Sunday, November 1, 2015

My favorite books on the craft of writing

(In November, in honor of National Novel Writing Month, I blog about the craft of writing, as I seldom do the rest of the year. I hope you enjoy these posts.)

There are a number of books that, over the years, helped me learn to be a better fiction writer. Here are some of them.

Gary Provost, Make Every Word Count. There is perhaps no better book for the new fiction writer than this, and it applies to narrative non-fiction and article writing, too! Provost corrects many of the most common line-level errors that new writers make. He explains why to avoid said bookisms. He explains why active verbs are better than passive. He tells you to "Avoid cliches like the plague." All of this is done in a friendly, humorous style in short chapters. Sadly, Provost died young, but his advice is timeless.

Because many high school and college teachers assigned it, there are many copies used for a penny plus shipping at Amazon. If you're writing your first novel or series of short stories, get it!

Jack Bickham. Writing Novels That Sell. Bickham repeated much of the information in this book in several others, but I will always be fond of this one for its first chapter that demythologizes writing and always pumps me up to read. (To summarize. It's work. If you want to make a living at it, get down to work and quit yer whining.)

The best bits of it are Bickham's summary of his mentor, Dwight Swain's, concept of scene and sequel and motivation-reaction units. Surely some people are naturals at this sort of thing, but the analytical approach could make any writer understand how to make the scenes flow well and logically and to draw the reader inexorably forward.

Much of the information on the business end--typed manuscripts and so on--is well out of date, and who is left alive who remembers QB Slingin' Sammy Baugh on the field?, but the content is golden.

Dwight Swain. Techniques of the Selling Writer. After reading Bickham, I wanted to read the original, and I began my hunt for this book. At that time, it was out of print, and I finally happened upon it at a used book store while I was on the road. Yay!

If the Bickham is dated, this one is positively antediluvian. Confession magazines, action pulps, Colliers--all are fading now in the memories of the last elderly people to have seen them. And he has a charming belief that only women write confessions and romance and only men write action, but of course he was a product of his time (and there's not a drop of viciousness in him about this. Pretend he's your kindly grandpa and listen to his wisdom).

Here it all is in the original, MRUs, scene and sequel, in many more words. I prefer Bickham's briefer approach, but you have to give credit where it is due, and Swain is the originator. It's back in print now and easy to find.

My only living author in this list (and he's no spring chicken) is Robert McKee, the screenwriting instructor, for his Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting. To me, structure is both the most important part of a novel and the hardest to learn to craft. Someone led me to this not many years ago and I was shocked to find that it's screenwriters who really understand story structure, and yet in a way novelists can adapt and use.

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat is a rung on the ladder less than Story, I think, but it still had some useful advice for me and it influenced the structure of Gray II. Snyder also died young.

I've read two hundred more craft books than these over many years, and most had one bit in them I found useful. I am not one for "you go, girl!" type books or books that have you find your mystical inner child writer or half-autobiographical books. I prefer specific advice that you can immediately take action on to improve your novels and stories, and these five books are, imo, top examples of those sorts of books.

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