Category Archives: Nonfiction

In Another World: A Writing Residency in Antarctica with Jynne Martin

Posted by March 14th, 2014

I’ve been obsessed with Antarctica since I was a child: it represented a colossal, prismatic space of mystery and unanswered questions, the final wilderness on our planet, where men wearing ill-fitting reindeer skins took teams of sled dogs over glaciers for years at a time, through miserable conditions that are beyond imagination. So when I learned the National Science Foundation offered an Antarctica Artists and Writers Residency, I immediately applied. The NSF selects one or two artists or writers from any discipline – filmmaking, puppetry, painting, photography and poetry, to name just a few – to travel to Antarctica during the austral summer and embed with science teams.

The application process is rigorous, requiring extensive research about the existing science on the continent, permission from any field team that you propose to embed with, and justification of why your art requires a trip to Antarctica. I contacted four different field teams that work with Antarctic animals: from the largest animals, the seals, down to the smallest, the soil microbes. I wanted to spend weeks immersed in the vernacular of the scientists, and to better understand how these myriad animals had adapted to not just survive, but thrive, in the most strange and barren circumstances, and to write poetry and nonfiction about these experiences.

Jynne Martin Penguins

Jynne observes penguins in their natural habitat.

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What is a Scene: BLUEPRINT YOUR BESTSELLER Book and Sweepstakes

Posted by November 5th, 2013

sweepstakes_blueprintToday we have as our guest Grub Street writing teacher and author Stuart Horwitz. His newest book, BLUEPRINT YOUR BESTSELLER: Organize and Revise any Manuscript with The Book Architecture Method (Penguin/Perigee), introduces his system for organizing and revising any manuscript. It’s the perfect guide for participants of NaNoWriMo, who’ll have a first draft of their novel at the end of November but will still need help restructuring and polishing it later. We’re giving away three copies of the book to Book Country members. Click here to enter the BLUEPRINT YOUR BESTSELLER Sweepstakes!

In this excerpt from BLUEPRINT YOUR BESTSELLER, Stuart introduces the Book Architecture Method and answers the question: “what is a scene,” the basic building block of every manuscript. ~NG 


The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set. I don’t believe this is easier said than done—or harder said than done. It is what it is. There will be periods of questioning and there will be periods of joy; there will be divine inspiration searing across the page like a cosmic flame, and there will be fidgeting with things until they fit just right. All I can say is that it does happen. I have seen writers line up their ninety-nine scenes in the right order. When they do, the rest is just details.

When you start offering methods to people, their first question is, “Does it work?” The Book Architecture Method is a method, not a formula; as such, it needs to be applied. Does your book have exactly 99 scenes? I doubt it! Your book has 72 scenes, or 138 scenes, or another number that you won’t know until you are done. I chose ninety-nine for the sake of discussion. I chose it because it feels one shy of completion. You cannot achieve unity, the goal of any piece of writing, by trying to be comprehensive. No matter how hard you try, you will never completely cover your topic—all you can do is be consistent and coherent. Perfectionism can appear in many guises, but it is always an impossible task that likes to present itself as something that isn’t. We need to adjust our definition of perfection to mean “getting your ninety-nine scenes in the right order”—and let the hundredth come when it is good and ready.

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Memoir Writing: Find The Past – Advice from Beth Kephart

Posted by October 10th, 2013

handling_the_truthFINALThis is a guest post by HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR author Beth Kephart. ~LS

Earlier today my niece, Julia, and I opened the door to my father’s attic, where a single box among many boxes bears my name. I had agreed to help Julia with a school photography project—to search, with her, for elements from my past that would somehow explain who I am.

Letters were there—old boyfriends, a marriage proposal, a key-sized envelope containing the dust of some prom flowers. A postcard upon which each hand-inked letter was no larger than a sugar ant. Names: Tanya, Steven, Pierre, Rob. An evaluation from the library where I’d worked as a University of Pennsylvania student; the supervisor noted, in square boxes, that I’d been “excellent” in all things. I also read, however: Although Beth chats to her friends at the checkout desk for long periods of time, she seems to be able to continue working and be accurate.

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The Perfect Antidote to Writer’s Block: Reading!

Posted by October 8th, 2013

When you have writer’s block, is it okay to read instead of write?

