"Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts," by Matt Bell. (Soho Press, 168 pages, $15.99.)
Though his handy, authoritative book is structured as a how-to guide with specific steps, novelist and teacher Matt Bell ("Appleseed") lays down few absolute rules. He admonishes readers to use what works for them and toss everything else: "Only what is useful to you applies." Fortunately for readers, particularly those who believe their first draft is perfect, most of what he says applies nearly universally.
Bell aims for approachability, encouraging people to write what excites them and to "save nothing for later." But he leaves inspiration mostly aside in favor of taking a tradesman's viewpoint. He emphasizes his three-tier process of rewriting until each draft is as clean as possible. While some advice may seem grueling, like retyping every word ("Yes, everything") when revising a second draft, it is nearly always on-point.
A gift bag of tactical tips that even seasoned pros will find useful — his list of filler "weasel words" to avoid deserves memorization — this is the rare writing handbook that never feels chore-like or airily aspirational in the manner of John Gardner or Annie Dillard.
Using crisp, relatable prose that nimbly balances positivity with a realistic awareness of the grueling commitment novel-writing entails, Bell teaches by example.
"How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America," edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. (Scribner, 336 pages, $27.)
An embarrassment of riches, this anthology compiled by Lee Child and Laurie R. King (creators respectively of the Jack Reacher and Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series) overflows with enough pithy wisdom and hard-boiled humor to deserve its place on any mystery lover's shelf, even if they never intend to write a thing.
Contributions from 70 authors are divided into subjects ("The Rules and Genres," "After the Writing") but the book is easily read straight through. The advice comes in fast, short bursts. Tim Malveny's one-page entry says, "Love your characters, but treat them like dirt." Charles Salzburg knocks down the no-fun "write what you know" rule to explain how to write about what one does not know. In a smart, playful pairing, Jeffrey Deaver insists "Always Outline!" immediately followed by Child's zippy riposte "Never Outline!"
No surprise from a group whose motto is "Crime doesn't pay … enough," "How to Write a Mystery" zeroes in on the practical side of the mystery business. Liliana Hart urges self-published writers with stars in their eyes "Don't quit your day job," while Kelley Armstrong provides an insightful overview of the (unwritten) rules governing the YA mystery genre. A snappy, wise and expansive guide which in explaining how to write a mystery ends up illustrating much of what makes the genre so engrossing.
"Write for Your Life," by Anna Quindlen. (Random House, 240 pages, $26.)
Relentlessly chipper and upbeat, Anna Quindlen ("Living Out Loud") writes about writing in her newest book with a determined "you can do it!" enthusiasm reminiscent of a beloved teacher who truly believes all her students are special. This approach might be of limited utility for people who have already decided to write and are just looking for the right tools. But Quindlen is focused less about the how of writing and more on the why.
Quindlen fills her short, reflective book with arguments for writing as a positive and worthwhile act. Drawing on examples from Anne Frank to the high school Freedom Writers program, Quindlen exhorts readers to put their lives or thoughts down on paper in any format. "It doesn't really matter what you say," she says to dispel concerns about their journals or poems not being good enough. "It matters that you said it."
A champion of analog writing, Quindlen worries about what a world of ephemeral electronic words loses for the future. She calls on readers to send handwritten letters to their loved ones and movingly describes reading Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" manuscript and feeling his "human presence" in the crossed-out lines. Veering close to preciousness at times, Quindlen's book is a gently inspirational breeze of a thing that nevertheless makes a strong case for putting our lives and thoughts into words: "Writing can make memory concrete."
Chris Barsanti is a freelance writer, author of several nonfiction books, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and ever-aspiring novelist. He lives in St. Paul.