SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t love the characters created by Charles M. Schulz? If there is I don’t want to know them. Sure, some strips are funnier than others, but I’d wager that the strips that don’t make you laugh today would crack you up tomorrow. That was Schulz’s magic; his uncanny ability to zero in on the highs and lows of life. You can never outgrow Peanuts because eventually every character—from Charlie Brown to Pig Pen—reflects a moment of our own evolution.

When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of Schroeder. His reverence for the great classical composers and his innate skill fueled my dream of becoming a professional flutist. In time I discovered a musician’s life was not for me. To excel in any profession requires passion, patience and persistence: enter Snoopy.

No matter where you are in your journey as a writer, SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life will help you celebrate your accomplishments, recharge your battery and take the sting out of rejection.

What I love the most about the Snoopy strips on writing is Snoopy’s unwavering faith in his own abilities. Sure, he often rewrites based on outside input.

You should write a self-help book…a story about pirates…a biblical novel.

But deep down he knows what works and what doesn’t.

I think this is going to need a little editing…my hero is a terrible bore.

Each time Snoopy tosses away “his little darlings” to face another blank page, I uncover my own courage to do the same.

As Snoopy says, good writing is hard work. When writers get in manuscript trouble they often turn to books on craft. Craft books and conference workshops have often been a boon for me. But one of my favorite parts of writer conferences are the Key Note speeches because the Key Note doesn’t dwell on the “how to,” they focus on the love behind the process. Key Note speeches reconnect us with what inspired us to go to the page in the first place.

SNOOPY’S Guide is a Key Note you can turn to again and again. In addition to the wisdom of the world’s cutest and bravest beagle you’ll find insights from bestselling writers like Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George and Elmore Leonard. You’ll never be at a loss for inspiration again.

Laugh and write on with SNOOPY’S Guide to the Writing Life.


NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Remember Bullwinkle’s hat trick?

Hey Rocky. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto. (A rhino appears) Don’t know my own strength.

I love that gag. The moment is unbelievably funny because we know Bullwinkle is a doofus. When the unbelievable proves to be true we’re mesmerized. Our fascination with horror works the same way. When a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Joe Hill is such an author.

Not a horror fan? Get over it. NOS4A2 is so beyond horror-in-a-can, religious non-fiction fans will uncover latent urges to scream, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t go alone. Don’t go in there!” Of course, heroes and heroines never listen, and Hill’s Victoria McQueen may be at the top of Horror’s Daredevil List—another way this particular genre gets ahold of us. Horror makes us confront our fears, acknowledge our cowardice and remember, when we’re broken we discover our true strength.

Readers gravitate to flawed characters and NOS4A2 is riddled with people who know they’ve screwed up their lives and the lives of the people they love. Their self-awareness and their struggle to make amends endear them to us. Horror flicks are full of two-dimensional, stock characters, but none show up under Hill’s deft hand. Every character, even if dispensable, has roots. Whether we like them or hate them, their loss is felt and our investment in the story grows.

In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Joe Hill said, “In some ways, NOS4A2 is my rewrite of It.”

An element of Christine also presents in this haunting tale that explores the healing power and danger of imaginative worlds that can’t possibly exist. But Hill paints them with such assurance, all we can do is widen our suspension of disbelief and follow. Occasionally, we may question the goings on like FBI agent Tabitha Hutter.

I don’t—I can’t—understand this. I’m trying, Vic, but I just can’t make sense of it.

Then seconds later we’re all in. When a story sings, we don’t understand in our heads, only in our hearts—where the world of fiction becomes real.

Take a haunting ride in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.


BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

I believe in signs just like Mos Def’s character in 16 Blocks. The Universe sends signs to guide us from the time we are born. We miss out on a lot of signs when we’re young because we’re busy screaming for attention, or struggling against the flow of life. But once we reach a certain age, which is different for everyone, the signs offered to us are unavoidable. The ones we need the most are the ones we listen to because they fall on our heads like Chicken Little’s sky. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird cracked open my skull.

