Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's your favorite book on the craft of writing? (10/15/06)

Featured writer: Betty Winslow

Contributors this month:
Arlene Mandell
Betty Winslow
Charles Markee
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Jane Merryman
Jennie Orvino
Ken Rodgers
Mary Porter-Chase
Sheila Swan Laufer
Susan Bono

Betty Winslow

My favorite book, hands-down, is Marcia Yudkin's "Writing Articles about the World Around You." A writer who can read that whole book and not get at least a half dozen ideas for things to write about every single time she reads it either isn't trying hard enough or is not really a writer.

My second favorite is "Feminine Wiles : Creative Techniques for Writing Women's Feature Articles That Sell," by Donna Elizabeth Boetig, which has loads of good stuff for all freelance writers, even those who don't write for women's magazines.

Third? That would have to be "Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer :
How to Win Top Writing Assignments," by my friend and boss at "Absolute Write," Jenna Glatzer. What Jenna doesn't know about how to make it in the freelance world probably isn't worth knowing.

Betty Winslow, reading, writing, and marketing in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Favorite Books on the Writing Craft

  by Arlene Mandell

"The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," which I used as a newspaper reporter, is still here to remind me that Kleenex needs a capital "K" because it's a trademark. My "Synonym Finder," originally published by Rodale Press in 1978, sits on the same shelf, ready to provide vast numbers of synonyms for the word "nice," from "agreeable to "pernickity."

My current favorites are the popular "A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life" by Judy Reeves (New World Library, 1999) and "A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place by Hannah Hinchman" (W.W. Norton Co., 1997).

Judy's guidebook assures me that whenever I have an uninspired morning, I can open it to daily prompts as well as quotes both sage and silly, i.e. "It's said that Edgar Allen Poe wrote with his cat on his shoulder." And, "whenever Amy Tan was stuck on the ending of a story, she took the story with her to bed and let it become part of a dream."

Hannah's elegant guide, is, perhaps, more useful for journal-keepers and nature writers. She draws beautifully, taking meticulous notes on cloud formations, the position of an owl's ears, the way a pussy willow catkin attaches to its branch. She keeps me from becoming lazy, from using the word "bird" when something more specific is needed.

Finally, at the risk of sounding corny, I believe the best book is always the book of life.

Arlene L. Mandell, when not at her desk or in the meadow, is now tutoring gifted 5th and 6th graders in creative writing.

Betty Winslow

My favorite book, hands-down, is Marcia Yudkin's "Writing Articles about the World Around You." A writer who can read that whole book and not get at least a half dozen ideas for things to write about every single time she reads it either isn't trying hard enough or is not really a writer.

My second favorite is "Feminine Wiles : Creative Techniques for Writing Women's Feature Articles That Sell," by Donna Elizabeth Boetig, which has loads of good stuff for all freelance writers, even those who don't write for women's magazines.

Third? That would have to be "Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer :
How to Win Top Writing Assignments," by my friend and boss at "Absolute Write," Jenna Glatzer. What Jenna doesn't know about how to make it in the freelance world probably isn't worth knowing.

Betty Winslow, reading, writing, and marketing in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Writing to writers of books about writing:

  by Charles Markee

A plethora, nay, a deluge of workshops, conferences, books, consultants, editors and just plain folks all seem to suddenly know about and offer wares that pertain to writing. Prompted by Searchlights, I wandered to my bookshelf and counted sixteen books about writing. Geez!! Did I read all those? NO! I waded through the first "N" chapters of most of them until I bogged down in muddy, uninteresting writing. Same old, same old. But weren't these supposed to be inspiring? Hmmm.
I noticed that some of the books have character, i.e. they're beat up. The bindings are crinkled, lots of pages are dogged eared, and they have more than one book mark. Those are the good ones, the books that I opened many times and learned something each time. They have pages with many highlighted paragraphs, sentences or phrases. Those are the books I want to tell you about.

