Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
August 8, 2018

Start Me Up

James Preston

When I was growing up in El Segundo, I spent a lot of time in the library. If you are a Post-Internet Writer, you will struggle to understand what I say next: sometimes I ran out of things to read. No stack of books waiting to be read. No iBooks with a million free samples waiting. No Barnes & Noble, only a drug store with a paperback rack and the man behind the counter who told me, “Oh, you don’t want that” when I tried to buy a Donald Hamilton thriller called Murderer’s Row. Okay, it had a tacky cover.

That Was Then, This is Now

Times have changed, oh, boy have they changed, not just in terms of what’s available to read, but in another very important way that I’ll get to in a minute. 

The problem is a simple one: so many books so little time. So of course, you read the good ones, the ones you like, the ones that speak to you, the ones by writers you know. And there’s another rub: it is so easy to fill all your reading hours — and none of us have enough — with books by authors you know,  books in genres you read, and books and blogs about the art and craft of our calling. Who wants to take a chance? Don’t worry — I’m here to help.

So, you want to read, and you want to write, the clock is ticking, and I appreciate the time you are taking to read this. Thank you. I have prepared a list of titles that you may not have thought of, and in some cases I have picked works where all you need to read is the Preface or Introduction – the start. I know, I know. Time is fleeting, and madness will take its toll unless you exercise some sort of restraint. 

The Reading

Thomas Harris  Red Dragon.

Well, not exactly. Take a look at the iBook, and the new Introduction called, “Forward to a Fatal Interview,” where Harris talks about how he wrote the book and how he met Hannibal Lecter. Really, that Forward is what I’m putting on this list, but if you haven’t read the book, my guess is you’ll get sucked in.

Fair warning: this is a creepy one. You know The Scoville Scale for pepper hotness, with jalapeño at 1,000? Well, this one’s a Scotch Bonnet, eight to ten times hotter. I went back to the Forward preparing this essay, got pulled into the book, read it, had to read Silence of the Lambs, and now I’m halfway through Hannibal. The things I do for you people! Oh, wait, I loved them all. Never mind. The Introduction to the e-book is a brilliant treatise on the writer’s craft. And parts of it may keep you awake at night. Heh heh heh.

Janet Evanovich, One For The Money

That first line! “There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” This is an older part of the series that you might have missed. The series is amazing, if for no other reason than she’s kept it fresh for so long. (I know, I know, I want Stephanie to make up her mind about the men in her life.) But it’s worth it to pay attention to how she gets into the story. Look at the first two paragraphs of Four to Score.

Stephen King    Christine

One of his older works. This is the book that gave me the idea for this essay. I’d read it before, but when I went back to it all at once I appreciated just what an accomplishment it is. If you want to see a virtuoso playing with POV, read this book. First, third, back to first, and he makes it work. No, that’s not quite right, it works as naturally as one of our storytelling ancestors sitting around the campfire, and saying, “I went over the mountain and this is what happened.” It just flows.

If you missed it, for an excellent discussion on POV, see Ann Griffin’s “Cleaning Up Those POV Breaks,” in this blog last week.

E. B. Griffin. The Corps, book 1 for historical detail.

One of the knocks on Griffin is that he gets lost in the detail, loves it, and slows down the story. W-e-l-l, yeah, maybe sometimes. However, he makes it work. Personal note: the book is about U. S. Marines in China in the late 30’s. My father was stationed there at that time and he said, “Griffin got it right. That’s how it was.”

And, if you are doing police procedurals look at Book 1 of the Badge of Honorseries. The man does his homework. The man loves his homework. However, IMHO the early books in both series are much better.

Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August.

This one is also for the Forward describing the creation of this masterpiece. Look for how she worked, the number of rejection slips on her first book, and how much time she invested in the first paragraph, then read that paragraph. Oh, don’t miss the mention of Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda.

One of the comments on Guns of August is she makes it a fascinating subject even when everybody knows how it ends. It’s true, and it’s because of a lot of hard work.

Winston Churchill    The Gathering Storm.

Churchill was big news last year with the release of “The Darkest Hour” and that’s what made me think of this book. Just for the language. This guy didn’t win a Nobel Prize for nothing.

The parts about the rising tide of anger, the waves coming in, receding, but not going back as far. I almost left this one off because his prose is so good that reading it makes me want to close Microsoft Word and devote myself to my new game — American Truck Simulator. Take heart — he’s no longer living. 

Side note and a personal one: if you read the whole book, and if you have seen “The Darkest Hour” note how kind Churchill is to politicians who were knifing him.

For more on reading, see Orly König-Lopez’ Essay in this blog, “The Best Exercise for Writers is . . . Reading.”

As The Beach Boys say on their concert album. “All right, before we all get kicked out of here, we’re gonna do one more for you.”