I was loading my tote with essentials for a two-hour train trip to New York City: cell, money, gloss, lotion, pens, paper, highlighters and books. I finished In One Person the night before so I snatched up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs from one of my TBR piles and Bird by Bird fell out of another. I bought Lamott’s book on writing three years ago and never even took a gander. So why did it fall? The time was ripe.

I opened Bird by Bird as the train rolled out of the station. By the time I returned home, in the early hours of the next morning, I felt less alone, more grounded in purpose and eager to tackle the next phase of rewrites on my WIP.

Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.

We need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Nuggets like these remind us to trust ourselves. We are all uniquely formed with a specific point of view that needs to be shared. The passions that connect us with other people in the flesh do not need to be hidden on the page. Our passions need to be plumbed. When we dig deep enough what we write will find its audience.

Anne Lamott recognizes our need to acknowledge who we are, encourages us to share our truth and gives those of us who need it, permission to take all the time we need to grow into ourselves and find our voice.

Bird by Bird is one of the best gifts I have ever given to myself. Not reading it for three years is the bonus. A month ago I reread the latest draft of my WIP. While the second half holds promise, the opening needs a funeral. As an acting coach and an Alexander teacher, I remind my students that the end of one thing is the beginning of the next. Trusting this natural segue eliminates false starts, forced emotions and leads to a natural, vulnerable truth. I know this and yet, the thought of beginning my novel again, made me wonder if a lobotomy might be a better choice at this juncture in time.

Then Bird by Bird fell out of my TBR pile.

If you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they are not.

Is there any better way to say, “kill your darlings to make way for the truth”? Thanks Anne Lamott. Thank you for inspiring the writer in all of us.

Unleash your passion with Bird by Bird.


IN ONE PERSON by John Irving

John Irving’s novels are compasses of truth that illuminate our individual paths to enlightenment.

Part of my awakening this time around stems from rereading A Prayer For Owen Meany only a few months ago. Reading about Owen is not essential for you to appreciate Billy Abbott’s tale, but writers may find this particular order a fascinating study into Irving’s writing.

Narrators Johnny Wheelwright and Billy Abbott are core opposites and yet, they share similar roots. They were born out of wedlock and learned next to nothing about their biological father from their mother. A grandparent and stepfather were significant role models. And both boys were educated within the confines of a private school in a small New England town, where community theatre played a large part in their lives. But what they share is less important than the personal issues of identity these characters wrestle with.

We are who we are, aren’t we?

Who characters are and what they are willing, or not willing to stand for is a major theme in Irving’s work, and one of the reason I never grow tired of his stories. He draws me into worlds of deeply flawed individuals whose quirks and obsessions appear foreign. Then, in the end I realize the sentiments of the main character are my own; or maybe they have become my own.

Gender issues are a common struggle today. Fortunately, John Irving has turned on the light. Through the life of one particular bisexual man, In One Person will dare you to be a better person. Open your heart and expand your definition of tolerance with John Irving’s thirteenth novel.


SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s stories beckon readers the way a bottle of vodka calls an alcoholic.  It’s impossible to read just one book, chapter or sentence. I don’t know what I will do after I finish Dark Places—set up a calendar and mark off the days until her next release, I guess.

An author’s debut often reveals only the bud of style, a wisp of the signature themes that will be tattooed upon future pages and a voice fresh from the cocoon. Flynn’s Sharp Objects is not such a debut. Gillian Flynn sprung into the literary world like Athena out of Zeus’s head, fully formed and ready for battle.

At first the edginess of Sharp Objects stood in such contrast to Gone Girl, without the author’s name on the covers I would’ve sworn the books were written by two different writers. But once immersed I recognized the exquisite execution of certain shared elements: the need for characters to manipulate, the eavesdropping quality of dialogue, and how characters say what people in real life only say when they think no one else is listening.

Sharp Objects is all about what reporter Camille Preaker does not want to know when she returns to her hometown to follow a murder investigation. Flynn’s ability to thrust a damaged character back into the belly of the beast and increase the voltage is a prime example of no fear writing.

The payoff for the reader is sleepless nights from either staying up to finish or an inability to fall asleep once all the gruesome details are consumed.

