Book review: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

I usually wouldn’t have selected this book if it weren’t for a reading club at my work. We wanted to improve our writing as part of improving our communication skills –  most of it is written. But why wouldn’t I pick this book if one of my main passions is writing? Because the book is directed towards nonfiction writing and when thinking of myself as a writer, I believe I’m mostly labeled as a fiction writer. But communication at work is written so it made sense to check how my writing was in the non-fictional world.

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What was different from this book?

The author, William Zinsser, explains with examples (the only way to learn) how to find your own voice. He gives a huge importance in finding your true self, your true voice. He encourages you to find the passion and enjoyment in your daily writing tasks and to never forget your own principles and the ones of the story you want to talk about.

But how is the sound of our writing voices?

Your writing voice should be as you are, not how you talk, but how you perceive things in your head. Zinsser gives the following advice:

“Don’t flight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good…”

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The importance of finding the right words

The right words don’t necessarily mean the complex sounding ones. “Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well,” Zinsser mentions. How many times we read a book with lots of interesting new words, and we find ourselves wishing we had more vocabulary. But sometimes we don’t need this, we only need to find the right words, the ones specific enough to show what we mean. There is no need for complexity, rather for specificity.

When we write fictional books, we tend to overthink the writing process too much. As we write, we’re trying to sound good and to ensure our text looks not simple – not amateurish. We want others to notice we have a great vocabulary and in this effort, we sometimes lose our own voice. I have tried many times to edit my manuscripts in an effort to make the text sound smarter – not simple – but using words that weren’t true to my own rhythm and voice.

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And how about simplicity and clarity?

Sometimes we take too much effort in describing a scene or a character that we lose our sense of direction. “Clutter is the disease of the American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words…” Zinsser mentions.  And although this quote refers to American writing, it still applies to all the writing world and even to all languages. How many times I have found the same issue in my mother tongue Spanish.

Part of this clarity is to question ourselves: Is our story,  the narrative, the description of scenes, and especially dialogue making sense?

Enjoying the process

We spent too much time thinking about the finished work. We tend to visualize or think too much about when the manuscript will be ready, when the book is going to be in a readable stage, and when a possible publishing time could come. We imagine the end line too often and we don’t find ourselves enjoying the process. We are writers, the process of writing should be “our thing” not going after editors and publishers. Let us enjoy the process for the time that is needed.

As Zinsser mentions: “The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race,” and “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”

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How much are we willing to defend our work and to dare to be ourselves?

No matter how much editing we do ourselves, our manuscripts will suffer one day with other editors. We have to make sure that our writing and our voice are still there.  “What you write is yours and nobody else’s”

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot. I want readers to recognize my voice. But sometimes, I’m so lost in having a decent product, in having precise sentences and paragraphs, good words, believable characters, believable setups, etc, that I lose my voice in it. Whatever comes out of our manuscript, it has to be ours, it has to show our own personality. As Zinsser puts it, “Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel”.  This mindset is key, how many times we suppress our thoughts and expressions while we write; an inner voice saying “no, that sounds ridiculous, people won’t understand it.” But we have to understand that there is a difference between readers not able to follow a story structure and not be able to follow the author’s sense of wit and voice. We shouldn’t worry about the latter, we should just go with our guts.

We tend to forget so much of these tips. We’re scared what readers of our manuscript will say, how copywriters will find the text and how editors will see it. We’ve been told rules such as not repeating words, but sometimes they are needed for a reason, sometimes the repetition is there to provide emphasis and to give it a specific rhythm (like the double sometimes in this sentence). Many times when we change our words just to obey rules, we change the effect we are trying to give to our voice, to our characters, and to our story.

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What other advice was also very helpful about this book?

Zinsser treats comedy as a good resource for writing, as a good way to show your personality. This doesn’t mean that you have to tell jokes, but it’s related to the wit with how you tell things. In most cases, this might be the best way to show the true you.

In summary, I really enjoyed the book. Even if I don’t intend to write a non-fiction book, it still had plenty of useful advice, useful not only for non-fictional writers but also for fictional writers, so I definitely recommend it. You can get the book here. 

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IA: Initiate Blog Tour stop

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Welcome to my first participation in a Blog Tour, so far I’ve been enjoying it very much.  I was lucky enough to be today’s tour stop for “IA: Initiate” by John Darryl Winston. The Blog Tour is running this week (March 21-25) and you can find the participating bloggers and schedule here.

You can find “IA: Initiate” at Amazon. 

Initiate

IA: Initiate is origin story and a hero’s journey that follows thirteen-year-old orphan Naz Andersen and his nine-year-old sister, Meri. They live in a present day alternate Detroit/Chicago-like city known as the Exclave where they are surrounded by poverty, gang violence threatens every corner, and drug dealers rule the streets. Naz thinks he is ordinary except that he hears voices, has nightmares, and walks in his sleep.

The most important thing in the world to Naz is protecting Meri and getting her out of the Exclave and into the prestigious International Academy. But Naz has a secret, one that he is oblivious to, and only Meri knows. When Naz becomes the target of a notorious street gang he begins to discover the voices in his head, the nightmares, and sleepwalking are actually telekinesis and telepathy at play, a gift from his father of whom he has no memory.

Interview with the Author

John Darryl Winston was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Enjoy the responses of this very talented author:

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Tell us a bit about yourself. For instance, how did you start writing?

Writing can mean so many different things, but I’ll try to put them all in a nutshell as one. I started creating stories and telling them to people (parents, siblings, and friends) as far back as I can remember, but never wrote anything down. I hated reading and writing in general. Once I realized writing things down came with telling stories, I decided I wanted to write screenplays, as film is my first true love. When I became a parent and teacher I started writing stage plays for my kids and students. But I only started writing in the novel form about 4 or 5 years ago.

How did you come up with the idea for “IA Initiate”?

There are several things that I can point to that led me to the IA series. First there was “Superman the Movie” with Christopher Reeve. I was never into Superman before that. It was the origin part that sucked me in. Then it was “Batman Begins,” again the origin part. I began to toy with an origin story of my own with the premise, how believable it could be, thinking again about the tagline to the Christopher Reeve movie “You’ll believe a man can fly.” I wanted to write an origin story that brought the imagination into play but felt truly possible. Hence my tagline, read it and believe.

What do you like most about your character Naz? Is there some trait in him that you identify with?

What I like most about Naz is he’s so flawed, and I’m never quite sure what he will do next. He wants to do the right thing, but like us, he’s not always sure what the right thing is. So we get to go along with him on his journey and ask ourselves, what if?

Do you think the Exclave anticipates what may come in our future?

I think the Exclave like Gotham or Metropolis is the here and now, more or less. I had one publisher who was reading my manuscript call into question the authenticity of the Exclave setting. He felt that a middle school in such a downtrodden place would never have a basketball team much less a chess club. Of course he’s probably never been to Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit. Welcome to my world.

What is your ideal place for writing?

My ideal place to write is some place unfamiliar that’s not too quiet and not too loud, a place where I can sit back and silently observe, or not, life in motion. I’m a people-watcher and much of my inspiration comes from that pastime.

Do you have a special process to get inspired or get in the writing mood?

I don’t have a goto process but there are some things I’ve done in the past and may or may not try in the future. I like to take extremely hot baths in complete darkness with a tape recorder running and talk to my characters. Sometimes when I’m exercising the muse approaches me. Then there’s the old glass of wine or two to get the juices flowing, but I avoid that when I can, afraid of developing a vice or bad habit. And then there’s trusty meditation.

What are your next projects? 

Three projects: The first is “IA: Union,” the final book in the IA trilogy which has me frustrated right now. The second is a sci-fi called “Ultima Humana,” about the last human along time from now on a planet not too far away, lol. The third is a sci-fi called “Patriarch” about a scientist who has found a way to endow his son with supernatural powers in a natural way. Sound familiar?

What would you recommend aspiring writers?

I would recommend aspiring writers to read, Read, and READ some more: books by great authors, not-so-great authors, and everyone in between. Read in and out of the genre you intend to write, and read critically and analytically, always having a highlighter around to mark that book up until it’s unrecognizable.

Any tips or writing recommendations?

Get some craft books. “On Writing” by Stephen King and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White is a good place to start. Develop a thick skin and find people you can trust to be critical of your writing. That’s all for now.

More about the author…

John Darryl Winston is a recording artist, turned educator, turned author. He dates his love of storytelling back to reading the bible with his father and sisters and later when he first saw Superman The Movie as an 11th grader in his high school auditorium. He got the idea for his debut series while piloted a Boys’ Read program as a Detroit Public School teacher. He is the founder of the Adopt an Author program, which has as its mission to create an atmosphere where boys and girls learn to love reading and writing.

He has written songs with and for Grammy winner David Foster and record mogul Clive Davis. He has been a recording artist on Arista and Polygram records, and has written and/or produced songs for Gerald Levert, Jordan Hill, Gerald Alston, and many others.

He’s a graduate of the Recording Institute of Detroit, The Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and Wayne State University. He has his MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and will be graduating, June 2016 with his MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes. He lives in Detroit with daughter, Marquette and plans to buy an African Grey Parrot when he conquers his irrational fear of birds and name him or her Tony or Toni.

