Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Gail Levine

For this round-up, I read five writing guides new to me. All of them were on how to write fiction, rather than nonfiction or other projects such as letters. As such, they all included a chapter on how to come up with ideas. They also all covered most of the basic elements of stories: plot, character, point of view, dialog, and conflict. The two shortest books omitted the main character’s motivation or the story’s theme. Did you notice there’s another element that I didn’t list? Even in many adult writing guides, information about setting is sparse although adult guides often at least discuss how to build atmosphere. No wonder I struggle with setting! In referring to plot, all the guides I read talked about how to create an exciting opening hook and build tension. Although none agreed on how many problems to burden the main character with, they all emphasized how important it is to create a dire problem and for the solution to take time and effort on the part of the main character. In referring to character, they also all discussed dialog and (in light of their young audience) even gave rules about how to write it. Last, while only one guide didn’t refer to publishing, only the two longest guides chatted extensively about the writing life.


To dip my feet into writing guides, I started with the shortest ones. Neither impressed me, but perhaps this is how older guides were. The oldest of the bunch, Write Your Own Story by Vivian Dubrovin, was written in 1984. In grade school these days, students learn that voice is one of the traits of writing and they are graded on their ability to inject personality into their essays. This guide lacks any voice. Another way of thinking about it is that people can often tell when a home has a woman’s touch or belongs to a bachelor. This guide with its abundance of questions, admonitions, and charts sometimes feels as if written by a teacher; it never feels as if written by an author. This guide is also the shortest, which is probably why the author glosses over certain topics. For example, Dubrovin advises young writers to follow this plot formula: Character + Problem + How Character Solves Problem = Story. Most standard writing guides acknowledge that even simple stories have a layer of problems. For character, Dubrovin recommends limiting a story to one main character, without ever explaining the role of secondary or minor characters. Ironically, Dubrovin spends an entire chapter on the miniscule topic of titles. Even if it’s only two pages, I can think of better ways to fill that space: How about a chapter on setting? Not to be totally negative, I enjoyed the chapter on revision. In it, Dubrovin talks about how to expand old ideas and to add new story elements.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


The next shortest guide is a hybrid. Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More by Nancy Bentley and Donna Guthrie tries to cover the writing life, short and long fiction, genres, and even publication all in a mere eighty-five pages. When reading this and Dubrovin’s guide, I felt tempted to think that perhaps short and skimpy books are best for young readers. Then I remembered that most of the writing guides that I devoured during my childhood were intended for adults. If one is passionate about a topic, doesn’t one crave that in-depth coverage that can only come with longer books? And truly who reads writing guides, except those who aspire to become authors? The problem with a short guide like Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More is that explanations of stuff like the elements of fiction are stripped to definitions that one could find in an encyclopedia. Chances are if I’m an aspiring writer, albeit a young one, I already know that theme is the larger underlying idea of a story. Moreover, from school, I probably already know how to identify themes in stories. What I need to know instead is how to develop, explore, and integrate themes seamlessly into my stories. The heart of this guide therefore is its chapters on genres. In them, I learned about some subtypes of mysteries and fantasies that were new even to me. I also liked the overview of genre ingredients, although I wish more examples of the genre would have come from books for young people rather than adult books or even movies. Then too, in one breath the authors in tone and brevity seem to be aiming at a younger audience, but then in the next when giving length requirements for publishable fiction they seem to be aiming at adults. While the strength of this guide is its focus on genres, even here the adults fail because of their selection. The title Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More might be catchy, but here are the problems. First, movies are not a genre. Why leave out genres such as romance and westerns to write about movies? Just as bad, horror (which is where monster stories fall under) isn’t even covered. Sadly, this book didn’t live up to my high hopes for it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


