In the spirit of NaNoWriMo I’m looking back at all the How To Write books I’ve read or skimmed over the years to bring you the Best Of Writing Books. Okay, some may argue that reading a How To Book is a waste of time; you can’t learn to write from some book, you either have talent or you don’t. In the same vein, you learn how to write by writing pages of pages of terrible plotless prose and subjecting your loved ones to the torturous task of reading it. Then the day comes when your writing starts to improve and you stop flaunting your caviler use of inner monologue and ten dollar adjectives and people start enjoying what you’ve written. You do the funky chicken, set the manuscript aside for a few months, read it with fresh eyes only to realize you’ve still got a lot of work to do! Stuff you thought was cool three months ago is super lame now. The middle of your novel sags, you have major plot inconsistencies, your characters are flat and lifeless and tend to grin like the Joker in every situation, you have two catfights in one chapter which some may construed as overkill, you follow the rocky Tarantino road of dialogue for the sake of dialouge and now your characters jabber about absolutely NOTHING. WTFery abounds in the form of cars blowing up for no reason and guys taking off their skirts and slathering mud on their cheese grater abs because you thought this was a ‘deep character study.’ Maybe you should have considered outlining your novel before you plunged in because now you have a steaming pile of words that you must shovel before you get to something you can use. The Choose Your Own Adventure scenario above is, sadly, from my own experience. All is true to some extent, but over the years I’ve read my share of How To Write books (mostly because I actually enjoy them) and have been able to glean a few valuable gems of advice from each one.
Now I spare you the hassle by bringing you a list of the most useful ones.
1. On Writing by Stephen King: This title recommends itself. If Stephen King wants to give writing advice, you better listen. It’s considered the Aspiring Writer’s Bible. Stephen King’s autobiography section is also very entertaining. I was (still am) awestrucked by King’s success, so much so that I even watched his A&E biography and took notes in the hopes that I can emulate some of this work habits. The most valuable piece of information: 2,000 words/day everyday. By trial and error, I realized that the 2,000 words rule doesn’t work for me. I’m an edit as I go type of writer and am lucky if I get 1,000 words/day. But this little rule opened my eyes to the realities of being a writer: you have to produce something everyday whether you feel like it or not or you’ll never go pro. It’s a job, not a whim.
2. Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman: Albert Zuckerman is the founder of Writer’s House. Stephenie Meyer’s agent (who also happens to be John Green and Aprilynne Pike’s agent) is a part of this agency, as is Ken Follett’s agent. Actually, Albert Zuckerman IS Ken Follett’s agent. I am influenced by big names, call me a brand whore, but when the founder of the House that represents Twilight (um, disregarding your feelings about Twilight) gives you writing advice, you are a fool not to listen! This book is roughly fifteen years old and out of print, though you can still get it at your library. It is bursting with so much valuable advice that I don’t even know where to begin. Here’s the most useful one of all: Plot your damn novel! “You wouldn’t build a skyscraper without a blueprint. You wouldn’t shoot a movie without a script. So why would you write a novel without an outline?” This was why my first attempt at writing a novel failed and why I secretly shake my head at the seat-of-pantsers who make it up as they go along.
3. 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias: If you think you’re creating something original, think again. There are only a handful of plots that have been used over and over again in different variations. These are time-tested plots; they’ve survived because people respond to the same stories. For instance, there will always be a market for ‘young boy goes off into the world and becomes a man’ stories or ‘she hates him, he hates her, she sees a new side of him and vice versa, they love each other but can’t be together because of pride or prejudice or both!’ stories. What I learned from this book: Don’t worry about writing something that’s been done before. It all depends on how you write it. Plus, you can mix plots. A quest story + romance + revenge+ thrilling pursuit! Um, try to be subtle about it. Harry Potter, for example, is very similar to Star Wars but different! Think about it… I can go on and on about how Harry Potter=Star Wars but different. Or Jamie Fraser: Black Jack Randall:: Jean Valjean: Inspector Javert except Javet has more sadistic tendencies. Do you see the similarities? Avoid being too on the nose when it comes to plot brews. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?
4. Story by Robert McKnee: This book deals with writing screenplays. While I have no desire whatsoever to be a screenwriter, I concede to this book’s mastery in how to develop a story. It gets extremely technical, which is what I want from a How To Book. I want to learn the ins and outs of how to be a great storyteller. Since I strive to be a commercial writer as oppose to a literary writer, this advice resonates the most with me:
“Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what demands of us, is story. Now and forever. Countless writers lavish dressy dialogue and manicured descriptions on anorexic yarns and wonder why their scripts never see production, while others with modest literary talent but great storytelling power have the deep pleasure of watching their dreams living in the light of the screen.”
The Best of Editing Books!
The next two titles guides in the next stage of your writing: structural revision and line editing. Once you’ve completed your first draft, get ready to fine tune or completely re-write your plot. Work on your all important first sentence. Work on your hook. Make sure your beginning ties in to your ending. Once the plot makes sense, you must now focus your mind on commas and semi colons and stylistic choice. All of this is very boring to anyone who doesn’t want to be a writer so I’ve hand selected the best of the editing books down below.
5. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman