Chicks Who Can WRITE

You can tell a lot about a person by the literary company they keep. Or at least, that’s one of my many theories.

If you’re a writer and you want to improve your own skills, you HAVE to read great writing. Here is a short list of my favorite female authors: chicks who (in my opinion) can write circles around almost everyone else. (Dudes Who Can Write will come in another post.) These women write sentences that are so crazy-good, I often stop and read a particular one over and over.

My own arbitrary criteria for this list are: the writer must be living, and I must have personally read and enjoyed at least 2 of their books. This eliminated a whole lot of one-hit-wonders whose books I LOVED. I’m limiting this post to 10 writers.

With most of these chicks, you can scarcely go wrong by picking up something they wrote. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my personal favorites of their work. Continue reading


Writing that rocks – A Fine Balance

Oprah and I have a bit of a checkered past.

I mean, no, we don’t technically have a relationship. If we did, I probably wouldn’t be hanging out on Twitter, or blogging. I’d probably be filming road trips with her and going on month-long vacations to Italy, and I’d have a nanny and a chef and a make-up artist, and I’d wear designer clothes and I’d eat really, really well…

Just look at Gayle.

I’m sorry, where were we? Continue reading

Short Stories can rock. Honest.

I used to hate short stories. Well, “hate” is a strong word. But I really, really disliked them.

Short stories, at least to someone who loves Really Big Books, can feel like a gyp. Just when the tale is taking off and gaining momentum and you’re invested in the characters – bam, it’s over. You feel like you’ve been a victim of “bait and switch.”  False advertising. Premature elucidation.

The few short stories I had read weren’t even very good. So for a long while, I steered clear.

Then my oldest brother (those boys crop up here often, don’t they?) went to Canada on vacation, and brought me back a short story collection written by the person who would become my Favorite Living Writer (more on her in a future post, I promise.) My mind was forever changed. Well-executed short stories ROCK. Continue reading

Writing that rocks – Stephen King

(In two parts, for those of you who don’t have all day.)


Confession: I have been a HUGE fan of Stephen King’s work for many years.
Confession: I read my first and only Stephen King novel about six months ago.

Why yes, I’d be happy to explain.

For a long time, there were only three genres of fiction that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. 1. Science Fiction, for no good reason (and, as we’ve already seen, I’ve overcome that aversion.) 2. “Bodice Rippers,” as I believe they’re called – I read one once, just to see, and it was not a successful experiment. And 3. Horror, because I am too easily scared, and I don’t like gore.

Like everyone else on Planet Earth, I was well aware of Stephen King, and had actually enjoyed the movie treatments of some of his famous novels (although I had to close my eyes in parts.) I knew he was one of the best-selling fiction writers of all time, with upwards of 350 million books sold. I also knew he had written a few non-horror novels – but I wasn’t interested in reading those. If I couldn’t sample what he obviously did best, then I didn’t want to sample him at all.

Then, in 2000, King went and wrote a little something that he called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

When On Writing was published, book critics, most of whom had long treated King’s work with either disdain or indifference, sort of collectively shuffled their feet. Because the book was…um…really good. As in, people were saying it was the best book on writing since The Elements of Style. Which was a bit outrageous.

And also, true.

The simple fact is, Stephen King has managed to sell several hundred million books, in a niche genre that is not even liked by anyone I know, because the man knows how to tell a freaking story (and I would use stronger language, but there are children around) better than just about anyone. This was evident to me before I had read a single word of his fiction. This was evident when I read his amazing memoir/guidebook.

On Writing contains a short (less than 100 pages) account of King’s childhood and early writing history. He then tells you everything he knows about writing. (In a postscript, he also writes about the 1999 accident that took place while he was writing this book, in which he was nearly killed by a runaway van while he was walking near his home.)

King touches on philosophical advice, as when he describes how he eventually traded in the massive writing desk he’d always dreamed of for a smaller one, so his kids would have space to come hang out in his office. He writes:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

And King packs his book with practical advice, much of it echoing The Elements of Style (which he references.) He hates adverbs. He doesn’t believe in dressing up your vocabulary, or lecturing while writing, or forcing your characters to do things your way. He does believe in trimming the fat from your writing; if a stretch of narrative does not move the story along, no matter how beautiful it is – it must go. He hammers this point home wonderfully, as here:

It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story. It will not behoove me (or you) to wander off into thickets of description just because it would be easy to do so.

