There are several people who have helped me, encouraged me, and corrected me. There were encouraging teachers in high school and college who took me under their personal guidance, and there was some very real but not individual help from William Kennedy while I was studying in New York. But most of my best mentors have been writers who have set down their advice into books for writers. That is not to say writing advice books are great. I have read many that were quite unsuccessful and sometimes counter productive. There are some, however, that crossed the barrier of teaching through the distance of author to reader and the distance of time.
One of the first was John Gardner. His book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers has kept me motivated for many years. I reread it often. Another mentor is Sol Stein and his books Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies and How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them are practical guides to getting the work done and done well. Finally, I have mentioned Jeff VanderMeer several times lately but his book, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer is as good a guide as any on what you need to do today to get the writing done and into the hands of readers.
So I offer a big thank you to these mentors. Who has been a big influence to your work even though you never met them?
I have decided to make a slight change to the idea of a Best of 2010 book list. Hopefully it is enlightening; it is also brief. Here is list of the best things I read this year. These are not just new books in 2010, or even just books. This list is the best of everything I have read this year.
20 Things I Learned about Browsers & The Web. A very slick presentation if you have one of the newer browsers. I am a fan of web design done well and this has the bonus of being a book.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Yes, I’m a late comer to this little gem. Really loved it though. I was surprised to learn that my daughter was not so interested. She saw the movie first, and probably was too young. I find it interesting how she sees the very simple image of buttons sewn over eyes in Coraline to be more disturbing than the images in other films which are much more direct. I found Coraline’s determination not to be ignored refreshing because of the constructive manner in which she does so.
Odd & The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. After Coraline I had to have more Gaiman and I wanted something both of my youngest daughters would like since they were not interested in Coraline. They were intrigued by the title and front cover but I would not say they were excited about Odd. Once I started reading it to them and the story worked on them between sessions and soon they were demanding more. We are awaiting more Odd.
The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. This was a re-read and I found it much more enjoyable now that I am older. I simply could not appreciate the art and the imagination when I was younger.
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. For some reason I re-read this every couple of years. I think it is one of Powers’ best novels and is my vote for the best pirate book ever. The next Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movie borrows the title and central idea but don’t expect the film to be the novel.
The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer. A collection of shorter works. I don’t read enough short fiction and this was a good re-introduction to the form. One reason I do not read short fiction often is because I ampresented with dozens of stories of which most I like but many I don’t. When a reader selects a novel there is a winnowing process that occurs before time is invested in the reading. With short stories that winnowing seldom happens. Readers turn the page from the end of one story to the start of the next. This is less satisfying for me than a long novel so I approach short fiction differently. I read only one story at a time and let a day pass while reading other books before proceeding to the next story. This gives me a chance to ‘digest’ each story better. I also have taken John Irving’s advice: as adults we don’t always have to eat all of our vegetables, and if we do not care for a story we should drop it and move on. As for The Third Bear; every story was fascinating. VanderMeer’s imagination is rich and his storytelling is dynamic and sharp. I think my favorite story is The Quickening.
Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer. For all writers; published or not. I recommend any writer to pick up a copy or Kindle eBook here. When writers ask questions such as, “How do I become a writer?” They are really asking, “I write, I have stories, but what do I do now?” The book is a straightforward and comprehensive guide to being a writer today. If you want to know what to do next at the critical points in the writing process Booklife will help. This book gave me what I needed to overcome hurdles I did not know I was facing. I can now identify and resolve them.
That’s it so far but there are still a few days left in the year so the list may yet grow.