I liked what Book Country members had to say in response to Molly‘s recent post on the “How do you break out of writer’s block?” thread. Atthys Gage reassured Molly that reading “cannot help but make you a better writer,” and Carl E. Reed expanded the list of acceptable procrastination techniques to include “cooking, physical exercise, dreaming . . . Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”

Molly, Atthys, and Carl are onto something. In the book WE WANTED TO BE WRITERS: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Michelle Huneven (with whom I studied in graduate school) says that she starts the writing day by reading “something–usually fiction I admire–until I get itchy and want to make fiction myself.” Over the weekend, I tried this, spending a big chunk of time relaxing with a few historical novels. I felt guilty reading instead of writing, but by Sunday evening, I’d not only read two really fabulous books, I’d also logged 5,000 words on my WIP. Not bad!

Ella Berthoud and Susan ElderkinBibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin definitely endorse reading as a cure–and not just for writer’s block. THE NOVEL CURE is their compendium of books-as-cures for all manner of ailments: low self-esteem, unemployment, and, of course, writer’s block. The authors recommend I CAPTURE THE CASTLE (by Dodie Smith) for ridding yourself of writer’s block. Here’s why they chose it:

The remedy for writer’s block inflicted upon the novelist father in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is nothing short of genius. But–darn it–to tell it would be to give away one of the plot twists in the unutterably charming novel. Mortmain, as he is known by his second wife, Topaz, achieved great critical success with an experimental novel called Jacob Wrestling. But he has not been able to put pen to paper since an unfortunately incident involving a next-door neighbor who foolishly intervened when Mortmain brandished a cake knife at his first wife while they were having tea in the garden. He ended up spending three months behind bars, writer’s block set in, and the family has been penniless ever since.

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Great Writing Guides: Writers Helping Writers

Posted by April 25th, 2011

An Editor’s Look at Some of the Best Writing Books on the Shelves

A Penguin nonfiction editor shares some of her favorite resources for writers.

 Meg Leder - medIn my day job, I edit books at Perigee, an imprint of Penguin. Editing comes fairly naturally to me: when I read manuscripts, I’ve learned to trust my inner reader voice, the one that says, “Hmmm, the tone isn’t right here,” or “This part tripped me up,” or “I wonder what would happen if we cut this and moved this…” I confidently listen to these instincts as I work with my authors and their manuscripts, helping turn ideas into smart and compelling books.

After hours, however, all of those confident editorial instincts go right out the door as I sit in front of my laptop and transform from Assured Experienced Editor into Neurotic Aspiring Author. Like Bruce Banner turning Hulk-ish, this is not a fun transformation. Neurotic Aspiring Author spends hours on her commute or laying in bed at night desperately mulling over story ideas. She struggles to get words on the page, painstakingly keying in words one by one. She obsessively reads and re-reads her writing, one second falling in love with a seeming moment of genius, the next deciding all of her writing self-loathing is completely justified as the words she’s written are the worst affront to writing ever.

So, what’s Neurotic Aspiring Author to do? Turn to the pros.

I’ve learned to be kinder to my writing self after reading Betsy Lerner’s Forest for the Trees. I’ve managed to overcome the occasional case writer’s block by spending some time with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I’ve discovered how to rethink my motivation and rework my plot with the help of Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover.

There are a variety of wonderful resources available to both neurotic and well-adjusted writers–writing guides that offer knowledge and tips to make your writing as polished and compelling as possible. (Disclosure: Yes, I’ve confidently edited some of these titles, but my anxious writer side has thrived from the advice within.) So take a look at some of this Neurotic Aspiring Author’s personal favorites—I hope you’ll find they speak to you as well!

Books on Writing Basics
Any novice writer who needs help on the basics, or simply some brushing-up on the craft should check out these easy-to-absorb guides:

  • 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Scott Edelstein: A wide-ranging introduction to the building blocks of the craft and business of writing, from finding your voice to getting an agent, written by a writer, editor, and literary agent.
  • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
    A series of essays by the science fiction bestseller Bradbury that will leave you feeling empowered and ready to write.
  • 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost: A classic, well-loved writing guide that presents quick and easy-to-implement tips on writing.
  • On Writing by Stephen King: Both an inspiring memoir and instructional guide to craft, this book will get you ready to take the leap into writing.

