourselves into and out of misunderstandings, given just a bit of time and a person willing to listen. Written language, however, must capture and hold readers more quickly. To the writer, words matter very much, and precision is paramount. Our words influence readers to take us seriously, to trust our knowledge and integrity, or to consider us buffoons.

Those who write letters to each other or occasional letters to the editors of our newspapers might seldom use the wisdom in this book. For others—those who craft articles, or construct technical brochures, or devise business communications—Wallraff’s Word Court could be quite valuable. Whether you read it to become more accurate or to amuse yourself, you’re in for a good laugh from time to time, and perhaps a lesson or two about clear communication.

A compact handbook of preferred English usage, Wallraff’s Word Court is a fine addition to any working library. It can double as a college-level text, and makes a wonderful gift to anyone interested in being correct without being a pain in the lower back. In fact, if I can just track down my old professor, I intend to send her a copy!

Andrea and her husband Charles live in the mountains of western North Carolina, with three cats and a shaggy black dog. She’s a freelance writer and a community educator for a domestic violence agency.

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
By Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Writer’s Digest Books
298 pages
2001
Amazon.com price: $13.99

Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a screenwriter for both film and television who was once told at film school that she couldn’t write a script about a female hero because those stories don’t sell. She vehemently disagreed and spent the next few years searching for the female hero’s journey. Despite taking every class she could find on the subject and learning a lot about myths, writing and feminist theory, she could find no answers, until she found a book about the journey of the goddess Inanna, the oldest myth in history. Then she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for—the female myth.

When she did, Jack Heffron at Writer’s Digest Books threw a monkey wrench into it by asking her, “What about the male hero?” Although she felt that the male hero had been done to death, she began to explore it, and discovered that the human journey was a part of both men and women. It could more appropriately be termed “feminine” and “masculine,” she felt, for men and women both took descending inner journeys albeit at different times and with varying results.

Cover of Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original CharactersHer research and thoughts on these matters became 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which offers writers a new way of developing characters and plots through the use of archetyped characters taken from the pages of ancient myth and modern literature as well as from the screens of film and television. Ms. Schmidt has a lot of interesting things to say about archetypes and their journeys and how fiction writers can use them to produce blueprints from which to work and maps to plot out where their stories are going. One caveat, though—many of her examples will only make sense to readers who are conversant with U.S. popular culture.

Whether you agree with her theories or not, though—in fact, whether or not you even understand them completely—Schmidt’s archetypes are liable to change the way you write as well as the way you watch television and films, the way you read, even the way you look at friends and acquaintances. If, after reading this book, you find yourself unable to watch your favorite television show or read an entire novel without saying to yourself, “Oh, yeah, she’s a Nurturer!” or “He’s a typical Fool” and you catch yourself at the next family dinner trying to figure out if your cousin is a Father’s Daughter or a Backstabber, just remember—you were warned.

Book reviewed by Betty Winslow

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