A collection of useful books about the craft of writing, learning, inspiring and sometimes entertaining | lifestyles

“Refusing to be Done: Writing and Rewriting a Novel in Three Concepts”, by Matt Bell. (Soho Press, 168 pages, $15.99.)

Although his handy, authoritative book is structured as a step-by-step guide, novelist and teacher Matt Bell (“Appleseed”) sets few absolute rules. He urges readers to use what works for them and discard everything else: “Only what is useful to you applies.” Fortunately for readers, especially those who believe their first draft is perfect, most of what he says applies almost universally.

Bell strives for approachability and encourages people to write what excites them and to “save nothing for later.” But he usually leaves the inspiration aside to take a trader’s point of view. He emphasizes his three-pronged process of rewriting until every concept is as clean as possible. While some advice may seem grueling, like retyping every word (“Yes, everything”) when revising a second draft, it’s almost always correct.

A gift bag of tactical tips that even seasoned pros will find useful – its list of filler “weasel words” to be avoided deserves to be memorized – this is the rare handbook that never feels chore or airily ambitious in the way of John Gardner or Annie Dill.

Using clear, recognizable prose that deftly balances positivity with a realistic awareness of the grueling dedication that novel writing entails, Bell sets the 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.)

This anthology, curated by Lee Child and Laurie R. King (makers of the Jack Reacher and Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, respectively), is a disgrace of riches and bursting with the crisp wisdom and hard-boiled humor to keep its place on the shelf of every mystery lover. , even if they never intend to write anything.

Contributions from 70 authors are divided into topics (“The Rules and Genres”, “After Writing”), but the book is an easy read. The advice comes in quick, short bursts. Tim Malveny’s one-page entry says, “Love your characters, but treat them like dirt.” Charles Salzburg knocks over the not-nice line “write what you know” to explain how to write about what you don’t know. In a clever, playful combination, Jeffrey Deaver insists on “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” focuses on the practical side of the mystery world. Liliana Hart urges self-published writers with stars in their eyes to “Don’t give up your day job,” while Kelley Armstrong provides an illuminating overview of the (unwritten) rules that govern the YA mystery genre. A spirited, wise and comprehensive guide that, in explaining how to write a mystery, ends up illustrating much of what makes the genre so captivating.

‘Write for your life’, by Anna Quindlen. (Random House, 240 pages, $26.)

Relentlessly shredded and upbeat, Anna Quindlen (“Living Out Loud”) writes in her latest book on writing with a determined “you can do it!” enthusiasm reminiscent of a beloved teacher who truly believes that all her students are special. This approach may be of limited use to people who have already decided to write and are just looking for the right tools. But Quindlen is less focused on 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. Using examples from Anne Frank to high school’s Freedom Writers program, Quindlen encourages readers to put their lives or thoughts on paper in any format. “It doesn’t really matter what you say,” she says to ease the worry that their diaries or poems aren’t good enough. “It matters that you said it.”

Quindlen, a champion of analog writing, is concerned about what a world of ephemeral electronic words will lose for the future. Calling on readers to send handwritten letters to their loved ones, she movingly describes reading Charles Dickens’ manuscript “A Christmas Carol” and feeling his “human presence” in the crossed-out lines. Sometimes coming close to preciousness, Quindlen’s book is a gentle inspirational breeze from something that nonetheless makes a strong case for putting our lives and thoughts into words: “Writing can make the memory concrete.”

Chris Barsanti is a freelance writer, author of several nonfiction books, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and an aspiring novelist. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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