“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Subtitle: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story

Recommended to me by: Justine Larbalestier

A writing manual about the tools of the writing trade: punctuation, grammar, voice, point of view. This compact book is carefully detailed, wryly kind, deeply knowledgeable. It arose out of writing workshops that Le Guin offered, and has been revised for the 21st century with references to twitter and online workshops. She includes sample passages from classics, and tells us what she admires about them. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise and how to learn from it.

I felt in safe hands. I’d like to go back and do the writing exercises sometime, especially with a group. I write essays, not stories, so not everything applies, but I’m sure it would still be helpful.

Highly recommended for anyone who writes stories, or anyone (like me) eager to read anything written by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is sorely missed.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Dreyer’s English” by Benjamin Dreyer

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Subtitle: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Recommended to me by: Jesse-the-K’s rave review

This book is both a useful guide to writing well in English, and an entertaining quick read that includes the occasional jab at the current occupant of the White House. Benjamin Dreyer is persnickety and opinionated, as befits the Copy Chief at Random House. He holds forth on grammar rules that can be safely ignored and ones that can’t, easily misspelled words, easily misspelled names, and words that tend to be confused with each other.

One can see his process of becoming more educated on social justice issues. There is one inexplicable balk at using work-hours instead of man-hours (seriously?!) but otherwise his language in the book is inclusive of women. He admits that he also balked at using singular they until he had a colleague who uses they pronouns.

Recommended for writers and others interested in the vagaries of the English language.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Conversations on Writing” by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon

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Recommended to me by: sturgeonslawyer

I read this because I will read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, and alas there won’t be more wise words from her to read. I feel her loss as an emptiness in the world where her steadiness and integrity used to be.

The book is an edited transcription of radio interviews with David Naimon of KBOO here in Portland, divided into sections for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. It includes a few excerpts by Le Guin and others that she referred to in their conversations.

A short, choppy book, great for learning little bits about Le Guin and about writing and about reading and about life.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“EPUB Straight to the Point” by Elizabeth Castro

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Subtitle: Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders

Recommended to me by: Finding it at the library

Creating an epub ebook from an InDesign print book file involves a whole lot of hidden settings and mysterious outcomes. I read a lot of blog posts, and this book was also helpful in getting the details squared away. It has step by step instructions for creating an epub ebook from Word and InDesign, and then further step by step instructions for editing the epub directly to refine the results. Since I learned HTML before CSS was a thing, and epub uses CSS, this was helpful to get oriented. It’s from 2011, but still useful.

It has some iPad-specific details, like a list of the fonts it supports and previews of each.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Non-Designer’s InDesign Book” by Robin Williams

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Subtitle: Essential design techniques for print projects

Recommended to me by: Finding it at the library

I’m formatting my book with Adobe InDesign. While it does work to do a web search to find out how to do things like add more pages to the book, or move a title farther down the page, I decided I wanted more of an overview of the whole program and its features.

A friend suggested checking a book out of the library. This was perfect, because I could check out several books and see which one I liked, and since I have an older version of the program, older books were just right.

This book won because it is inviting, clear, direct, and brief. The design examples are varied and interesting (not all for sports and bars). Some of the examples are even from “Mothering Magazine”! While Robin doesn’t address book projects, the aesthetics and attention to detail in her examples fit in with how I work. Not only am I happy to support a woman author of a technical book, I feel more at home reading her book.

Highly recommended if you need to wrestle with InDesign CS5. I got her Photoshop book too, and I’m looking forward to reading that next, to work on the book cover and interior illustrations.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“High Tide in Tucson” by Barbara Kingsolver

Subtitle: Essays from Now or Never

Recommended to me by: Donna Smith

When I first read this book of essays years ago, I became so absorbed that I missed my transit stop. I continued reading on a high, windy platform as I waited to catch a train returning in the other direction. I picked it up again from a friend’s bookshelf while snow-bound in DC. It is still absorbing – I read it in afternoon.

Barbara Kingsolver writes about a hermit crab she accidentally brought home from a beach to Tucscon, and how it maintained rhythms of activity and hibernation far from any tides. The theme of rhythms weaves through the book, including not-knowing times in her life, desperation and despair, and finding her way out again.

I remembered her two-year old deliberately knocking over her glass of orange juice, to her harried dismay, and the resulting meditation on autonomy and the need for slow time. This time I noticed the clear acknowledgements of racism and sexism in our culture.

There is a lovely interlude about her stay in the Canary Islands. People there genuinely like children, rather than grudgingly tolerating them the way United States culture does. She also feels safe walking alone at night there.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Indie Publishing” edited by Ellen Lupton

Subtitle: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book

Recommended to me by: Found on the library shelf in the self-publishing section, and renewed several times.

This is a quirky book with practical, detailed advice about self-publishing and designing books. I appreciate the information on choosing a page layout and some good typographical options.