1."The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers" by Christopher Vogler opened my eyes to story arc, to archetypes and to writing compelling stories. It's based on the work of Joseph Campbell and it's written by a man who evaluated more than 10,000 screenplays. After learning the basics, grammar, scenes and dialogue this one became number one in my toolbox.

2."The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives" by Lajos Egri taught me the power of dramatic motivation for my characters. This is about the energy that has to exist below the concept of show, don't tell. Everything we do has some kind of motivation and so it must also exist for our characters or they won't be believable.

3."Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" by Natalie Goldberg is the book I go back to when the story's not going right and I don't know why. It revisits the basics in a fresh way and I always come away unstuck.

4."Bird by Bird: some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott is fun to read. It's a form of hypnotism, an indirection in teaching. You don't realize your learning about writing because your having fun reading and laughing a lot. After all, humor is therapy.

The best I can do now is wish you good writing and as my Irish aunt used to say, "And the rest of the day to ya!"

E-Mail Charles Markee

Christine Falcone

I loved Stephen King's book "On Writing," and Anne Lammott's "Bird by Bird." Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write" was pivotal for me at about age twelve when I received it as a birthday present from a much-loved aunt. But my most favorite book on writing is a college textbook called "The Discovery of Poetry" written by Frances Mayes. This was before her success with "Under the Tuscan Sun" when she was still teaching at San Francisco State. How I loved carrying that soft cover book around campus that fall semester of my sophomore year. I could almost feel waves of inspiration lifting off the pages like rain evaporating off wet asphalt. We studied Keats and Yeats, Wordsworth and Coleridge. We learned about Sylvia Plath and e.e. cummings, Shakespeare's sonnets and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's free verse. We learned about iambic pentameter and how to count the feet of a line. I have used "The Discovery of Poetry" over the years as a reference more, perhaps, than even my dictionary, gone back to it like an irresistible lover, dog-eared pages, highlighted lines, even made attempts at memorization. It's one book I will never remove from my personal library.

Searchlights regular Christine Falcone is a writer living and working in Novato, California. In moments stolen from taking care of her 3-year-old daughter, she writes fiction and poetry, and has recently completed her first novel, "This Is What I Know," which she is currently shopping around to literary agents.

Claudia Larson

It isn't a book that teaches me the craft of writing. It's a group. We've been meeting for four years, writing to a suggested prompt, freewriting through divorce, birth, childhood, the meaning of life, cookies and fuzzy animals. Then we read. Sometimes the reader cries. Sometimes a listener cries. Laughter appears, as do eyes closed in listening. There is no criticism. There is no editing.

I've learned the most important craft in writing: paying attention to myself. And in this attention I learn that there are places that can be edited, enlarged, re-arranged in order to more clearly express what it is I want to convey.

But like an infant who comes into this world without a manual, I've learned that I too can tune into myself much the same way an infant does. I need the freedom to blurt out the pain and giggles, the frustration and awe of human existence. Sure, I know how to use a pen and type on a keyboard. I have an understanding of grammar and can spell reasonably well. Infants can't be bothered with such things. But despite the need for some structure, I really need the tenderness of this group, which teachers me tenderness for myself while I write.

Claudia Larson writes in Sonoma County, CA.

Jane Merryman

My favorite book on the craft of writing is "Chicago Manual of Style." I know that sounds geekish, and I am sure it is. Even though the 956-page volume is all business about the technical side of writing, I sometimes get quite ecstatically lost in a section such as foreign names—how you capitalize them, hyphenate them, alphabetize them—all those Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian monikers, sun-washed and fur-wrapped. I also like to roam around in Capitalization. It's comforting to know that you do not capitalize president or pope except when referring to a specific person—President Jackson, Pope Gregory; in all other instances, those guys are as lowercase as the rest of us. When the 15th edition hit the bookstores, I, along with countless tens of others, grabbed it up to see what had been changed and I enjoyed waxing pleased or incensed about the changes from the 14th edition. For instance, a.m. and p.m. attached to time can now be displayed as regular caps, not small caps—which I think leads to a certain loss of elegance. The online CMS has a monthly Question and Answer forum, which is lighthearted and sometimes hilarious. It is quite different from the print version and proves that those guys back there in Chi don't really take themselves too seriously, and perhaps we shouldn't either. I wouldn't be without my CMS. It's right there next to "Roget."

