Practical advice for aspiring writers
Once, when I lived alone in the country, a special bird friend, a stuttering whippoorwill, called out most every evening from the nearby cedar swamp.
I waited for his first call - ''whip, whip, whip-poor - .'' Then I began pulling for him: ''Come on now, you can do it. Slower. Think it through. There. See? It wasn't so hard.''
His lonely struggle perfectly matched my own lonely struggle just then to sing my own song - to learn to write. What an odd pair we were, telling each other to be brave, to go on.
That's what good ''how to'' books on writing do - they cheer us on and give us the information to ''get it right,'' so our words come out clear and strong.
The best advice comes from the writers we admire most, and from their editors. Examples: The Paris Review series, ''Writers at Work''; Virginia Woolf's ''A Writer's Diary''; the letters of editor Maxwell E. Perkins, ''Editor to Author.'' Magazines for writers usually contain essays from the famous; biographies are loaded with insights.
Begin your ''writer's library'' with a good dictionary (and as many more as you can afford) and the newest edition of a thesaurus, plus almanacs and encyclopedias.
To know where to send your manuscripts, invest in the 1983 editions of ''Writer's Market'' or ''Fiction Writer's Market'' (Writer's Digest Books); ''Writer's Guide to Publishing on the West Coast,'' by Frances Halpern (Pinnacle Books); or other books that offer current market listings. Monthly magazines for writers usually carry updates, since this information changes constantly.
Before buying ''how to write'' books, check the author's credentials, usually found on the dust jacket (a good teacher may not have a famous name), and scan the index (many books repeat each other). You can't tell anything by the covers, which are mercifully plain.
Here is a sampling of some new titles and a few old standbys from the crowded shelves of advice for everyone from the literary poet to the writer of the greeting card verse.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan Publishing Company, 85 pp., $1.95 paperback). This slender volume has no extraneous words or misplaced commas; it practices what it preaches about usage and style. The third edition contains revisions, an introduction, and a chapter on writing. If you can only have one volume (besides a dictionary) on the desert island of your desk, this should be it.
The Morrow Book of New Words, by N.H. and S.K. Mager (Quill, 284 pp., $6.50 large paperback). Subtopia, midcult, deklutzification, skurfing - these are among 8,500 terms not yet in standard dictionaries. Useful - and fun - since every writer should be interested in English linguistics and lexicography.
A Pleasure in Words, by Eugene T. Maleska (Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, 442 pp., $9.25 large paperback). Educator-author Maleska, the erudite crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, takes an ingenious look at the origins and meanings of thousands of words in the English language. He also includes a chapter for the faithful on ''How to Construct Crossword Puzzles''; quizzes on word meanings and spellings; and ''twice told tales'' comparing overwritten fables with their simple translations. Easy reading; full of wit and puns.
Fiction Writer's Handbook, by Hallie & Whit Burnett (Barnes & Noble Books, 200 pp., $4.50 paperback). Hallie Burnett and her late husband, Whit Burnett, discovered and published many great American writers in Story Magazine, which they coedited, their finds include J.D. Salinger, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers. Ms. Burnett writes with candor and compassion about why writers write, what intellectual and emotional equipment they need, and how writing hopefuls should carry a story idea from concept to publication.
She culls the views and working habits of famous writers with whom she is on a first-name basis, so the book is interesting beyond the practical advice it offers. She is aided by Whit Burnett's notes from the creative writing classes he taught and utilizes her own considerable skills as a writer to make her instruction clear and forceful.
Writing With Power, by Peter Elbow (Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $19.95 hard cover). This is an extension of the ideas in Elbow's first book, ''Writing Without Teachers,'' in which he urges free-writing exercises to stimulate the flow of words and to remove the barriers writers frequently experience when they strain for perfection. His advice is always specific; when he says ''revise,'' he shows how to do it. The ''power'' in the title comes when the writer develops an original voice and breathes experience into the words.
How to Write Like a Pro, by Barry Tarshis (New American Library, 183 pp., $10 .95 hard cover). The author skillfully guides the student through the thinking essential to the writing process and techniques for translating thoughts into nonfiction which will sell.
The Way to Write, by John Fairfax and John Moat (St. Martin's Press, 80 pp., Arvon Foundation in England, revolving around images, sound, color, and knowing which words have power (nouns, verbs) and which weaken sentences (adjectives, adverbs).
The Creative Writer's Handbook, by Isabelle Ziegler (Barnes & Noble Books, 138 pp., $3.50 paperback). Too much in too little space, so it gives only cursory help.
The Beginning Writer's Answer Book, edited by Kirk Polking, Jean Chimsky, and Rose Adkins (Writer's Digest Books, 264 pp., $9.95 hard cover). Brief, clear answers to simple questions ignored in many books which assume every beginner knows SASE means ''self-addressed stamped envelope.'' Here are the technicalities of typing, mailing, marketing, and more.
The Business of Being a Writer, by Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky (Harper & Row, 321 pp., $13.95 hard cover). The business details of marketing, author-editor relationships, agents, rights, vanity publishing vs. self-publishing, record keeping and taxes - things important to professionalism.
The Writer's Survival Guide, by Drs. Jean and Veryl Rosenbaum (Writer's Digest Books, 238 pp., $12.95 hard cover). The subtitle: ''How to Cope With Rejection, Success, and 99 Other Hang-ups of the Writing Life.'' The therapist-authors explain what they see as causes of self-defeating behavior and suggest ways to change. (Examples are weakened because names are not given, which makes them seem fictional.)
The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, by J. Michael Straczynski (Writer's Digest Books, 265 pp., $14.95 hard cover). A first-rate compendium from an author with credits in TV, radio, film, and theater. It even includes sample script pages, contract forms, and lists of agents and producers.
Writing and Selling Science Fiction, by the Science Fiction Writers of America (Writer's Digest Books, 195 pp., $7.95 large paperback). Eleven seasoned writers give down-to-earth advice about writing of the world ''out there.'' Among the delightful chapter titles: ''First, Sew on a Tentacle (Recipes for Believable Aliens).''
Other books for special writing: Mystery Writer's Handbook, by the Mystery Writers of America (Writer's Digest Books, $8.95 hard cover); The Greeting Card Handbook, by Edward J. Hohman and Norma E. Leary (Barnes & Noble Books, $5.25 paperback); Writing for Children and Teen-agers, by Lee Wyndham, revised by Arnold Madison (Writer's Digest Books, $10.95 hard cover).