I’m less enthusiastic about their choices for book examples, which tend toward the erotic. They also mention a specific print on demand company often enough to make me wonder if they get a kickback. Still, well worth reading for the design advice.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home” by Gail Caldwell

Subtitle: a memoir of friendship

Recommended to me by: Courtney on the Feministing blog

I loved this book. I cried at the beginning, smiled in the middle, and sighed at the end.

Gail Caldwell describes first her grief at her best friend Caroline Knapp’s death, and then their daily joys together while she was alive. They trained their big dogs together, rowed on the Charles River together, and most of all, talked about everything, including both their writing careers, and both their past struggles with alcohol.

The writing is compressed, detailed, elegant, meandering across years within a page. Trying to find a representative sample, I ended up re-reading large swathes of the book. Here, I opened the book at random:

“I’m afraid that no one will ever love me again.” He leaned toward me with a smile of great kindness on his face, his hands clasped in front of him. “Don’t you know?” he asked gently. “The flaw is the thing we love.”

This book is about intimacy, connection, grief, and love. Go read it.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

Subtitle: A Practical Approach

Recommended to me by: reading Nisi Shawl’s other book “Filter House

I felt so warmed and included by Nisi Shawl’s writing in “Filter House” that I was eager to read “Writing the Other.” I wanted both to learn how to write inclusively, and to experience more of that included feeling.

This short book includes three essays and an excerpt from Nisi Shawl’s forthcoming novel. The first essay’s full title is “Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction.” Aimed specifically at fiction writers from mainstream culture, this essay was informative but did not feel inclusive itself.

The acronym ROAARS covers differences that majority culture recognizes as significant: Race/(sexual) Orientation/Ability/Age/Religion/Sex. Class is mentioned as a difference but intentionally excluded from the acronym.

White privilege, and more generally unmarked privilege, are the hidden, taken-for-granted benefits that come from matching majority culture on the ROAARS characteristics. For example, white heterosexual couples do not worry about being insulted if they publicly hold hands, nor do they notice that they’re not worrying, unless one of them has previously been in a homosexual or mixed-race relationship.

Parallax is the writerly art of showing the world from the character’s point of view, rather than the writer’s.

Both positive and negative examples of inclusive writing are cited. Writing exercises are given for practice.

What I noticed most about the writing exercises is how they didn’t fit me. They assumed a familiarity with writing character vignettes that I don’t have. They assumed a familiarity with majority culture that I also don’t have. When asked to choose a celebrity to write about, I chose a well-known Balkan dance teacher, but the second part of the exercise assumed I had chosen an American celebrity. Several of the exercises required a writing partner.

The most illuminating moment came from an exercise I couldn’t bring myself to do, even though there weren’t any obvious impediments. It asked me to write about myself as if I had one major difference in my ROAARS characteristics. I found myself unwilling to relinquish any of my majority or minority truths, especially the ones that are indeterminate or unclear.

I can’t tell if I’m not advanced enough to benefit from this book, or if I already knew most of the multi-cultural, inclusive lessons it is teaching. Perhaps a mix of both.

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

Subtitle: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott’s writing process seems reassuringly similar to my own, and seems to include just as much struggle. She advises us to write everything that comes to mind, and then later refine it into clarity and grace. A lot of the book is devoted to all the ways we get in our own way, and how sorry she is that there isn’t a more direct route.

“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and in fact you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.” Oh good. Maybe I’m doing it right after all.

She emphasizes both looking inside for our own truths, and observing the world around us to flesh out those truths. She reminds to do both with as much detached compassion as we can scrape together.

On character creation: “My friend Carpenter talks about the unconscious as the cellar where the little boy sits who creates the characters, and he hands them up to you through the cellar door. He might as well be cutting out paper dolls. He’s peaceful; he’s just playing.” … “You may want to come up with an image or a metaphor for this other part of you that is separate from your rational, conscious mind, this other person with whom you can collaborate. This may help you feel less alone.” I’ll have to try this – I’d love to feel less alone with my book-writing project!

She keeps a 1 inch square picture frame by her desk to remind her to focus in on one viewpoint and one scene at a time. A whole book is made up of paragraphs. Write the paragraphs, the sentences, the words.

Since I’m struggling with organizing my own book, I noticed that her chapter headings are laconic and her transitions brief. Each chapter meanders among writing class anecdotes, writing advice, snippets of poetry, and life anecdotes. I’m sure she spent many hours crafting each chapter to flow so casually and conversationally. At the same time, it’s good to notice that it reads just fine as it meanders, and my book might be allowed to meander too.

Somehow, at the end of reading this book, I feel less stuck around organizing my own, and more like I’m moving slowly. And that moving slowly is okay, fortunately, since that’s the way it is right now.

Available at Powell’s Books.