The Books That Made Me

By Brian Kaufman

Along the lines of “everything happens for a reason,” my wife believes that everything that happens and everyone you meet is there to teach you something. I don’t argue with that—if you care to learn from your experiences, you will.

The other thing to know is that I have read many books in my life. Some of those books helped make me, for better or worse, the writer I am now. Some titles are books on the craft. Others were novels that inspired me or showed me a new direction for my writing. My choices are a fine mix of classics and oddities. But all of them taught me something.

Start with my early reading. My first books were comics and Golden Books. Those first stories taught me the elements of fiction—theme (The Little Engine that Could), setting (A Day on the Farm), and plot (Scuffy the Tugboat).

I loved A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh tales the most. My folks even bought me Disney LPs with stories narrated by Sterling Holloway. (If you never heard the man’s voice, you missed out.)

As an adult, I understand the brilliance of Milne’s books—nostalgic, layered, and above all else, kind. As an adult, I see complex texts that can be interpreted differently. For example, I recently discovered the speculation that the residents of Hundred Acre Wood each represented a mental health diagnosis. A Canadian Medical Association Journal article suggested that Pooh suffered from OCD and ADHD. Milne taught me that simple stories told in clean, straightforward prose can be incredibly complex.

My first chapter books were classic Victorian science fiction. Jules Verne (A Journey to the Center of the Earth/From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) sparked a lifetime love of reading and an appreciation of speculative fiction. 

When I was in junior high, a friend slipped me a copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and told me to read the first chapter. That was my introduction to a narrative so gripping that I simply couldn’t put it down—that thing editors advise for the opening pages of your dream novel. I experienced the same thing when I read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I have not yet crafted an opening that grabs readers by the throat like that, but it’s on my bucket list.

Character is the element of fiction and poetry that intrigues me most. The image of Tennyson’s Ulysses pitching one last adventure to the ghosts of his dead friends inspired me. As did the bluster and greatness in equal measure of Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Because I love complex characters, I am a fan of Jane Austen, particularly Sense and Sensibility. I was similarly inspired by Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Male authors don’t always do an excellent job with female characters. McMurtry made me want to dig deeper.

Well, the first man that comes along that can read Latin is invited to rob us as far as I’m concerned. I’d like a chance to shoot at a educated man once in my life.

Captain Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove

I have a small selection of books on craft on my Always Keep shelf. The one that impacted me most was John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Chapter Five—Common Errors—is the single best piece of writing about writing I’ve encountered. I made a computer list of his notes, adding bonus errors that I’m personally prone to. It’s a prodigious list, I assure you. I don’t think I’ve gone a month without reviewing my notes. 

I would recommend Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference because that’s something most writers want to do. I also loved Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. Charles Schulz was a subversive. Many of his cartoons were a sly commentary on art and artists.

I am a big believer in literary arcs. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike stories inspired my ideas about character arcs. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry introduced me to the notion of symbolic arcs. 

Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose gave me an appreciation for thematic density. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged amazed me for the sheer scope of what the author attempted. 

Lately, I’ve been reminded of additional elements of craft thanks to some excellent new novels. A love of lush prose and musical dialog sparked by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was refreshed when I read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s a narrative so pleasant to the ears that I bought an audio version just to hear the words spoken out loud.

Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle reminded me that fictional characters have jobs and can be deeply involved in the everyday details of business. You might think that the requirements of drama demand the removal of such things. (If you’re really old, you’ll remember that Ozzie Nelson had no visible job.)

But Whitehead reminded me that the ins and outs of the furniture business can be every bit as gripping as the shady business of crime. 

Some books taught me what not to do. Such stories can be inspirational in a backhanded sort of way. 

It’s one of the most commonly quoted Stephen King-isms. “Books are a uniquely portable magic. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

The NCW book bazaar happens on June 11th, which means there are books just waiting to inspire you. Buy books. Get busy.

