Book Review: Wired for Story

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Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron arrived in my collection by way of Christmas.  I did not break my resolution not to buy more writing books before I finish the ones I have in order to get it (besides, this was before New Years).

It looked right up my alley, putting a science spin on the whole writing game.  And neuroscience?  All the cool kids like neuroscience these days.  I can say without reservation that Wired for Story has a great hook.

Sadly, the neuroscience didn’t go much farther than that.  Not to say it isn’t a worthwhile book (it is, and we’ll get to that shortly), only that I was a little disappointed how shallow the brain science element was.  Other people might disagree – I do have a degree, job, and great interest in biology.  But this is my review, so here’s my opinion – it read like a layperson read a couple pop neurology books (do those exist?) and then applied it to their own pet writing theories.  The information might be based on great science and great knowledge, but the author only shared the generalities that form the tip of the neuroscience iceberg.  Not being an actual book on science, maybe this is OK.  But I was sad not to see more of what I hoped would make the book special.

Still, there are many things this book does absolutely right.  To start, it covers the basics well.  And although it didn’t engender bolt-of-lightning revelations in me, it was non-traditional enough that it probably will do so for other writers.  Different people respond to comparisons and deconstructions in different ways, and though the ones in Wired for Story didn’t rock my world, they are totally valid and come from a fresh perspective.

The most valuable parts of this book, and what makes it totally worth my time, were the parts regarding specifics, vague writing, and the balance between reveal and mystery.  I have long had a struggle with how much to give away, and have been calibrating my stories based on feedback from the Wordslingers.  I can’t say that this book cured me, but it did give me the first detailed guidance I’ve seen.  Trial and error is great, but I’m sure my writing group will be glad that I’m not shooting in the pitch black anymore.

None of the other books I’ve read have covered it as well.  In fact, most other guides say things like “a story can’t be suspenseful if the reader doesn’t understand the situation.”  This is true, as far as it goes.  Wired for Story spent a chapter expanding on that idea and relating it back to suspense, effective reveals, and character development.  Hooray, I say!

In conclusion, Wired for Story is a solid writing book all around, and a worthy read.  Just don’t expect deep insights into the human psyche!

11 Essential Writing Guides

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I am always reluctant to provide writing advice. I’m happy to share anecdotes, revelations, or techniques that help me, but actually advise people? No. I’m not published, and even if I were, there are many more qualified writers out there that you should listen to.

However I think that on this particular topic, I am qualified. In the past 2 weeks alone, I’ve read 4 writing craft books, which brings my all time total to somewhere between thirty and forty.

I read exhaustively in any area I happen to be interested in (this includes user manuals, btw), but not everyone is like me. And besides, not every book is full of unique information. If you want basics, go to the writing guide section of the bookstore or library, close your eyes, and grab something. If you want more than that, read everything and then retrospectively decide what you could have skipped. Or… read on and trust me.

What follows is a list of books I’ve found particularly invaluable. Put together, they cover all of the information contained in the many books I’ve read that I did not list. These are the books that I keep on my reference shelf. I’ll add more as time passes, but I think what follows is enough to be getting on with.

Basic Plot & Characters

Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke or Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Both cover three-act structure and how to tie a character’s arc to the plot.  Plot vs Character includes an extensive section on building a multidimensional character, while Plot & Structure discusses some techniques that add flexibility to traditional three-act.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
So far, the best character book I’ve come across.  Others cover the basics, but Card has a unique way of breaking things down.

Prose Techniques

Description by Monica Wood
So much more than “just” description, Wood believes that relating a story IS description.  Her discussion is thorough, applicable, and interesting.  One of my favorite craft books, period.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Grammar.  Word choice.  A unique discussion of voice.  Absolutely not boring.

Advanced Story Techniques

The Fire in Fiction or Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Maass makes really important points about big ideas like stakes, tension, and theme.  I read both, you probably don’t have to, as their content overlaps significantly.  I liked Fire in Fiction better, but that might just be because I read it first.

Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell
Filled with advanced and subtle techniques that really aren’t covered adequately anywhere else – things like foreshadowing, flashbacks, pacing, suspense, epiphanies, and cliffhangers.

Self-Editing

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
Exactly what it claims to be.  A classic for a reason. 

