I have some favorite “how-to” books on writing: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee; Wired for Story by Lisa Cron; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; Take Joy by Jane Yolen; and the Elements of Fiction Writing series published by Writer’s Digest Books.
I have a new book to add to the list: Back to Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan.
Whelan, a writing teacher and fiction and nonfiction author, organizes her book into three “terms.” The book is easy to read and strewn with interesting facts, references, and examples from well-known authors. Each section ends with exercises—helpful for your current WIP (work in progress) or a future story. Indeed, some of the lessons might provide inspiration for new stories.
The chapters in this section tackle such subjects as picking characters’ names (more on that in the chapter “Inventing People”), choosing titles, fresh writing vs. clichés, showing instead of telling by evoking all the senses in your writing, and even practicing poetry writing.
Before you groan, Whelan admits she’s not a poet, but shows how trying your hand at poetry can make “you think about using language with precision.” I think her fun exercise also helps you search for new language, to appreciate the beauty of words and the choices available to you as a writer. Related to this, she talks about the “Music in Words” in a later chapter.
In “Descriptions that Multi-task,” Whelan explains: Too much description and the reader might not bother to hang around… Too little and the reader might not care where the journey is heading.
This section begins with “getting over the fear of starting and having the courage to write even though you don’t know where you are going.” This is something all writers experience—staring at the blank page, the dead weight of your hands and your mind keeping you from getting started. Whelan’s exercises will help you get some words onto that blank page!
Term Two includes a chapter on writing dialogue, as well as chapters that will show you how (and challenge you) to create mood, atmosphere, emotions, and suspense.
Writing humor might be something you wish you could do, or something you have no interest in pursuing. Either way, Whelan says you should give it a try because fiction writing is “a question of light and dark. The dark will seem darker if there are moments of lightness,” and “comedy is all about confounding expectations.” Her exercise in this chapter is helpful for any type of writing—and it’s fun!
This last section delves deeper into the writing process with such chapters as finding characters in unlikely places, prose poetry, writing horror and magical realism, more on humor, and writing book reviews.
The book ends with a “Suggested Reading” list for further study.
I read Back to Creative Writing School for this review (Whelan provided me with a free copy and asked if I would be interested in reviewing it), but I didn’t do all the exercises. I’m so impressed with this book, I plan to reread it and do each and every exercise!
About Bridget Whelan: Bridget Whelan is a London Irish writer now living on the south coast of England. A lecturer in non-fiction at Goldsmiths College—the leading creative university of the UK—just two years after graduating from the MA creative writing programme, she now teaches at many locations in Southeast England and was Writer in Residence at a community centre serving the unemployed and low-waged. Her own writing career was launched when she won first prize in an international short story competition, and she was granted an Arts Council bursary to complete her first novel A Good Confession set in 1960s Ireland and London. For more information, visit Whelan at her website.
What a great way to keep up and improve your schools. Thanks for the reference.
You’re welcome, Aubrey! I think it’s a good idea, no matter how long you’ve been writing, to have a “refresher” once in a while. This book is great for that, as well as for beginners.