Jane Merryman writes with style in Petaluma, CA.

Jennie Orvino

"The Book of Plots," by my good friend Loren Niemi, has been a great read so far and very helpful to me as a writer. I recommend it to you. Loren is a professional storyteller and performer as well as a community organizer and public policy activist in Minnesota. I have known him since 1968 and am delighted that his book is so good.

If I had enough cash I would just buy copies for all of you for Valentines or Christmas or your birthdays.

Below is the Amazon link. As soon as I finish reading "The Book of Plots," I plan to put a review on Amazon, but I wanted to tell you about it now. The description online is helpful but a little dry. Loren is very deep and juicy and challenging

The Book of Plots

Jennie Orvino is a poet, essayist and activist living in Sonoma County, CA.

Ken Rodgers

Sometimes I submit writing to this venue that doesn't please the editors. And that makes sense, because occasionally the subjects the editors pick are not issues I really care to write about. But I am committed to contributing to this venue because I think it is a worthy project. And I thank the editors for not killing my efforts when those unrequited essays arrive on their desks.
Take the latest subject—what's your favorite book on the craft of writing?
I don't have one. I own them, Gardner, Kenner, Heaney, Hugo, Hirshfield, King, Addonizio and Laux, to name a few of the many authors. But I don't have a favorite.
So, if you don't have a favorite book about craft, how do you write about this subject? The bigger challenge may be; how do you write about it if you aren't really interested. But given my commitment, I'll make an attempt.
Right now I am reading three books that more or less discuss the craft of writing.
This morning I picked up George Steiner's book about language and translation titled, "After Babel." Although I have attempted to translate poems from Spanish to English, I am not a translator. But I do find this book very stimulating when it talks about how language, even when we all speak and write in the same one, works and doesn't work. How can I integrate the ideas and discoveries about language into my writing, and from a craft standpoint, how can I better communicate with my reader?
Then, this afternoon, before I took a nap, I picked up Marjorie Perloff's set of essays on poetry and poetics titled, "Differentials." I read an essay about how we have culturally arrived at a crux where we judge creative writing as a symptom or voice of its larger culture instead of judging it for its art. I get excited about that, about how I may think about my work as art, how I might construct sentences and lines that are read for their aesthetic nature instead of their importance as a cultural symptom.
Later, I read a few pages of Charles Baxter's book of essays on writing fiction, "Burning Down the House." Concerning the value of utilizing objects in your fiction he writes, "Objects are being forced to go to work, carrying lunch pails, putting their shoulders to the wheel—they are being employed as a literary workforce to carry their burden of human feeling. No one is leaving objects alone any more—not in industry, and not in literature, either."
Wow. I can get excited about that for two reasons, one for the beauty of the writing—writing about something that could be exposited as the mundane, but also excited about how I might use objects as metaphor or objective correlative, to spice up my writing.
It occurs to me that today as I was reading each of these three books, I probably thought how that book, at that moment, was my favorite book about craft.

Ken Rodgers lives, teaches and writes in Boise, Idaho. Between naps he reads a lot, and some times he writes. See more about Ken at

Mary Porter-Chase

What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?
I was born with the heart and soul of a poet. I am sure of this, but reading books about how to realize this passion through effective writing came to me very late. Graduate work and the higher learning of my journey has always been directed toward the psycho/spiritual perspectives on consciousness, and on the dance between East and West world views.