On Writing has an easy, conversational tone to it that makes it sound like you’re talking to your Uncle Stevie (as King often refers to himself.) DO NOT BE FOOLED. Producing his kind of writing is in no way easy. It is one of the hardest things in the world to get right – and the only reason King can do it, as he oh so casually relates in the book, is that he has written his fingers to the bone since he was a child. He wrote his way through grade school, and high school, and college; he wrote in the laundry room of a double-wide, far into the night, every night; he wrote through addictions that were so bad, he can barely remember writing some of his books; he wrote his way back from the brink of death, in a variety of ways; he wrote when no one would pay him for it and when his first four completely-finished novels all went into the permanent reject heap. He writes because (I suspect) for him, to stop writing would be to stop breathing. King has natural talent, absolutely. But he has also worked at his profession as hard as anyone ever has. He has paid his dues, and then some.

Check out the list of books and stories he has published, from his web page (and then come back.) When I scrolled through this list, I got the strong urge to giggle, because the quantity of work he’s produced is insane. And bear in mind, he was writing long, long before he was ever published.

Anyway, by halfway through On Writing, I was a die-hard Stephen King fan.

Then in 2007, King was chosen as the guest editor for that year’s Best American Short Stories compilation. (This is a marvelous series in which every year, a different distinguished author selects the 20 or so best short stories from the most prestigious American magazines, and they are re-printed in a paperback book.) I bought the book and eagerly read Stephen’s choices, and I loved every one them, even though they all bore a slightly macabre King stamp. My opinion was cemented – Stephen King simply knows great writing. After that, I found and purchased another of his books on writing that my brother had told me about, the little known, out-of-print Secret Windows, which was published in 2000 as a Book-of-the-Month Club collection of essays, interviews, and articles.


By this point, there was no way I could continue to avoid King’s fiction. I had to read one of his novels. And I wanted it to be one of his best.

In late 2009, King published the 1074-page Under the Dome. I have always found it hard to resist the siren song of a Really Big Book, and I sensed that this novel would be my first foray into King fiction territory. The New York Times book review clinched it – the review begins with these words: “Under the Dome gravely threatens Stephen King’s status as a mere chart-busting pop cultural phenomenon. It has the scope and flavor of literary Americana, even if Mr. King’s particular patch of American turf is located smack in the middle of the Twilight Zone.”

A few months later, I checked out Under the Dome from my local library. Our state was having a streak of beautiful, warm weather last Spring, and in the afternoons, while my boys napped, I sat in the sun and read King’s book. And could not put it down.

King would probably be the first person to tell you that he is not the greatest writer alive. But he is far and away the best I’ve ever read at one thing: keeping the reader turning the pages. Under the Dome is, as I’ve mentioned, 1074 pages long – and if there was a dull page in that book, I never found it. I cannot tell you how much that blows my mind. It should be impossible to write 1000+ consecutive pages, and not get mired down in a bit of rambling. But I did not run across a single page where I thought, Oh, this would be a good place to take a break and go make myself a turkey sandwich, or put the clothes in the dryer.

That, my friends, is genius. And that is someone who has faithfully toiled away at his craft for untold hours, spanning untold years. Of course, one could credibly argue that King has an advantage over most writers, in that he deals with the supernatural. Since anything can (and does) happen to his characters, there is always some fantastic or unbelievable event going on, which creates tension and keeps the story moving forward briskly. But 1000 pages? In which the story never flags? That is the product of remarkable self-editing, and an incredibly finely-tuned ear.

(I won’t explain the plot of Under the Dome. If you’re not going to read the book, the plot doesn’t matter. If you can stomach some gore, then read the book – but I must mention: King’s writing is NOT for the faint of heart. Evidently, there is no subject that he considers taboo, and I mean NO subject. You have been warned.)

As much as I enjoyed that novel, I don’t plan to read any more King fiction. I do better when I don’t fill my head with dark and scary stuff. But I will go on being a big fan, from afar. If I ever publish a book (could happen), and Stephen King were to read it (never gonna happen), his approval would mean more to me than just about anyone else’s. Because he knows, better than anyone, what makes a great story.

Long live (and write) the King.

Writing that rocks – The Sparrow

Classification: Fiction

In December of 1998, my husband and I, who were living in Atlanta at the time, flew back to the west coast to attend a family wedding. One evening, my oldest and dearest friend from high school chauffeured me into downtown Portland. We’d been running errands – perhaps we’d been shopping, perhaps we’d had dinner; I don’t really remember – and on our way back to the car we saw a bookstore and decided to pop in.

In some ways, my friend and I were an odd couple. She was physically tiny, and was the most gregarious person I’d ever met – I towered almost a foot over her, and was painfully shy. But we had important things in common: we both played the piano, and sang; we loved to laugh; we were devoted to church; we both loved to read. She and I had often spent entire vacation days side by side on chaise lounges, soaking up the sun and silently working our way through stacks of books and magazines.