 Robert A. Heinlein     Have Space Suit — Will Travel   

All right, I know. You’ve never heard of it. It’s old, it’s not well-known, it’s a juvie. Hey, who’s writing this essay, anyway? Perhaps my single favorite book, HSSWT is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s later juvies (Today they would be called “young adult” novels.)

Listen to how it starts: “You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was like this.”

Bam! The storyteller is inviting you to sit down and listen; he’s got something to say. 

This one is worth looking at for a couple of reasons. First, the opening. Okay, I gave some of it away. Second, the female lead is smarter, tougher, and just as brave as Kip, the hero. And this was written in 1958. I said one of the goals of this exercise was to stretch your reading, point you in new directions and this one is it. C’mon, take a look. It’s short, it’s readable. 

To Return to Our First Observation

So, how else have times changed? Easy. Writers in the Storm exists. We have somebody to talk to. We’re all in this together, and now it’s your turn. Think about a title, or an essay, that’s important to you, that might help another writer, and that is not on standard “So you want to write” reading lists. Share it. One more time: we’re all in this together. 

Writers in the Storm is about writing (and, hence, about nothing less than life itself but that’s a subject for another day), but it’s more than that. It’s more than that because it’s two-way. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d wager that every reader of this essay thought, “Well, that doesn’t belong on the list, but this does.”

So cough up. Reading is important to us; stretching that reading is also important. So, what would you suggest? Something that is off the radar for most genre writers, a title that readers will look at and think, “Never heard of it. Maybe I’ll take a look.”


“You’ll still be studying the day you retire.”

Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet 

“I’ll never stop.”

      -- The Rolling Stones

About James

James PrestonJames PrestonJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City
Mysteries. Last year he branched out and launched two novellas, Crashpad and Buzzkill. These short thrillers are set on a college campus in the turbulent sixties. He can be reached at www.jamesrpreston.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and at james@jamesrpreston.com. His next release will be Remains To Be Seen, the sixth Surf City Mystery.


50 comments on “Start Me Up”

  1. What about the Elmore Leonard Western short stories ?What characterization! What pithiness! What scene setting! And he wrote them to market because he needed money, fast.

    1. There are a few Elmore Leonard books around here, Lakota. My husband's. I'll have to pull one out.

    2. Lakota, I haven't read any of the short stories, which is one of the points of the essay -- finding new stuff with a reason for looking at it. I like Freaky Deaky -- spot on for the Sixties. There are stories that Mickey Spillane wrote I, The Jury because he needed money but I can't footnote it. That would be something interesting to research -- how many writers were forced by economic necessity to grind out words. I think Dean Koontz was one. Anybody able to footnote that, or refute it?

  2. Great post, James! I was maybe 10 and at home, recovering from the measles and bored silly, so my dad brought books home from the library. One was "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel," and I was hooked on Heinlein's juvies for several years after that. I also read the first 15 in the Plum series before saying "Enough already..." and moving on. If Stephanie ever does make up her mind, let me know, will you? 🙂

    1. I discovered Heinlein in college, Vala. I bought everything I could find of his in the used book store, even the juvies. He laid the foundation for my love of science fiction, along with Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson.

      1. Hey, Fae, thanks for weighing in. All excellent choices! If you have a moment or two, take a look at The Heechee Saga by Fred Pohl. The first novel is Gateway, followed by Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. High concept doesn't come any bigger -- we're talking about The Big Bang itself. I thought about including the series in the blog, but it's too long and didn't relate directly to what I was talking about.
        Now get back to work on that sequel!

    2. Thanks, Vala! Wow, I hadn't thought about this for a long time, but I was eleven, home sick with bronchitis & my Dad brought me an issue of Amazing Science Fiction. And I was hooked! If you haven't read it for a while, take a look at The Star Beast -- it has a LOT to say about tolerance, things we need to hear today, IMHO. Uh, about the Plum books. I have manfully, er, personfully, stuck with the series but I am burning out, so I can't promise to update you. My plan for Stephanie's future has Ranger & Morelli dumping her, and she runs off with Diesel. The End.

      1. A great memory, James! Little did our dads know what they were starting, right? I haven't read any Heinlein in years, so I'll put The Star Beast on my TBR (TBr-R?) list. "Time for the Stars" is my favorite Heinlein of all, BTW. Someday I want to write a telepathic twin story myself! Also, I can't picture Stephanie winding up with anyone else except Morelli. I mean, a woman likes a little danger now and then, but for the long term...?

        1. Time for the Stars is one of my favorites, too. If I remember the end correctly -- wow!
          I suppose it would be symmetrical for Stephanie to wind up with Morelli, after all, he started the first book when she ran him over with the Buick. Or she and Sally Sweet form a band and go on the road. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of that excellent Heinlein. I read somewhere that he wrote those in 3-4 months each. It's not fair! Sigh.
          BTW - I took a look at your web site and it's very nice; good job! Great cover for Dreams of the Muse.