Then there are the longer guides. What’s Your Story? by Marion Bauer was written in 1992 and I liked it, thus proving that older guides can have voice and depth. Here’s where perhaps I need to take a step back to recognize that those readers who prefer just the facts may find Bauer’s personal examples intrusive. Moreover, those readers who seek out abridged books may find themselves annoyed by Bauer’s conversational tone, which is broken up only with subheads and only every few pages. However, I like that she uses a light tone and spent a page defining story: “Let’s try this definition. A story, any story, is about someone struggling….” In this same section, Bauer goes on to explain that her definition fits both short and long stories with the difference between stories lying in their complexity and of course length. I felt as if we were chatting, rather than her standing at a podium and giving me a lecture. How fun too that before she even got into the elements of writing, I’d grabbed a pencil and paper to write down all the ideas that were popping into my head from her serious and silly examples. I appreciated that while Bauer does talk about a formula for plot, she also elaborates to explain the reasons for each step and to offer ways to get unstuck at each step; she recognizes that writing is an art. When Bauer talks characters, she focuses on how to create interesting ones and even encouraged contradictions: “I am uncomfortable at big parties. Still, I can give a speech to a thousand people without feeling particularly nervous…. Your characters, especially your main character, need some element of contradiction built in too.” This proved more useful information to me than being told all the types of characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) that might appear in my story. Basically, I liked everything about this guide including the tips in the last few chapters on how to revise, accept criticism, and to polish for publication.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


Admittedly, part of what I like about writing guides is getting to read about authors. Truth to be told, I didn’t pick up Writing Magic by Gail Levine to discover how to write stories. I’ve read so many writing guides that now I learn most by the actual process of writing. Rather, I wanted to know how one of my favorite fantasy authors writes. For that reason, I loved the first section! In it, Levine shares all her reasons for being a writer. Just so you know, she writes to be in charge, to tell herself a story, and to make discoveries about her feelings. Regarding the latter, she explains that she once wrote a book about an orphan. When she reread it years later, she realized that it was less about her father who had been an orphan and more about how she felt orphaned when her parents died. Because Writing Magic isn’t an autobiography, the emphasis of course is on how to write. Even though I didn’t expect to learn anything new from yet another writing guide, I filled a page with the insights I gained from reading Writing Magic. For example, when Levine writes about beginnings, she talks about the types of beginnings but also gives examples along with reasons for why they do or not work. Then she follows-up by challenging readers to pull favorite books off their shelves and look for the ways the authors hooked them. Besides writing several chapters on plot structure, Levine writes several on character and in one of them she includes a questionnaire. What made the questionnaire pop for me is that she shares when she is most likely to use it and even how it helped her when she couldn’t figure out one of her characters. Within every chapter Levine tosses out activities for readers to try and I particularly liked the one for details: Your main character is participating in a scientific investigation of a magical object. She must choose an object, and wear it, eat it, or drink it. Then she must speak into the microphone and tell the scientists everything that happened. Bauer had me grabbing my pencil and paper to write down ideas; Levine had me itching to experiment with my stories. My review of Writing Magic is getting long and so let me leave you with two analogies that worked for me: Levine argues that authors must both show to slow down action and tell to speed up action. She compares telling to looking down from the window of an airplane or decreasing the magnification on a telescope and showing to being on the ground or increasing the magnification of a telescope; Writers often write about things that haven’t happened to us and Levine compares this to method acting, when actors remembers events and feelings in their own life that are similar to what their characters experience. They use these recollections to shape a scene—as must writers. One last thing! In the final section, Levine shares more about her own life. For example, this is where I learned about her worst rejection letter and that she has a folder two inches thick of rejection letters. Obviously, I could blather on and so suffice to say this guide is “magic”.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?


Having never heard of Anne Mazer or Ellen Potter before, their writing biographies initially felt a little less important than the tips about writing that I could pick up from their guide: Spilling Ink. Ironically, I’ve now added their novels to my reading list. Such is the power of a good writing guide! (It also doesn’t hurt that Mazer has written a series of books about a girl who wants to be a writer.) This is the second guide I’ve read where authors collaborated. In contrast to Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More where only the byline on the front gave away the dual authorship, Mazer and Potter identify which one of them has written each section. If you aren’t a fan of novels where the character viewpoints switch back and forth (and I’m generally not), you might think this method might feel confusing. In Spilling Ink, we are instead blessed with short and snappy sections that are entertaining to read, nestled within lengthy and detailed chapters that provide tons of insights into the entire writing process. In one chapter, Potter talks about how she and Anne bounced titles back-and-forth for this writing guide. In the end, they choose Spilling Ink because it sounded fun and slightly rebellious and so made clear that the book is about writing without sounding like a textbook. In another chapter, Mazer describes how her fantasy novel The Oxboy began with an idea from a poem, which she unsuccessfully tried over and over to write a story about, and how her novel only worked when another unrelated idea merged with the poem to make one unified idea. In the same way, Mazer and Potter share their unique insights on multiple topics to form a cohesive guide. Perhaps this is why their book is also the longest and most exhaustive in its coverage. No topic is ignored; even the story element of setting and the nature of a writing life are explained. They also include writing activities called “I Dare You”. Okay, while they do talk about sharing and editors, they don’t really talk about how to publish. Instead in the appendix, they include an exchange of interviews with each other. If after reading through their writing guide one desires to publish, just check out a dedicated market guide.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?

