Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cate's Favorite Writing Books Series - #1

 Hello my Seekerville friends. Cate back again. These months just fly by, and suddenly it's my turn to post again. Honestly, it feels like just yesterday that I was chatting with you all about your feelings about craft books.

There was a wide range of thought on the value of craft books for a writer. No surprise there. Our thoughts are as varied as our personalities and our writing styles. One refrain that was oft repeated though was people, who like me, use craft books as a jumping off point to take a new skill and then practice it with our own writing.

After that discussion, I decided to devote some time to discussing some individual books that I love. I can share them with you, and you can tell me if they're new to you or if you know them and have thoughts of your own to share.

As I mentioned above (and in the previous post), I tend to use writing/craft books more as a jumpstart than as something to read through all at once. There is however, one notable exception to that pattern.

This is the old faithful one I have. 
I've been through multiple copies.

This is the new version.

Bird by Bird was one of the very first books on writing that I ever bought. It is also the only one that I have read and reread completely. It was really life-changing for me because reading Anne LaMott's witty, somewhat irreverent, brutally honest reflections on the writing life allowed me to acknowledge that I could still be a writer even if I was not always in love with the process. 

Writing is hard work, and Anne LaMott doesn't flinch from that. 

But she also gives you ways to help cope when it all seems overwhelming.

One of the best pieces of advice in the book refers to a story from when Anne and her brother were young. He was totally overwhelmed by a school project on birds. She describes how he was sitting at the table, surrounded by piles of books and paper and pencils. Her father came and sat beside him, put his arm around him and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

It seems so simple, but for the struggling writer or student, Maybe that struck such a chord because I remembered a similar project when my daughter was in 5th grade. We were up until 5 o'clock in the morning because the project was so massive that it overwhelmed her to the point she had no idea where to even begin.

I have quoted that bird by bird solution to many people over the years. In fact, I just offered it to my daughter the other day when she was again feeling overwhelmed with a big project she has to deal with.

Hand in hand with the 'bird by bird" strategy of writing comes advice to write in "one inch picture frames" - another strategy to help the overwhelmed writer's brain.

Have you ever sat down to write but felt totally overwhelmed by the size of the project? Do you find attempting a full length novel to be daunting? If so, this strategy may help you. To quote Anne Lamott, all you have to do is "write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame."

I remember a tweet from my editor Emily Rodmell that went like this:

"How do you write three books a year?

One book at a time, one chapter at a time, one page at a time, one word at a time."

In the same vein, Anne Lamott quotes E.L. Doctorow. "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

This reminds me very much of how writers rave about typing on an AlphaSmart because they could only see a very small rectangle of text. The temptation to fiddle was not as great.

Those two pieces of writing advice are in just one chapter of the book. They're the two that have stuck with me even though it's been decades since I first read the book. There is plenty more to keep you inspired. 

Because I like to share books I love, I'm offering to give away a copy of Bird by Bird to some lucky reader who is interested. Be sure to let me know in the comments if that is you!

So have you read this book (or any of the author's other books)? Share your thoughts on the book, the advice, or anything else you feel like talking about.

Coffee's on. Let's chat!

Free photos thanks to Pixabay


  1. That Emily is a smart gal... and I love that she connects with readers and writers across platforms. You almost never see that, but she's done it consistently for years. It draws folks in. And I agree, one page, one chapter, one story at a time. It might seem tortoise-esque, but it gets the job done.

    1. I was actually thinking of you as I typed that. Those morning hours - day after day after day.

  2. Cate, thanks for a great post. I don't read writing BOOKS so much any more, not much access to them and not much bandwidth, but I read writing ARTICLES and blogs all the time, here and on other sites. It's all part of getting better, which I desperately want to do.
    I'm shooting for two books this year. MY WIP is taxing because it's a period I know nothing about (War for Independence, anyone?) and the research is heavy and exacting on top of a complex plot, for me, anyway. If I do a second book this year, it's going to be simpler, probably a contemporary, with a setting I know. But it's all doable, as writers prove every day.
    Right now I'm trying to do those 1,000 words a day and it's working, I have 15 chapters since January. They're not good chapters, but no one can deny their chapter-hood.

  3. Craft books are such a tough temptation for me. I still need to get my behind in the chair and actually write and craft books are a great way for me to procrastinate doing that while still feeling "productive". I have not yet read Bird by Bird, so I'd love the chance to win it.

  4. I loved Bird by Bird, and I've quoted it to others too.
    I enjoy reading books on craft but sometimes get too excited and try to implement EVERYTHING the author suggests right away. But then I read someone who completely disagrees with the previous craft book and I realize that it's better to take a little advice here and there. I'm more of a planner than Anne Lamott and her story about completely rewriting her book multiple times always makes me think that she should have planned a little more too, haha.

  5. I have read Bird by Bird and found it helpful. My problem right now is that I just can't move forward on revising my novel. Maybe this concept can help there, too.

  6. gathering reviews for a book is hard work. simplifies the process and is useful to gather reviews for a book launch, gain more visibility and boost sales.

  7. Mary Cate, I had never heard of Bird by Bird until you mentioned it last month. Wise words, though. As were Emily's. To look at the whole is overwhelming, but bite-size pieces are manageable. Now I have to look into Bird by Bird.

  8. Hi Cate:

    I think there are AlphaSmart people and not AlphaSmart people. I've tried two models, one an upgrade, and yet I can't write 'out of context'. I have to see the whole page on the screen to write. Otherwise writing feels like taking target practice in the dark. You can see the flashes but you can't see where the bullets are hitting. Not ideal for me.

    I do like the E.L. Doctorow quote:

    "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

    I'd add that if there is a full moon you can feel enlightened like you are in the zone and if it is a new moon and your headlights are dirty, well, then it's like experiencing writer's block.

    BTW: I've tried twice reading "Bird by Bird" over the years and never got past a few pages into it. It just felt like someone who likes writing about writing rather than just writing. I also dislike the title. Maybe I should start reading it again from the middle.

    As for me,
    is my cup of tea. :)


  9. I enjoyed Bird by Bird very much. Probably the craft book that changed my writing the most is 16 Master Archetypes by Cowden, Viders, and LaFever. I also liked On Writing by Stephen King, as much for his personal story/journey as his writing advice, which is quite pithy and spot on.

    1. Is it okay not to like some of the best selling craft books?

      The three other books, besides "Bird by Bird", I had trouble finishing were "Writing Down the Bones", "The Artist's Way" and "Stephen King on Writing". King's book was interesting but did not hold my interest as a craft book. But then I don’t like his fiction and he is one of the best selling authors anywhere. It's a good thing there are so many craft books.

      I love: "GMC", "Story" by Robert McKee, and "The Power of POV" by Alicia Rasley. I guess in a sea of craft books, it really amounts to what floats your boat.

  10. I need to reread Bird by Bird. As I was reading your blog, I thought of my AlphaSmart. Then you mentioned AlphaSmarts! Yes, they're a great device that allows writers to move forward without editing. I love mine. It's so old. I mean, so very old, and it still works beautifully...and on three AA batteries. Amazing!

    1. DebbY: Does your AlphaSmart have a two line screen or a four line screen? I like mine so much I've used one as a keyboard for my desktop computer. Best keyboard I've ever used. But I can't live with that tiny screen. It's probably a short term memory thing. :)

  11. Kate - you've inspired me to bump up Bird By Bird from the bottom of my TBR pile! I won a copy of the book from a local author event held at our library. I keep hearing great things about it and now after reading this post, I must make an effort to read it. (I prefer reading fiction, BUT I do get through writing craft books without too much trouble)

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."