When I was young I wrote a thesis and then a dissertation, had an article on children's creative writing published in a national educational journal in 1963, wrote a chapter for an anthology on "Changes For Peace" (humbled in company with Thich Nhat Hanh) in 1988, and self-published two books in the nineties before I decided it was past time for me to get better at what I loved. Since beginning classes I have shuddered over my lack of know-how, bloomed with pink embarrassment at mistakes I have made. I am aware of all I have to learn and at the same time am joyfully confident that I have worthy thoughts to play with on paper in some form.

In 2001 I formally began my first creative writing class at College of the Redwoods. Five poems, in a book I self-published in 2003, written on the eve of our bombing of Afghanistan, were read on Community Radio as part of memorial programs in subsequent years. I published a memoir this past summer.

I've now been introduced to many of the classic craft books and things are slowly sinking in. Currently I am studying two books tied for first place--Richard R. Powell's "Wabi Sabi for Writers" and Mary Pipher's "Writing to Change the World." They both "hit the spot" dead center.

Powell's book enriches years of Zen study for me through the life and words of Basho. Powell writes, "If you have a healthy connection to attachments, your writing will be authentic", expanding some Western versions of Buddhism that say, "let go of attachments." It was a stunning revelation for me to understand that when I embrace the idea that imperfection holds its own beauty, I will also embrace my own creativity.

Pipher refers to change writers or connectors. She quotes what's written about the Polish poet and social activist, Czeslaw Milosz, "He had the rare gift of knowing how to be at once troubled and unperturbed—when light was needed he was light and when stone was needed he was stone." I want to be that kind of human being, that kind of writer. Pipher addresses the respect and sensitivity authors need when writing to the "unconvinced."

With more than enough topics, the "crafty" part of my education is doing double time to catch up. Mary Pipher has articulated how I want my life to continue from here. "The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind."

Mary Porter-Chase, pleasurably catching up in Windsor, CA.

Sheila Swan Laufer

My favorite, most helpful, book about writing surprised me. I had never read a Steven King novel. His book "On Writing," is
just filled with honest, good advise. I loved it.

Sheila Swan Laufer (co-author: "Safety and Security for Women Who Travel"
{Traveler's Tales} and "Nevada Neon" {University of Nevada Press}.

Susan Bono

I wish I were one of those people who like to read books on the craft of writing. I hear people discussing ideas they get from such books all the time. They pull the pithy observations and tips they've stored in their mental files and apply them to their works in progress, while I sit there tearing my hair, reinventing the wheel every time I try to write. And I wish I could remember more about the books on writing I actually have managed to read. Even the titles elude me most days. If I can get one idea per 200 pages to stick, I consider myself lucky. It's embarrassing to list "Bird by Bird" by Ann Lamott among my favorites when all I can recall is her advice to write "shitty first drafts," or Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write" when her most memorable suggestion for me was to spend lots of time staring out the window playing with my hair.

I guess my favorite book on writing is the motivational anthology I'm compiling in my head. In it, I've got the few words that have somehow stuck from the thirty or so books on writing I have on my shelves. I've included Tristine Rainer's definition of personal essay as "a progression towards personal truth," but I'm leaning more toward the encouraging thoughts that keep me coming back to the page: David Bayles and Ted Orland telling me in "Art and Fear" that "Art is made by ordinary people;" Lousie DeSalvo's observation in "Writing as a Way of Healing" that "it is not what you write or what you produce as you write that is important. It is who you become while you are writing that is important." This echoes what Jane Anne Staw says in "Unstuck"—that being a writer is all about showing up for yourself.

Maybe someday I'll be ready to accept Carolyn See's challenges in "Making a Literary Life" to write lots of charming notes of appreciation to literary personages and become a writer who produces "1,000 words a day. Five days a week. For the rest of your life." But right now, I need to be reminded that the voice I need to make art is the voice I already have. That last is from "Art and Fear" again. Until I get that anthology put together, I guess I would recommend that.

Susan Bono is trying to get the basics in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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