“Refuse to Finish: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts,” by Matt Bell. (Soho Press, 168 pages, $ 15.99.)
Although his handy, authoritative book is structured as a guide with specific steps, author and teacher Matt Bell (“Appleseed”) sets out few absolute rules. He exhorts readers to use what works for them and throw away everything else: “Only what is useful to you applies.” Fortunately for readers, especially those who think their first draft is perfect, most of what he says applies almost universally.
Bell aims for accessibility and encourages people to write what excites them and to “save nothing for later.” But he mostly leaves inspiration aside in favor of taking a craftsman’s point of view. He emphasizes his three-decade process of rewriting until each draft is as clean as possible. While some advice may seem exhausting, like re-entering each word (“Yes, everything”) when revising another draft, it’s almost always at the right time.
A gift bag of tactical tips that even experienced professionals will find useful – his list of rich “buzzwords” to avoid deserves to be remembered – this is the rare writing guide that never feels dutiful or airy hopeful like John Gardner or Annie Dillard.
Using crisp, relatable prose that smoothly balances positivity with a realistic awareness of the grueling commitment that novel writing entails, Bell teaches by example.
“How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America,” edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. (Scribner, 336 pages, $ 27.)
An embarrassment of riches, this anthology, compiled by Lee Child and Laurie R. King (creators of the Jack Reacher and Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series, respectively) overflows with sufficiently narrow wisdom and hard-boiled humor to deserve its place in any mysterious lover’s shelf, even though they never intended to write anything.
Contributions from 70 authors are divided into topics (“The Rules and the Genres”, “After the Writing”), but the book is easy to read straight through. The advice comes in quick, short bursts. Tim Malveny’s one-page post says, “Love your characters, but treat them like dirt.” Charles Salzburg slams down the non-funny “write what you know” rule to explain how to write about what you do not know. In a smart, playful relationship, Jeffrey Deaver insists on “Always Outline!” instantly followed by Childs lightning-fast rip-off “Never Outline!”
No surprise from a group whose motto is “Crime does not pay off … enough”, “How to write a mystery” focuses on the practical side of the mystery. Liliana Hart urges self-published writers with stars in their eyes “Do not resign”, while Kelley Armstrong provides an insightful overview of the (unwritten) rules that govern the YA mystery genre. A nimble, clever and expansive guide who, in explaining how to write a mystery, ends up illustrating much of what makes the genre so engrossing.
“Write for Your Life,” by Anna Quindlen. (Random House, 240 pages, $ 26.)
Anna Quindlen (“Living Out Loud”), relentlessly chippy and optimistic, writes about writing in her latest book with a resolute “you can do it!” enthusiasm reminiscent of a beloved teacher who truly believes that all her students are special. This approach can be of limited use to people who have already decided to write and are just looking for the right tools. But Quindlen is less focused on how to write and more on why.
Quindlen fills his short, reflective book with arguments for writing as a positive and dignified act. Drawing on examples from Anne Frank’s high school Freedom Writers program, Quindlen encourages readers to write down their lives or thoughts on paper in any format. “It does not matter what you say,” she says to dispel concerns that their journals or poems are not good enough. “It matters that you said it.”
Quindlen is a proponent of analog writing and worries about what a world of volatile electronic words will lose for the future. She encourages readers to send handwritten letters to their loved ones and describes touchingly reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” manuscript and marking his “human presence” with the crossed out lines. Quindlen’s book, which at times approaches preciousness, is a gently inspiring breeze of a thing that nonetheless makes a strong argument for putting words to our lives and thoughts: “Writing can make memory concrete.”
Chris Barsanti is a freelance writer, author of several non-fiction books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and an eternally aspiring novelist. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.