          1. Thanks, James! I appreciate you checking out my site. I thought that cover fits the story really well. Sheer happenstance... or was it? 🙂

    3. Evanovich is on #25 and Stephanie hasn't made up her mind so I don't think it's going to happen. I wish she was with Ranger but we all know it's gonna be Morelli...

  3. James, I'm glad you mentioned The Gathering Storm by Churchill. It's part of a six (or is it seven?) book series on WWII, and I've read the entire series twice. As a historical writer, it is invaluable research, and Churchill's writing takes what might have been presented in deadly dull politicalspeak, as the gripping story it was. Another two-book series not likely on anyone's radar, is Pierre Berton's "The National Dream" and "The Last Spike" about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s. Berton was a journalist and author and he too, took a real story and imbued it with the drama it deserved.

    1. Oh, Ann, I'm so glad to find another fan of the Churchill series. The Barton books are new to me; I'll check them out. It's interesting to read his history of World War 1, The World Crisis to see how he developed as a writer. Thanks for sharing. For all its flaws, and they are many and serious, the internet lets things like this happen.

    2. Interesting. I didn't realize it was part of a series. My hubs loves war history so perhaps that series will be a great present for him this year. 🙂

    1. Ooooh, Debbie, good ones. I haven't looked at or thought of those in a long time. It's time for a revisit. What in particular draws you back to them?

    2. I'm going to make a confession...I've never read Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility. I've always meant to...it just never happened. *ducks and covers* But I adored Jane Eyre. And Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham) and all the Charles Dickens' novels.

  4. I'm a Georgette Heyer fan. My favorite is "Sylvester: Or, The Wicked Uncle" because of how well she writes Sylvester in the end...the character is so clearly out of his element, his foot so far back in his mouth, he can taste his knees. I've read and re-read the ending of that book many times, just trying to absorb how deft Heyer was with Sylvester...you just ache over his ineptitude, because it comes from such a real and good place.

    I prefer her historicals to her mysteries (but I also write Regencies, so there you go).

    1. Thanks for the tip, Justine. It's been years since I've read one of her books, and I never read Sylvester.

  5. You got me. I've never read a Georgette Heyer. However, this is an excellent suggestion. Getting ready for this essay I noticed that because it's all electronic there's no fumbling around bookshelves looking for a title or -- the horror -- opening up a box of books. So when you decide to revisit Sylvester, why, he's right there, waiting. My wife is a huge Regency fan, so if the spirit moves you, send a link, either here or to the email from my web page.
    PS LOVE the " . . . he can taste his knees."

  6. Thanks for putting together the "alternative" summer reading list, along with what parts we need to zero in on. There isn't enough time to read everything I want to read. What happened to the days of lazy reading?

    1. You got it, Fae. the time invested to read a novel is huge (I have mixed feelings abut Kindle putting up that statistic) so I wanted to provide readers with sources that are fast, and that provide insight into our craft. I particularly recommend the Tuchman essay. It may only be in newer editions.

  7. I remember in junior high, reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy - it made history come alive to me - that those were living, breathing people like me, not dry as dust dates and milestones.

    Great choices, James!

  8. Wow, Laura, that took me back. I was I think in the 9th grade when I read Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. What a story! What an opening! I think that was the beginning of my WW2 reading. How did you happen to pick the Irving Stone? I mean, that's not a typical book for Junior High. I have no idea how I found The Caine Mutiny, but I still have the paperback.

    1. I love Wouk! But I'm more for Marjorie Morningstar - one of my top 20 of all time. I wanted to read older than my age - took me odd places - Solyznitzen, Rand, and the like. I didn't understand everything I read, but boy, did I have a vocabulary! (and a worn-out dictionary)

      1. I loved Ayn Rand's books. We The Living and The Fountainhead particularly stood out. And I've always meant to read "Atlas Shrugged" and just never did.

  9. […] When I was growing up in El Segundo, I spent a lot of time in the library. If you are a Post-Internet Writer, you will struggle to understand what I say next: sometimes I ran out of things to read. No stack of books waiting to be read. No iBooks with a million free samples […] Source link […]

  10. Great post. For me, the best place to pick up books you wouldn't is at book fairs. We went to one on the weekend - $AU1 for soft cover, $AU2 for hard - so I picked up heaps of books, any that looked interesting without reservation. I'm currently reading The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

    1. Whoa, good one, Littlemissw! As I read your comment i realized I'd never read the novel, only seen the movie. Five minutes later I had an iBooks sample and, although I'm not wild about the Dean Koontz intro (more of a screed against modern life than a discussion of the book) I'm sure I'll buy it and read it, pushing other books to the back of the list. And it will be your fault!
      Thanks, I guess.