A Conference Intervention

By The NCW Leadership Team

We are all gearing up for the conference. It’s been a while. Yes, we’re putting on a hybrid event this year. Sure, we hosted an amazing virtual conference last year. But for some of us it’s time to step out of the Zoom box and see people IRL.

It’s safe to say, writers tend to stay on the introvert side of things, so even if the last few years hadn’t been a dumpster fire, we might be struggling with meeting people face to face.

Sometimes it serves our creative mojos to peek our heads out of our doors and mingle. With people.

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The Conference Survival Handbook

By David E. Sharp

Blah, blah blah, conferences are a boon to writers. Blah, blah, blah, you are going to learn so much. Buckle up, because this the hard sell. Beyond the panels, the topical sessions, and the opportunity to connect with other writers, a conference grants you the unparalleled prospect of meeting industry professionals.

Go Forth And Meet Your People!
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Adventurer: Answer The Sirens’ Call

By Katie Lewis

Choosing to attend a writer’s conference can be a daunting quest. Beyond the general social anxiety, there’s also the practical worry of wanting to ensure we spend our limited time and money wisely. I put out the call to adventure, dear wanderers lo though we are sometimes wary of putting ourselves at risk.

While we all have different reasons for making that challenging decision (landing an agent being the least important factor), all that matters is what you take away, what you learn, and how your thinking evolves as a result.

We attend conferences to learn, to inspire, and to have an opportunity to put on something other than sweatpants.

Photo Courtesy of Memedroid
My first attempt was also the worst.

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Do What I Say, Not What I Did

By Brian Kaufman

In a previous blog post, I admitted to blocking an editor at the entrance to the men’s room to sell him my first novel. He suffered the pitch, and I left with his business card in my wallet. No surprise that this was not my only embarrassing writer’s conference story. Lest you feel compelled to repeat my missteps, learn my Padawan.

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Healthy Habits, Hearty Word Counts

By Katie Lewis

You would get a hundred different answers if you asked a hundred authors how often and how much writing we should all be doing daily. From conferences to advice blogs, the recommendations vary widely. Some claim you can only improve your skills by sticking to a daily writing habit, while others say it’s a recipe for burn-out. Personally, I believe that writing is like any other creative endeavor in that everything comes down to individual preferences. 

Photo Credit:

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Nobody to Blame for Those Torches And Pitchforks, Except You.

By David E. Sharp

“I don’t like it,” my wife said after hearing about my latest story concept. I always appreciate her honesty. It’s what makes her such a great sounding board.

“What don’t you like about it?” I asked.

She told me exactly what was bothering her. This book is the third and possibly final installment in my Lost on a Page series. The second volume launches in May, and she is one of a handful of people who have read it before publication. She has a vested interest in these characters and their stories.

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Battle of The Bards: Poetry Is A Challenge

By Shelley Widhalm

Writing a poem a day is like marriage—it’s a commitment that takes loyalty, honesty, and authenticity. 

Saying “I will,” I undertook the Poem a Day Challenge in September 2017 and have written nearly 1,600 poems since. I missed a few days in winter 2020 during surgery recovery and at the end of 2021 when my schedule got overwhelmingly busy.

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That’s What She Said.

By Katie Lewis

Photo Credit: Memedroid

Salutations from my sickbed. For the last week, I’ve been laid low by my second bout of Covid-19. Some things have been easier this time, and others have been worse. One aspect of my convalescence is the same, though: lots of Netflix.

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Genre Tropes And Expanding Horizons

By Brian Kaufman

My wife and I carpooled with a friend on the way to a writer’s conference. The conversation turned to our chosen genres. My friend wrote fantasy, so my wife—an ardent reader—began asking about favorite authors. Fantasy was not a genre she often enjoyed, but she knew a fantastic number of writers in the field. My friend seemed confused by the names and eventually explained that he didn’t read fantasy though he wrote fantasy. 

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