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.

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Broken Computers and Giant Spiders

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I gotta say, a broken computer in this age is a terrible thing. And the only thing wrong with my computer is an inability to connect to the internet. **For those of you wondering how I am writing this, my landlord is a wonderful person and lent me a netbook. What a super nice guy!**

Anyway, I’m not even someone who depends on computers for a large portion of my life – I write, use the various “office” programs, watch Netflix and Hulu, and check my e-mail. That’s literally it. I don’t really play games, I’m not on forums, and my job is almost completely independent of office work, especially at this time of year.

But I cannot tell you how many times this week I wondered something and literally walked to my computer before realizing I couldn’t check my e-mail, get directions, or look up some fact. I had fennel in my house (it came in a local produce box that I get) and I honestly couldn’t figure out what to do with it since I couldn’t look up a recipe. I got stuck in my revisions when I realized I needed to know some little detail about pre-industrial living, and I couldn’t jump online to find out what I wanted to know. It was only small things, but it was still crippling.

One of the things I wanted to know this week was how to keep giant spiders out of my house. Now, I live in a basement, and the front door is not well-sealed. I expect to have to deal with my share of spiders – it is just life. But I am tired of opening my bedroom door in the middle of the night and finding a spider the size of a small dog staring me down. It is just unnerving. And I should be able to keep them out. I don’t have a bug problem, I keep the place decently clean. These guys don’t even have the sticky feet to allow them to climb walls – they’re just enormous hunting spiders that run around on the floor. Don’t try to talk me out of my hatred of them by telling me they hunt other spiders, I don’t care. I have learned to deal with smaller spiders. I draw the line when I can see the murderous look in their eyes.

So I decide to look up barrier sprays and sealing treatments for my door. I have seen the Rambo-spiders enter through my front door, so I think stopping them there will go a long way towards keeping them out. Now, I don’t like using pesticides, and I don’t really think they work effectively. But it is an option, and I want to look up the pros and cons, how long they last, and what effect my use of them might have on me, my pets, and my immediate environment. But I can’t, because no computer. So now my purchase of spider-stopping materials must wait – and meanwhile my homeland security has been jeopardized. I am completely vulnerable to spider-terrorist attacks. I don’t know how I’ll manage to carry on until my new computer arrives.

Research and Fun Facts

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Got a decent bit done this week, chapter 16-17 has been critiqued, and chapter 18 is ready to send off. I also did a good bit of research this week to add some realistic detail to the coming chapters and make sure I’m not completely making stuff up.

I also summarized ‘the story so far’ to send out to my kind alpha readers, who have been very patient so far. Since I tend to be overly obscure and ‘subtle’ in my first drafts, I hope that clarifying the things that I intended to have established by this point will help minimize hair loss via frustration while reading the next chapters.

This was a research-filled week, as I read up on avian flight for work (that’s our volunteer education topic for the week). I enjoy researching these things far too much; there is always the possibility that I won’t come back when I start looking things up. Wikipedia, for all its unreliability, is very user-friendly, and I can never stop clicking the linked words. And once you read one chapter in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior or the Manual of Ornithology, you can’t really stop there. There are just so many fun pictures. I realize I’m a dork.

I like to learn silly little facts and share them with people, just to prove how much of a dork I am. For example:

Did you know that unlike most rabbits, the Nuttall’s Cottontail (aka Mountain Cottontail), is known to climb trees? It is frequently seen climbing juniper to reach the moisture that the succulent leaves extrude at dawn.

How about the fact that if you have a skunk visiting your yard regularly in hot, dry summer months, the best thing to do is to stop watering your lawn? Skunks love invertebrates, and they especially like the snails and slugs that you encourage by keeping things so nice and moist.

Or that the Northern Short-tailed Shrew has poisonous saliva that can paralyze or kill insects, invertebrates, or even larger prey such as mice. The pics below are from a N. Short-tailed Shrew I raised and released in MI in 2008.