ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Writer Sarah Pekkanen always dreamed of writing a book. And the dream wasn't crazy, she made a living as a feature's writer at the Baltimore Sun. But writing a book was still very different from penning a long newspaper article. She needed structure.
In our series, Three Books, in which authors talk about three books on one theme, Pekkanen describes the three books that helped her get a book contract.
Ms. SARAH PEKKANEN (Author, "The Opposite of Me"): I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom, write what you know, wasn't helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one's diaper, not exactly best-seller material. So I turned to experts.
Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.
Stephen King's memoir, "On Writing," taught me that penning a book is like trying to look good in a bathing suit. You have to work at it every single day. The first chunk of King's book shows the horror master's versatility. I never thought I'd laugh at the image of King as a 2-year-old dropping a cinder block on his bare foot. Trust me, it's funnier than it sounds.
But what really impressed me is King's discipline. After he was hit by a van and nearly killed, King still wrote, even though, he said, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic.
King also taught me to get a second opinion. He threw away his first few pages of "Carrie," and his wife pulled them out of the trash. You've got something here, she said.
New York agent Donald Maass' "Writing the Breakout Novel" taught me to shed my role as a peacekeeper. I'm a stereotypical middle child. I hate conflict. But Maass wants me to bring it to every page.
Maass writes, being nice does not engender great drama. Push your characters to the edge, and you will pull your readers close.
In other words, I need to infuse my writing with the equivalent of a holiday dinner with all the passive-aggressive, deadbeat and alcoholic relatives I can find, and I should toss in an unplanned teenage pregnancy if things ever get boring.
James Scott Bell's book "Plot & Structure" ordered me to get organized. When I was a kid, my parents were hauled into my elementary school to look at the shocking condition of my desk. But chaos doesn't cut it when it comes to plotting your novel.
Bell taught me how to structure a great entrance, the equivalent of gliding down a spiral staircase in a wedding gown, and how to keep the next 400 pages from becoming as hopelessly tangled as the crumpled papers and wads of gum in my old desk.
"Plot & Structure" also advocates finishing with a bang. A weak ending can ruin an otherwise wonderful book. A strong ending can redeem an otherwise mediocre book, Bell writes.
I've got dozens of books about writing on my shelf, but these are the ones that really worked for me. After reading them, I finally sold my own.
SIEGEL: Sarah Pekkanen's debut novel, "The Opposite of Me," will be published next year. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. And you can comment on that essay and find more reviews and author recommendations at the book section of our Web site, npr.org.
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