Gillian Flynn’s debut exposes more than the behavioral inbreeding of small town life and the unhealthy hold some parents have over their children. She leaves her characters raw, desperate and wondering, always wondering whether they have or will choose wisely.

Prepare to protect your heart from Sharp Objects.


BY NIGHTFALL by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham scores again with By Nightfall. I don’t know how he’s able to read my mind, or tap into the love and pain of my heart, but he does it book after book. Each one of his characters is a manifestation of some aspect of my personality.

He owns the secret of how to connect through words. Cunningham’s novels are not action-packed, yet readers are driven to turn the page to uncover how his characters will cope with the turmoil of their lives. If you’re a writer and struggle with character development, look no further—Cunningham will show you the way.

The observations and realizations his characters make reflect a universal truth we may not speak of, but recognize without question. His characters explore darkness, but hope reverberates. His themes spark tension unlike any plot point. And no author captures the nuances and energy of New York better. If you’ve never fallen into Cunningham, take the plunge. By Nightfall you’ll be a fan.


ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer this memoir was written for you.

In an age when the publishing market changes on a daily basis, it’s easy to get sidetracked by social media networks and blindsided by craft books that promise to enhance everything from your understanding of plot to honing the ever important logline.

A writer can have a meltdown just trying to determine which blogs or books will best serve him. And if, like me, your journey to publication has yet to reach fruition, you may often feel bogged down by the weight of finishing the manuscript—especially when you’ve moved beyond the first few drafts. If either of these states drag you into despair save yourself with a shot of Stephen King’s On Writing.

It’s a no-nonsense book filled with humor, heart, honesty and the best writing advice around. From honoring The Element’s of Style’s rule, “Omit needless words,” to King’s own mantra, “Write a lot and read a lot,” we learn how this prolific writer evolved and still thrives through his love of story.

King’s passion for writing is undeniable and contagious. I’d wager On Writing has sparked more writers to return to the page than any other craft book.

You can enjoy it in print where you can highlight and take notes, or you can listen to King’s narration of the audio version. I’ve done both and will continue to do so because there is nothing better than a good story.

Write On and Write Strong with On Writing.


A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving

I have spent every season of the year with Owen Meany. My first encounter was the summer I played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Playing a fairy is heady work. Owen grounded me. The following fall I started to write plays. My head overflowed with character voices. But since none of them were as distinct as Owen’s voice I read A Prayer for Owen Meany a second time. A few years down the road I gave birth to my third son. Newborns spend a lot of time nursing. I infused our bonding time with literature. Possibly because he was born on Friday the 13th, we began with the work of Stephen King and turned to Owen Meany in the spring. My son loved Owen too. He laughed and kicked his legs whenever I read Owen’s lines.

I dusted off my copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in January and read it in weekly installments to my 89-year old Aunt. We finished last week. After spending the winter with Owen Meany the spring looks a little less promising. When I asked my Aunt what we should read next she said, “I don’t know. That Owen is a hard act to follow.”

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or
because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument
of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian
because of Owen Meany.

If there is an opening in literature more haunting or compelling then this, I haven’t read it. These words like Owen Meany, force me to move forward not only in the story, but in my life. He is one of the most inspiring fictional characters around.

I’ve met several people who do not care for this particular novel by John Irving. They scrunch up their noses when I mention the title because they don’t like the narrator Johnny Wheelwright. My fondness for the story made me defensive whenever I heard such tosh twenty years ago. I am no longer defensive.

Johnny is a dishrag next to Owen Meany. He lacks initiative and his personality is so neutral he can’t even get laid. But this is exactly why he is the perfect narrator for the story. Owen’s unconditional and unwavering faith means nothing to the reader without Johnny’s endless confusion about life. Irving’s choice to lay such opposites side-by-side forces the reader, just like Owen’s sacrifice forces Johnny to take a stand.

YOU HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION…IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT—IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.

This is one of the many reason’s I love John Irving. He is not shy about examining the issues most people refrain from talking about like death, religion, abortion and politics. When I picked up the novel this time I feared the story might feel dated because of the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was mistaken.