You can find more information about John at:

Website / Facebook / Twitter

My Review

Those who know me are aware I’m a slow reader. Few books grab me well enough to finish in a couple of days, the norm is usually a couple of weeks, but “IA: Initiate” was one of those exceptions. I finished the book in a couple of days because it had the flow and pace that allowed me to devour the book without noticing.

Naz, a thirteen-year-old boy, lives in the Exclave along with his nine-year-old sister, both are orphans and live in a foster home. Sleepwalking might not be the only problem Naz is facing, he lives in a dangerous part of the city, and he can’t remember much of his early past. But he’s convinced of one sole objective: to protect his little sister from anything and to take her away from the decadent Exclave.

As the story develops, we learn Naz’s untrusty and insecure nature might be a result of his past and of the deaths of his parents. The story develops in parallels between fragments of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Cornelius Andersen and his achievements in the fields of neuroscience. Usually, when novels display two parallel stories at the same time in different time settings, one tends to distract from the other without intertwining properly. This was not the case. The author manages to increase the mystery and flow of the story as he narrates both of them. As we get to know the past of Naz and his sister, we also start to realize the implications of their world, the Exclave, and some possible explanations for Naz’s behavior.

I enjoyed reading the book. The characters were compelling, likable, and complex enough to want to know more about them. The story offers so many possibilities that I felt it was natural to have a series of books derived from this first part. I’m certainly eager to continue with the next books. Winston is very talented, and in his writing not only, I was able to understand the Exclave and the rest of their world around it; but  also I delved into the story with eagerness to know as much as possible from the potential turn of events.

Giveaway

John is offering e-copies of “IA: Initiate” to the 5 winners of the following Rafflecopter. Click here to enter it.

Writers do bend the rules!

I haven’t read Isabel Allende in a while. It’s my favorite Spanish speaking author. I remembered how I used to devour her books when I was a teenager. Her stories were so profound, her characters so alive. I haven’t read all of her books, and this reminds I might not be a proper author fan/follower. But I’ve always been into exploring new authors.

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Since she’s a Spanish speaking author, I read her books in their original language: Spanish. No translations. However, in my effort to improve my writing in English, I haven’t read books in Spanish for a while, probably for the last three years. It’s been hard to remain truthful to this objective. I could easily get Spanish translations from John Grisham, Stephen King, and other famous ones in the bookstores of my city, but my encounters with horrible translations have pushed me to insist in improving my English when possible. Now, I usually shop for books online or buy them whenever I travel. The effort has paid off. I used to read books in English with dictionaries searches every two minutes. Now, I don’t need need them anymore.

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Anyway, I was excited to read Allende again. The book I picked up was one of her latest ones: “El Amante Japonés” or “The Japanese Lover.”  I really enjoyed the book but it was a writing/learning experience more than anything. Unfortunately, I no longer remember enough to testify for other Allende’s books. But in this book, I found a couple of  writing style observations along the way that made me question the writing rules I’ve been learning lately. My reading perspective has changed significantly over these two years of reading books about writing, listening to webinars about writing, attending to writing online courses and even going to a writing conference in English. I would have never imagined these writing rules I’ve been following at heart could be non-existent in the authors I loved the most. It was an utter surprise.

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But what exactly were these rules I found non existent in “The Japanese Lover”? In fiction, I’ve been taught to write scenes from a single point of view. If you want to use other character’s points of view, then it’s better to do it in another scene or even in another chapter. In “The Japanese Lover”, Isabel Allende mixes multiple points of view from one paragraph to the other. One paragraph you are inside one of the main character’s head and the next one you are in another, in a blink of an eye. At the beginning, I found this quite off-putting. I was mad that one of my favorite authors was writing like that. I began to question, Was it always like that in her previous books? (I still need to check this out of curiosity) Was this something it didn’t bother to me before? Was it because I didn’t know of these rules many years ago? But I learned a lesson quick. The rule about not mixing points of view exists because we don’t want to confuse readers. But we must never misjudge readers’ reading capabilities. After a couple of lines, it was easy to realize which character were being described. And after the first chapters I didn’t find this annoying anymore. Sometimes as writers, we struggle too much in trying to ensure our readers won’t get confused. We write with such detail (succumbing to exaggerated description and slow flow) to ensure readers follow the plot line easily that we sometimes forget our readers are perfectly able to grab implicit details without the need of us describing them word by word.