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Invaluable for identifying specific areas to work on – if you’re getting rejections and don’t know why, read this.  But beware – it’s a book of extremes.  All the flaws in your manuscript will suddenly jump out at you, which will either be a sledgehammer to your motivation or trigger an adjective-killing spree that could ultimately cause just as much damage to your prose as the adjectives did.  So I suggest waiting to read this one until you’ve done enough writing to know who you are on the page.

Mushy Stuff

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Ms. Lerner is an editor, and though this book does talk about the publishing industry and “what editors want,” I found it more valuable for her insights regarding the psychology of writers.  There’s real wisdom in those pages.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Want someone to make you feel warm and fuzzy and special?  That’s this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
Closer to a rally or a challenge, Bell uses fewer warm fuzzies than Lamott, but manages to be equally motivational.   More so if you’re goal-oriented like me.

There are three additional books I want to bring up, because although they aren’t for reading cover to cover, they are useful references for plot/character archetypes. There are many options, but my favorites include Character Traits by Linda Edelstein, Story Structure Architect and 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt.

So there you have it.  My list.  I hope you find it useful.

Still, it’s one thing to collect information, and an entirely different thing to use it. So stop by again next week, and I’ll share some of my tips for sorting, choosing, and implementing writing advice without losing your mind.

Book Review: Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke

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I picked up Plot vs Character because 1. I can’t resist a book about writing and 2. Everyone seems to recognize that characters need arcs, but very few people seem to explore how to make that happen.

I’ve read a good number of writing books, almost all of which essentially say “create character, put through the wringer, check they remain consistent to themselves.” Some talk about the hero’s journey, some about inner conflict, some about the Hollywood Formula. Few do a good job with the details that weave character and event together into a compelling story.

There are bits and pieces out there in some very excellent books. Characters & Viewpoint (Orson Scott Card) delves into what makes readers connect to characters and how to justify growth or change. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell talks about LOCK (lead, objective, conflict, and knockout) and the three-act structure. That provides a basic framework for a character arc, but even when I put these resources together, I don’t develop a deep or thorough understanding of the steps to filling in that framework.

Enter Plot vs Character. Jeff Gerke puts it all together for us, in an easily-understood manner. He is well organized and detailed; I was able to follow the material without the mental gymnastics some theoretical books require. I found myself thinking of ways to apply my new understanding to my work in progress while reading, which is one of the best indicators of valuable practical information.

For me, the last 3/4 of the book was the most useful. I was concerned when I first began the book, as the first 20 pages outlined the author’s argument for using his book. I found the tone slightly condescending and the argument itself repetitive; having already bought the book, I would rather be convinced by the information itself.

However, once I got into the meat of the book, things went from good, to better, to great. I have little trouble coming up with characters to play with, so the section on building characters from the ground up was too restrictive and time-consuming for me to use as presented, but it was far from worthless. The segments on inner journey and how to integrate it with external events were excellent. The discussion of the climax and denouement cleared up several things for me, and I was finally able to see and remedy several weak spots in King’s Mark.

All and all, a worthy read, and a useful reference for the future.

Book Review: The First Five Pages

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Finished “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman this week, in between bouts of editing and NaNo writing.

For me, this is one of the more helpful books I’ve read. Despite its name, it is more about upping your overall writing game than about the first few pages of a novel. The truth is, people who assess your manuscript can dismiss you pretty fast, so you do have to be careful early so you don’t lose them before you have a chance to strut your stuff. But if you only have a few pages of good work, they’re going to be that much more irritated when they realize you had the capability to do a great job but didn’t put the time in to make your whole manuscript awesome.

Noah Lukeman sets out some concrete ways that agents and editors assess a manuscript. As an agent/editor himself, he describes the 19 things that mean automatic dismissal, from stilted dialogue to poor use of comparison. He does spend time discussing how to solve each problem, but he is up-front that writing is an art, and solutions are often up to the creativity of the writer. Still, if you cannot identify the problem, you cannot bend your creativity to finding a solution, and I found this book an extremely helpful tool for identifying weaknesses in my manuscript.

It isn’t a book that will keep you motivated as you draft – in fact, I probably picked a bad time to read this, because NaNo is not the time to start worrying about quality. It really shoots you in the foot word-count-wise.

But when it’s time to edit, or you need to uncover the issues that are making your scene fall flat, “The First Five Pages” should be helpful.