The political unrest and arguments against the war in Owen’s and Johnny’s world seem to have more resonance today. Or maybe the relevance only feels stronger because, like Johnny Wheelwright, I have grown and experienced enough in life to take a stand.

For me, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that keeps on giving. I uncover more about the characters and myself each time I witness the journey of these inseparable friends.

Discover what you believe with A Prayer for Owen Meany.


THE DANGEROUS ANIMALS CLUB by Stephen Tobolowsky

His name may not be familiar, but chances are you’ve invited Stephen Tobolowsky into your home on more than one occasion. Some nights his visit may have occurred while you were in your pajamas. That is, if you were curled up on the sofa watching television. If you’ve ever watched Thelma & Louise, Groundhog Day, Deadwood or Glee Tobolowksy has entertained you. But because his private life isn’t fodder for magazine covers you still may not be able to picture him. No matter. By the time you finish his memoir the essence of Tobolowsky—man and actor—combined with the life lessons he shares will make it impossible for you to forget him.

That said my relationship with this book was of the love-like variety. My theatre background made me long to fall madly in love, but I found it difficult to move beyond the handholding stage until chapter ten. The early chapters seemed to get lost in translation. The director inside me kept whispering, “This material would be funnier as a Stand Up Routine.” I was also disenchanted with the structure of the chapters. They often felt like a Long Island Iced Tea minus the vodka, tequila, gin and rum. What we got were childhood memories sandwiched between recent job experiences and the chronological unfolding of Tobolowsky’s acting career. These individual tales were interesting, but I hungered for a stronger trunk for the stories to hang on.

What kept me reading was Tobolowskys journey of self-discovery. For amidst, what was for me a chaotic style of storytelling, this character actor continued to unearth priceless insights about acting, relationships and identity.

Fairly or unfairly, many people are tried in life. The mistake people make is that they think the trial is a sign of failure. It’s not. It’s only a doorway that leads to who you really are.

These were the moments that led me to channel Oliver Twist, “Please, sir. I want some more.” They rattled my socks, made me take notes and offer thanks to one of my best friends for recommending the book. Tobolowsky’s wisdom also prompted me to do a bit of research and I was happy to discover his blog. His posts on acting are spot on and worthy of your time just like his memoir that is bound to encourage you to rewatch some intriguing films.

Check into The Dangerous Animals Club.


THE RIVER WITCH by Kimberly Brock

A ballerina, a ten-year old and an alligator walk into a bar…Interested? If not, you will be.

The River Witch captivated me like the ghost stories my friends shared around the campfire. The longer the tale the closer we sat together. We huddled out of fear and because we didn’t want to miss a word.

Opening pages ground readers in character, conflict and either lead us to care about the main character(s) or not. Kimberly Brock leaves no other option than to invest in her dueling narrators, Roslyn Byrne and Damascus Trezevant. Facts pummel the page the way a boxer’s fists attack a speed bag and fuel the reader’s curiosity, for Roslyn’s character defines mystery. And Damascus? She is spunky, determined and moves forward on blind faith—a quality we lose as adults when we need it most.

Few characters are as perfectly matched as Roslyn and Damascus. Two lost souls testing and daring each other to prove themselves worthy of life. These separate, yet interrelated character arcs are equally intriguing. But while the mystery and evolution of Roslyn is the main focus of the novel, I have to say Damascus is the character that drove me to turn page after page. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why?” Why do children’s voices grab our attention? Why do child characters often reach further into our hearts then adults?

These questions nudged me to reexamine my fascination with Tillie from Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson and Gemma from Meg Tilly’s Gemma. Here is my realization. Children draw us in because a part of every adult still needs to be healed, and the character trait the adult needs to strengthen in order to mend, lies within the child they are drawn to.

We are vehicles of change and Brock’s characters encourage us to step away from fear and into the hope that true change offers us.

“I never done nothing like this,” Ivy said, breathless. “Just took off without nobody.
Something about you, Roslyn, when I’m with you I think I can do all this stuff.” 

The River Witch is a complex and magical tale of broken souls struggling to stay above the tide of loss and the inevitable, yet unexpected force of love that heals them.

Experience the spellbinding power of The River Witch.


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