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After overcoming my own self blocking rule in the fist chapters of “The Japanese lover” and forgetting about any other writing rules, I began to submerge into the story. I found out that Isable Allende is still one of my favorite authors. It didn’t matter she changed POVs every second; I read her book hugely entertained and finished it in a couple of days. Of course, the book is not perfect, there are other issues that bothered me at some level, such as the excess of themes in one single book and the highly dramatic backgrounds in each character – too much to be believable at some point. But the book had alive characters. That is something you cannot always achieve by following the rules.

As a result and as part of my writing improvement process. I’ve learned that bending the rules is not always bad. I still prefer to keep one POV for each scene, but now I feel myself free to break some rules and allow my writing to become alive.

 

 

It’s as simple as that: good writing matters a big deal

It’s as simple as that: good writing matters a big deal. As I dig more into this writing career, I realize how much I still need to learn.

I’ve always been for thrillers and mysteries. I’ve always loved fast-paced books with lots of action: books that I could see in my mind as the next big Hollywood blockbusters. But lately, I’ve realized that there’s also another side of reading. A reading where words enchant you and make you want more of this world of beautifully written words. Now, I believe that good storytelling doesn’t exist without good writing.

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I must confess I haven’t read much of Literature Nobel prize winners before. Except from “One Hundred years of Solitude” from Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which I didn’t like), I wasn’t drawn into these awarded authors. It was like Oscar movies: not all Oscar movies winners are good. In fact, some Oscar winners are actually weird and not in my taste of “awesome films.” But this time I bought Alice Munro’s: “Lives of girls and women”, a Nobel prize winner, and I can’t believe I did it by mistake.

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The purchase was done when I was coming back from NY’s Writer’s Digest conference. I’ve written down all those titles that during the conference attendees were advised to read. One of the panelists highly recommended to read Alice Hoffman. In the airport, when I came across Alice Munro and read the label “Nobel Prize winner,” I really thought I got the right “Alice.”

I realized of my mistake when I came home. But as a bookworm, I’m never sad for having a new book to read. So I give it a go to this book. And I loved it. Munro’s writing is completely beautiful. The way she starts describing everything and how characters develop in this beautiful written prose was such a relief and rest from the fast paced books I’d been reading before. It made me love writing and reading even more. It made me realize how much, still, I have to learn from writing in English.

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This blog post was meant to be a review of Alice Munro’s “Lives of girls and women” but as I came across the blog, I realized I mostly wanted to express the lesson learned while reading this book, and how it has influenced my writing learning process. I’ve also realized how important is for writers to read out of their genre, how it makes you grow professionally. There’s still a wonderful world of written words out there.

And you, have you come across with these beautifully unexpected books that made you want to grow even more as writers?

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Book review: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

As I closed the last page of my book, I softly muttered “interesting” without even noticing.  My mother happened to be near me at that moment. She asked me “What did you just read?” I waved the book cover to her and answered “A book about punctuation.” She winced.

I would have probably winced too if I’d been my mother. She knows I’m a book worm, but sometimes  my eccentricities trouble her a bit.  Reading a complete book about punctuation just because you want to is kind of unheard off, no regular “reading for pleasure” material here. But I do read a couple of books like these ones once in a while. Mostly because, as a writer, I need to improve my craft. I need to know where to put the period.

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is a clever and informational book where not only grammar rules are exposed, but also a wave of useful information strikes in. It’s not only about commas, semicolons, periods, dashes, etc., but also about their history, how they arrived to our world, what our crazy predecessors thought of them, how some tried to abolish their existence, and how punctuation marks strived successfully. I got attached to each punctuation mark as I would’ve gotten attached to a fiction character. Embarrassingly, I’m that quirky when it comes to books.

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Moreover, Lynne Truss leads us to a deeper level, to the analysis of the evolution of punctuation marks. We learn not only their history, but also how our modern times, influenced by technology and constant mobile messaging, are changing the world view towards punctuation. With good evidence, Truss foresees the punctuation world future, with upcoming years of punctuation invasion. We won’t get ridding of them any soon. Reading this book gives us an insightful perspective.  We’re not only being told about punctuation rules; we’re also acquiring enough criteria to understand their evolution.

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But the aside note is that the book is clever and funny – British funny, humor that always makes me laugh for a reason. I enjoyed the book as much as I would have enjoyed a fiction novel.

Was I the only lonely boring person reading books about punctuation? Nop, I lent the book to a work colleague. The guy loved it. He read it faster than me, just in a couple of days, again my excuse being I’m a slow reader. Would I recommend this book to everybody? Definitely.  Yes.

Have you ever read any type of grammar/punctuation of what it could be thought as “boring” and find yourself enjoying it more than expected?