Near the start of this post, I said I’d read five new writing guides for young people. Even though I did develop a fondness for writing guides while growing up, mostly I read ones for adults. I actually still own most of them, because they met my need for a serious and in-depth study of my writing passion. Yet there are two for young people that my dad gave me during my teens, which I’d encourage you to seek out. Both are by authors Susan and Stephen (Judy) Tchundi: Gifts of Writing and The Young Writer’s Handbook. The ideas for both books grew out of ideas that the couple used in writing workshops for young people and emphasize making creative projects with words. Gifts of Writing is designed to encourage young people to create an attractive presentation of their words and talks about how to make cards, posters, stationery, and books. The Young Writer’s Handbook came about because the authors discovered that students have an interest in writing beyond schoolwork and so the authors wished to encourage them to grow into adults who write. The handbook talks about journals, letters, stories, along with school writing and nonfiction writing, and even advises how to publish these for family, friends, or other audiences. I have kept these books, because they remind me of the real reason we should all write: for the joy of it.

girl, writing

Image via Wikipedia

In grade school this month, teachers are launching their year-long writing programs. Typically, these launches include an explanation of what authors do when they write. To coincide with these lessons, I’ll feature a round-up this weekend of writing guides for young people. During the week itself, I’ll post a tidbit about the authors of those guides.

In reading these writing guides, here’s a truth that has hit me: How-to books are not equal. While I’m selective about the informational books that I read, I often view them in terms of whether I prefer a broad or in-depth coverage, predominance of text or illustrations, or academic or casual style. In other words, I typically judge nonfiction books by personal taste rather than by the book’s quality. When I started reading guides this week with the purpose of reviewing them, I found myself disliking some and loving others.

Find out which ones in my round-up post this weekend. Save the date: August 28!

Guide #1: What ordinary things happen to you that could be turned into stories? Author Vivian Dubrovin poses this question in her book Write Your Own Story. Another way of phrasing this would be: What do you most like to talk about? Dubrovin goes on to encourage readers to take an imaginary treasure hunt to collect “ordinary things” that could be turned into stories. The treasure list includes items from home, school, hobbies, culture, experiences, dreams, feelings, and relationships.

I couldn’t find much info online about Vivian Dubrovin, except that she’s been writing for thirty years. She has also worked as an editor, taught continuing education classes, and directed writer’s conferences. In 1993, she formed Storycraft Publishing to produce storytelling materials for young tellers. On the heels of those, she started a Storytelling Club newsletter and a website–both of which she still edits.

Guide #2: What is your favorite genre to read? In their guide Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More, authors Nancy Bentley and Donna Guthrie define the concept of genre and overview different types of genres. They also overview the writing life and some potential markets.

Nancy Bentley began writing in diaries and journals from the age of eight, but never seriously thought about publishing my own writing until I was a teacher. As the oldest of four girls, she also spent a lot of time reading to escape her siblings or reading to them for enjoyment. Reading was her way of transporting myself to magical places around the world and meeting fascinating people. As a writer, every experience she had, every person she met, and every activity that she pursued also serves as potential ideas for a book. So today, she reads and writes every day.

Although I found less info online about Donna Guthrie, I did discover that both ladies have been teachers. Guthrie has also twenty-three books to her name. These days besides writing, she also holds story time and writing workshops at schools for students.

Guide #3: In her biography, author Marion Bauertells about starting kindergarten at age four. Younger than most of her classmates, this left her somewhat lacking in social skills. Moreover, her mother sent her to school wearing velvet bonnets and high-topped leather shoes. Eventually, her classmates began to notice how different Bauer was and she became an outsider at school.

In her writing guide What’s Your Story, Bauer explains: “”When I was a child, I knew I would write stories one day…. But I didn’t know how to begin to write my stories down. This book is intended to help the young writers following me to make that beginning.”