Book Review: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

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So I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I need to work on as I revise my book is the plot itself. There is a writer in my group who has a wonderful head for plot, and I’m terribly jealous of his brain. Or maybe it’s focus. I can come up with some good parts, but I like messing with character more, so I don’t get overly complex. Things don’t necessarily flow from one event to the next in an inexorable tide of awesomeness. I want that awesomeness very badly, which means I’ve gone to the source of all knowledge – books. I thought I’d share about one particular book that I found extremely helpful.

There are all sorts of books on plot out there. Some give you strict formulas – at the 1/4 mark you must have the inciting incident, you must have your hero try and fail 2x before moving on to the next part of the book. Some tell you to follow your heart and do what feels right, and you’ll do OK (this is almost always a lie, how can you improve if you don’t recognize things that don’t work?). Others give you long lists of things you can’t do, like NEVER have a unsympathetic main character or if you want to sell like the big names, you’ll stay far away from heavy issues.

I don’t like any of these, I never come away inspired, or even with a tool to use on my own work. I’m a rebellious spirit – if you tell me that at word 23,245 I have to do this or that, I’m likely to shut the book. I don’t believe there are hard and fast rules in art. But neither do the artsy-fartsy books give any concrete pieces of advice to work from. Bell talks about all the things these other books talk about, without getting overly abstract or strict. He walks the middle ground, and boils his advice down to very applicable exercises at the end of each chapter.

Plot is derived from all the other aspects of writing – especially character – and Bell recognizes this and shows how events should flow from character. He does a good job of giving specifics without getting overly narrow – the advice in this book is applicable to just about every genre I can think of. He calls out some of the pitfalls that inexperienced writers often fall into (for example, choosing too complex a plot or an unsympathetic character), but he doesn’t say “never do this.” In fact, he spends some time discussing these sticky situations and offering solutions.

So I give the book a thumbs-up. I imagine the info he gives is relatively basic for the experienced writer, but for someone at my level of knowledge, Plot & Structure gave me a LOT to work with. I’ll be applying some of the exercises to my revision, and it’s already helped me to work out some of the problems my critique group encountered.

Critiques and Ducks

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Another week ending and I come home again with duck blood on my pants! Thankfully, we were able to stabilize this one. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do something for his injuries.

Tis the season for duckies to pair up for spring – which means it’s also the season for mallard-car interactions as our webbed-footed friends waddle about the place looking for nesting sites. Most ducks and geese are monogamous, so once they pair up they stick together. I’m sure we’ve all seen a piteous living duck beside the road, trying to stay near their dead mate after an accident. For human safety as well as bird safety, don’t forget to watch carefully while you’re driving, especially near wetland areas. Remember – they’re short, and there are always two of them!

OK, on with the show! I haven’t made very much writing progress this week – only about 1500 original words. I’m not unhappy about that though; I’ve been critiquing a friend’s manuscript. I always learn something from critiquing, so I count it as work towards my own writing goals.

Critiquing is a strange animal, and it does not come naturally with writing (or even knowing a lot about writing). I’m trying to improve my own critiquing skills; I want to be as helpful as possible to my group. I can usually identify where something doesn’t seem right, but it is very difficult to uncover the root of the problem.

It is getting easier for me as I learn more and more about writing. Right now, I’m reading a book called The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine. It isn’t as detailed as some of the other writing books I’ve read, but it does help tie reactions in the reader with possible story problems. I have not finished reading it, but so far I’d recommend it to anyone who needs to learn or polish critique skills.

Communicating what you see can be a bigger challenge than identifying the problem, especially for me. I tend to be a very task-focused problem-solver type, which means “finding problems” while I’m critiquing. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to receive feedback, so I must work very hard to be sure I am being sensitive, especially since I tend to focus on the problems above the good stuff.

Realizing this also helps me distance myself from negative comments about my own work. Even if it is difficult to hear, my alpha readers are doing their best to help me. The more I listen to experienced authors the more I accept that every story, by every author, in ALL of history has problems at first – and it is no big deal. I can fix it!

Revision is part of the process. We writers own computers and word processors. If we were afraid of hard work, we wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. We’re creative, we’ll solve the problems eventually. The thing about creativity is that you are only limited by yourself – the well will never run dry as long as you are open-minded to change. Amazing books are made by people who are willing to visit that well until the story is right.