By the time we reached the store that winter evening, it had been dark for hours, and it was raining. I remember our wet shoes squeaking on the wood floor as we walked over to the “new releases” table and started browsing. After shaking out my umbrella, I jammed it under my arm, leaving one hand free to flip through books. My friend looked at a couple of titles and then glanced up.

“Oh!” she said. “I just read this great book, called The Sparrow – have you read it?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of it.”

“Oh, you’ve got to read it. I’m going to find it for you.” She disappeared. I kept wandering around the tables near the front. I was getting hot in my heavy wool coat, but taking it off would have meant having one more thing to stuff under my arm. I kept it on. A minute or two later my friend was back, holding a paperback book, which she thrust at me. “Here. This is so good.”

The Sparrow was written by Mary Doria Russell. The cover was prettily illustrated with what looked like an old painting. Across the top was printed a blurb from The New York Times Book Review that said, “A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.” The New York Times is almost always a sure bet. They employ the best reviewers in the business.

“What’s it about?” I asked, turning it over to look at the back cover.

“Well, it’s about a priest, and he goes, well, he goes up to…” She broke off, then started again. “Well, it’s science fiction, but…”

I interrupted, shaking my head. “I don’t read science fiction.”

“But, no, I know, but just listen, it’s…”

I tried to hand the book back to her. “No, I don’t read science fiction. I don’t. I’m not interested.”

She wouldn’t take the book, so I laid it on the table. We then embarked upon a bit of stubborn back-and-forthing: she’d shove the book at me and insist, using her most charming whine (and if you don’t think a whine can be charming, then you never heard her do it); I’d cheerfully shove it back and started walking the other way.

I should explain. My friend and I, as two hard-headed girls who’d spent a lot of time together, often amused ourselves with this sort of fake-arguing. But in truth, I never had read science fiction, not since I’d enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle’s famous books as a child. I had no real quarrel with the genre; I simply had no adult interest in it.

My friend finally snatched the book up from where I’d laid it on the table. “Fine,” she said. “I’m buying it for you, then. You will love it.” And with that, she marched off to the cashier.

Since I really did trust my friend’s taste, I was now curious; and of course, I would never refuse a free book. She returned and handed over her purchase. I started reading it that night…and couldn’t put it down. I read it in snatches between wedding activities; I read it on the plane ride home.

Mary Doria Russell’s writing is so good, it’s almost shocking. It is nearly impossible to believe that before writing this novel, Russell had only published scientific articles and technical manuals. Russell, you see, holds a PhD in Biological Anthropology. She was a highly-trained scientist, and she brings that level of discipline and detail to her writing. But she also writes with the lyricism of a poet. By the time I read The Sparrow, it had already won a slew of awards.

I don’t want to give away the plot, because it’s a doozy, and part of the great pleasure of reading this book is in the I-can’t-imagine-what’s-coming-next-and-can’t-stop-turning-the-pages sensation. I will say this: the “hero” is a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, and the book begins after he has returned, alone, from a mission that he and a group of colleagues made to a newly discovered planet. He is disfigured and emotionally shattered. The rest of the book explains what went so terribly wrong, as it alternates between a “present-day” interrogation of the priest by the Jesuit order, and the actual narrative of the mission.

At the heart of the book is the spiritual struggle of Father Sandoz. Before he went on the mission, his faith was so strong that his superiors were thinking of canonizing him. When he returned, battered and alone, his faith was as damaged as his hands (about which I will say no more.) The title of the book refers to a biblical passage. Here, three fellow priests talk together, immediately after hearing Sandoz’s story.

“So God just leaves?” John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. “Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “’Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’”
“But the sparrow still falls,” Felipe said.

After publication, some critics argued that the book should not have been classified as science fiction, largely because the plot does not focus on futuristic technology – the technology in the book is beside the point. The book revolves around the characters, and their relationships and spiritual journeys. It is full of intelligent philosophical arguments, beautifully framed. It is fantastically smart. (As, I have come to learn, the best science fiction is.)

Russell wrote a sequel to this book, titled Children of God. Since then, she has only published two other books, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer. Her fourth book was published while I was busy having my second baby – I am reading it now. To me, her subsequent books have not quite reached the quality of The Sparrow; but she is still good enough to make me automatically read whatever she writes.

Postscript. My great friend passed away unexpectedly last year. Every time I finish a good book I think of her, and wish I had the chance to call and tell her about it. We shared a love of literature, and a long history, and it is fitting that this wonderful book, which holds a top spot among my personal favorites, was her gift to me. I treasure it, and her.