After a brief attempt as an adult at writing picture books, Bauer began writing about somewhat older characters and about the time in her life that had been most difficult. Writing such novels allowed her to “return to childhood to fix what went wrong the first time around”. Why do you share stories or information with others?

Gail Carson Levine at the 2007 Texas Book Fest...

Image via Wikipedia

Guide #4: Like many authors, Gail Levine wrote stories and poems throughout childhood and into high school years. Some of those writings were even published in student anthologies. Yet she writes: “The authors of most of my favorite childhood books were dead. I knew a few artists because my dad owned a commercial art studio, and I saw actors in the movies and on stage, but I didn’t think of writing as work that any modern person did.”

As an adult out of college, Levine was constantly reading books. One day, she wondered why she wasn’t making up any books of her own and tried writing an art appreciation book for young people. This led to writing classes and critique groups. For nine years, she wrote and received rejection letters. How do handle criticism or rejection? What keeps your interest in a novel?

Then one day her first book was accepted: Ella Enchanted. I have yet to review it, but have reviewed Two Princesses of Bamarre. On the strength of the latter and her collections of fairy tales, Gail Levine became one of my favorite authors and so it was with anticipation that I read her guide: Writing Magic: Writing Stories that Fly.

Guide #5: Anne Mazer grew up with parents who wanted to be writers so badly that they rose at 4:00 every morning. Consequently, Mazer woke up daily to the sound of typewriter. Unlike most of us, Anne knew about revisions, first and second drafts, and rejection slips, before she even reached the age of seven. Although an avid reader, it took Anne a long time to figure out that she also wanted to be a writer.

“When you squish an author’s life down to three or four sentences, you can’t help but make it sound enviable.
Tidy, picturesque. No bad smells. It’s just not fair.” — Ellen Potter

Ellen Potter remembers the exact moment that she knew that she wanted to be a writer. She was eleven years old and strolling the aisldes of her school library trying to decide what to read next. In her own words, she writes: “I decided that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds! Sadly, my twelfth birthday was just around the corner. So I reasoned that the only thing to do was to grow up and write books for eleven-year-olds.” And this is pretty much what happened.

In the back of their guide Spilling Ink, they interview each other. What questions would you like to ask your authors?

This is not my first introduction to Gail Levine, the movie Ella Enchanted is, but this is my first introduction to her books. It will not be the last either, for Levine has catapulted into my top five list of modern fantasy authors. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is one of many of her books that I have now read.

The two princesses could not be more different. Princess Addie is fearful and shy. She wants nothing more than to stay home with family beside her. Princess Meryl is bold and brave. She wants nothing more than to seek out adventure.

Tradition would dictate this story belong to Meryl, but what I most like about Levine is that she regularly turns cliche on its head. Like Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons, Meryl is the bored female who wants to escape domestic life. Unlike Cimorene, she chooses to stay home to be with family who don’t want her to leave. In this decision, unlike in Dealing with Dragons, this story becomes about the timid and quiet princess. What a daring and delightful decision on the part of Levine.

Why do stories normally center around the extroverted person? Well, introverts typically do not have adventures and therefore often make for rather lackluster characters. This might be fine for a minor character, but we want our main characters to be active. Consider, when we first meet the sisters, Meryl is rescuring Addie from a spector and wielding a sword. (Levine even breaks from cliche here, in that everyone at the palace seems perfectly content to allow Meryl to act like an improper princess.) As for Addie, she is showing her embroidery to a wizard.

Then the impossible happens. Meryl catches the dreaded Grey Death. All those years of staying at the castle to pacify her sister and now she could die without ever experiencing adventure. Of course, this is when Addie steps up to the challenge. She heads out into unknown territory to find the fairies who might have a cure. Do I smell a cliche? No! For even here, Levine escapes cliche by having Addie become trapped by a dragon–and spend most of Meryl’s deteriorating days trapped in a cave.

Gail Carson Levine at the 2007 Texas Book Fest...

Image via Wikipedia

I noted at the start that Levine has become one of my favorite modern authors. Her characters are always sympathetic and fun. She rarely fails to surprise me with a twist in her plot. Yes, behind every adventure there is a moral to be learned, but her truths are wrapped in such lavish and elegant tales, I appreciate her books even more for them.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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