Books on Fiction Ins and Outs 
If you’re looking for instruction on writing fiction, from plot and character to pacing and voice, take a look at these simple and useful books:

  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: A classic guide to, well, fiction writing, with easy-to-understand and inspiring tips and advice for new writers.
  • A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon: A concise, practical guide covering the key elements of fiction, that includes sections on revision and marketing your work.
  • The Writing Book by Kate Grenville: A step-by-step guide on how to write fiction, complete with exercises and workbook.
  • Now Write! by Sherry Ellis: You can learn from National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and Guggenheim winners in this collection of personal writing exercises and commentary from some of today’s best novelists, short story writers, and writing teachers.

Books on Writing Motivation
Having a hard time getting started or finding momentum? Get some tips and advice in these inspiring guides:

  • The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood: Optimistic and encouraging, this book guides readers through a series of writing exercises sure to increase motivation and creativity.
  • Bang the Keys by Jill Dearman: Provides a four-part plan so writers can gain the momentum and discipline they need to follow through on a project.
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg: A powerful and enthusiastic guide to useful and motivating writing practices that combine creativity with meditation.
  • The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Kathy Kleidermacher: A practical guide full of tips, exercises, and prompts to get your writing back on track.

Books on Insider Advice
Sometimes, the best advice comes from those in the trenches: editors, agents, and other published authors. Get an inside look at the industry from these unique perspectives:

  • Who’s Writing This? by Dan Halpern: An delightfully invaluable collection of essays about the publishing and creative processes from the people who do it every day—-writers.
  • Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell: A helpful look at the specific errors beginning writers often make that keep them from breaking out into the industry.
  • The Secret Miracle by Daniel Alarcon, Ed.
    Learn the ins and outs of writing fiction from the best of the best in this roundtable disccusion in print.
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner: A collection of essays from Pulitzer-Prize winning author, covering aspects of fiction writing from the writer’s vision and audience, to symbolism and swear words, to the mystery of the creative process.

Books on Living the Writing Life 
Hoping to dig deeper with your writing, and to infuse joy into the actual process? Learn how to find balance and structure in these reads:

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: A sharp, funny, and at times brutally honest guide that will help you find your voice in both your writing and your life.
  • Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico: A guide on how to turn the task and stress of writing into a meaningful and natural process.
  • A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock: A first-hand account from a once-struggling writer on balancing real life and writing life before and after you “make it.”
  • Right to Write by Julia Cameron: Empowering guidance on how to make writing a joyful way of life (vs. a stress-filled “Big Deal”).

Books on Grammar Guidance
Worried your writing is rife with grammar and spelling errors? Read these great guides to  help you polish your work:

  • Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner: Down-to-earth guidance that de-mystifies the confusing world of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.
  • Words Into Type, Third Edition by Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay: Definitive and credible source for writers on manuscript etiquette, copyediting, style, grammar, and usage.
  • Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande: If you’re tired of the grammar police but still need to learn the basics, you’ll love this humorous and lively approach to learning grammar. Also check out the author’s other book, Mortal Syntax, for another fun guide—this time on frequently attacked language usage choices.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: This classic style manual is a must have for any writer.
  • Literally, the Best Language Book Ever by Paul Yeager: A wry and opinionated examination of trite, trendy, grammatically incorrect, inane, outdated, and lazy uses of words, phrases, and expressions.
  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn: A dynamic manual for both newbie authors who want to learn the ropes and writing veterans who want to hone their craft.

Books on Getting Published

Ready to take the next steps and find a good home for your work? Look no further than these useful resources:

  • 2011 Writer’s Market by Robert Lee Brewer, Ed.: An annual guide to getting published from a variety of industry sources, compiled by Brewer into one sacred text.
  • Publicize Your Book by Jacqueline Deval: “Easily the most incisive and expert guide to book publishing ever” according to Publisher’s Weekly, this guide teaches writers how to actively take part in publicizing, marketing, and promoting their work.
  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman: Tips on how to avoid bad writing and stay out of the rejection pile from a well-known literary agent.
  • Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon: Step-by-step details on what editors want and how to develop a marketing strategy to get published.

[Photo by Danielle Poiesz]


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