  11. Les Edgerton's "Hooked on Fiction" is a great book on writing for writers. If you've never read it, I think it's right up there with Stephen King's "On Writing."

    Oh, luv the spacesuit book!

    1. Great suggestion, Lisa! Thanks, and I'm glad you like HSSWT, How good is Heinlein? In 1958 Kip thinks when he designs spacesuits he's going to make it possible to look down. Well, the cover of The New Space Race (GQ, Wired, arstechnica) has a note: the text on the suit's front control panel is backwards so it can be read with a wrist mirror.

    1. I would NEVER call you boring! How many times have I read some of my faves? I don't know. Look at it this way: true, after one reading you know how it ends. But, would you dash into the Lourve, look at the Mona Lisa, check it off your list and move on? Some people would, but not many of them read this blog. With each reading we see something new.

  12. James, I grew up on Asimov. One of my favorite stories is "The Last Question" (yeah I'm a real geek). In it, man asks his computer "can entropy be reversed" (a derivative of "where are we going?") and the computer replies: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER." Did anyone notice that in Dan Brown's "Origin", Kirsch's answer to a similar question in his presentation is: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR ACCURATE RESPONSE." Was this meant to remind us of Asimov? Haven't read anyone mentioning this.

    1. Oooh, good observation, Jack. I have not seen that attribution before, either. For those who don't know his work, Jack writes a series of techothrillers, the most recent of which is The Langley Profile.

  13. Ursula LeGuin's Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness is a biting and insightful defense of science fiction as literature while making keen observations about writing and reading as an intentional act. Tremendous.

    1. Now you're talking! Good one, Bob. This is the sort of reference I was thinking of when I wrote the essay, not so much obscure as lesser-known. I remember her intro to (I think) The Wind's Twelve Quarters. Stretching my memory, I think she was the first to point out to me that the writer will not be there to explain the story; it has to stand on its own. Forgive me if I've gotten this wrong -- it was a long, long time ago.
      Now, to find The Left Hand of Darkness. . . .

  14. James, one reason we all stay so devoted to keeping WITS alive is the comment section. We have so much fun learning from all the amazing readers and writers who hang out here. Plus, we learn new cool things from our contributors (I am so reading the 3-4 books here I hadn't read yet.)

    The books that have stood out to me?

    Elizabeth Wein has written two books that manage to combine friendship and humor with World War II tragedy and devastation. CODE NAME VERITY is one of the best books I've ever read. Ever. And it's one of the few books where I got to the end and flipped it over to start again because I couldn't bear to leave the characters. The companion book, ROSE UNDER FIRE is good too, but it took me a few chapters before I was sucked in the way I was with Verity.

    My dad read Louis L'lamour and John Jakes so I did too. And the best Louis L'lamour book I ever read was not a Western, and had no one named Sackett. LAST OF THE BREED. Amazing story and history. I've never forgotten that book.

    Those and the ones I've mentioned throughout the comments have all stood out to me. As did THE HANDMAID'S TALE, which is getting a nice resurgence thanks to the show on Hulu. Margaret Atwood never disappoints.

    Anne Rice's books are always great, but CRY TO HEAVEN stuck with me all these year. It was a wonderful book and she showed the tragedy and betrayal between the brothers so deftly.

    Okay, I'll stop before I get to the other 45 books that have stood out....

  15. Thank you, Jenny. WITS is important to all kinds of writers and I am proud to contribute. (I have an idea for the next one, heh heh heh.) My Dad read lots of westerns, particularly by a writer known as "B. M. Bower," who was a lady, writing early in the last century. He said she was the best. I am now custodian of his collection of hardbacks. Anybody out there want to try some old westerns? I'll pay shipping!
    Meanwhile, Interview with the Vampire remains not only one of my favorites but one of the most amazing ends ever penned. I got to see her house (well, the outside) the last time I was in New Orleans. There are stories that she would host a Halloween party open to one and all. I can't image how cool that would be! What I would give to have attended one!
    I have not read Cry to Heaven, but now it's on the list, and it's your fault.

  16. Thank you for an inspirational reference list. I’d add John Steinbeck for good old fashioned characterisation, and F Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button (forget the movie). Elizabeth Berg’s collection of Stories of Life took me on a Masterclass-like ride. I’d also recommend anthologies by well-known authors - topical short stories such as Ann Hood’s The Knitting Diaries, and Birds in the Hand with dozens of poems and shorts by brilliant writers. Have fun. Jay.

    1. Wow, jayjhicks -- excellent! I read Travels with Charley in High School -- man, I wanted to do that! Take my Daschund, go on the road. And Sweet Thursday is one of my all-time favorites. i do not know the Berg or Hood collections. Sigh. More books . . .
      All kidding aside, thank you for some good suggestions.

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