Sunday, May 06, 2012

Practical Guides

Writing Fiction by the Faculty of Gotham Writers' Workshop and edited by Alexander Steele, is what I consider the most complete writing how-to I've found out there, and it's the guide I've most often recommended or handed out to writers at all stages of the game who want to better understand the major elements of story. It's not Novel Writing 101 in a book, and like most scholarly books on writing written by teachers it suffers from a literary skew, but it does a very decent job of explaining theory and the big basics, and it offers some interesting exercises to apply what you've read about in each section.

Other writers swear by Robert McKee's Story, which I've read, but it's a book of story theory for screenwriters, and you have to adapt everything in it to apply it to novels (which isn't a bad thing; you could do a lot worse than learning about story from a screenwriter.)

While I've been scouring the how-to aisles for years in search of better, I haven't yet found it. Most of the authors who write how-tos are either not working novelists, or have very limited practical experience. The few that I've read authored by veteran working writers (Stephen King would be a shining example of this) were mainly memoirs dressed up as how-tos. Interesting as they can be, they're more about the author's particular journey to superstardom, which I don't think is practical or especially applicable to the average novelist.

I can't read everything, so I know I've probably missed some good soup-to-nuts how-tos out there, and I wanted to ask you guys for some recommendations. If you could have only one book about novel writing in your reference collection, what would it be? Let me know in comments by midnight EST on Monday, May 7, 2012. I will draw one name at random from everyone who participates and grant the winner a BookWish*. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

*A BookWish is any book of your choice that is available for order from an online bookseller, up to maximum cost of $30.00 U.S. I will throw in any applicable shipping charges involved.

20 comments:

  1. I think 99% of books I've read on writing have always disappointed me, as they just recycled all the cliched advice that every beginner is given. I do, however, treasure Natalie Goldman's Wildmind (though it is not geared specifically toward novels) because the one piece of advice that always sticks with me is "keep your hand moving".

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  2. I've read a ton of these books, and my favorite, hands down, is Story Architecture by Larry Brooks. While the first part of the book can feel a little 'preachy', the way he presents the 6 core competencies of writing and the way he lays out the 4 act structure has been unbelievably useful for me, especially in the revision process.

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  3. I haven't read many books on novel writing but my favorite book is Novelist's Boot Camp by Todd Stone. It's got a lot of helpful tips for organization and it gears you toward finishing a novel in a year (editing included). It really helped me get myself on track :)

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  4. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. An oldie but goodie, I think it's best book on writing out there.

    Please don't enter me in the drawing. Appreciate the chance, but always feel readers only should win.

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  5. The Wow Factor by Robert C. Powers is very helpful and easy to understand. Thanks for your lovely giveaway.

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  6. A good resource is The Essential Guide to Writing A Novel by James Thayer.

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  7. As a writing teacher, I recommend Ben Bova's writing book which has been reprinted under several names including THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. Yes, it is about science fiction, but it has the clearest explanation of how character and plot work together, and whatever fiction you write will be helped by this understanding.

    Lajos Egri’s ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING is about playwriting, but it, too, deals with character and plot development.

    Most newer writers will find the various Writer's Digest books on different aspects of writing helpful. Most are carried by public libraries which is an added plus.

    I have read well over a hundred books on writing in the last thirty years, and some have really made me understand writing while others were useless. Some of the most useless were those recommended as seminal by other respected writers. Each writer's path is different in this as well as many other things.

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  8. Nicosian2:24 PM

    I've got books on specific technique ( plot, dialog, etc) from a great series done ages ago...but overall "how to write" books were of minimal use, because for every writer, pro or non, its finding your own method that's the thing.

    What I boiled my own experience down to would fit on a postcard: Start writing. don't stop. Leave off when it gets good so you have to run back to keep writing. Save the editing for the end. Don't fall down the wiki-hole of research.

    and lo. That's all I need. ( and a panel at dcon with a well known author going "write what needs to be written, how it needs to be, and its ok if your characters grow, talk to you, take over, and you're not losing your marbles) was ALL i really needed.

    now if I could spin this wisdom into a 300 pager HOW to,...:D

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  9. I personally loved Plot vs. Character by Jeff Gerke. I would recommend everyone read that one!

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  10. I read two books by Sol Stein that I thought were fantastic, Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them. I took copious notes on both of them and learned a LOT, both about writing and what readers look for in a novel.

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  11. Hi PBW,
    I've found The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante - A Norton Guide to Creative Writing to be an excellent resource.

    Happy Cinco de Mayo weekend!

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  12. Hmm. Sounds like I have a lot more books to pick up for myself in the near future. As for me, I'm not sure which of my writing books would be the one I kept if I could only have one. It would be hard to chose. I enjoy June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, Donald Maass' Fire in the Fiction. But material-wise I'd have to say Jessica Page Morrell's Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected would probably be the winner . That book covered a lot of material and in great detail. In fact, I normally would have had to purchase several different books to get the level of material that book contained.

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  13. So far my favorite writing book is A Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis Whitney. She was one of my favorite authors as a child. She writes romantic suspense novels. In her guide to writing, she writes about how to use a notebooking system to guide you through your writing time. This book you write of looks good too.
    Susan

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  14. Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure

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  15. I'm with LJ on this one ... Story Engineering by Larry Brooks helped this former engineer get a hold on story writing. (Now to find something to help with revising!)

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  16. Anne V.12:03 AM

    I really like How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. He has some really great things to say about what falls into the genres, world building, writing well and marketing your story. I found this one to be an approachable book that covers a lot of territory while still having some relevant advice.

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  17. I like Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. It deals more with the mystery genre, but I've read it umpteen times. I'm rereading it now, as a matter of fact.

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  18. Shizuka8:28 AM

    My favorite, after having it on my shelf for years, is still Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK.
    He's great at explaining the elements that make specific books great.
    And I like the interactive workout format.

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  19. "Stephen King would be a shining example of this"... I see what you did there...

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  20. I've read hundreds of how-to books for writers. Can't get enough of them. In fact, my blog is devoted to reviewing how-to books for writers.

    The one that made the biggest impact was WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass (or as I like to call him, "the Donald.") That one book taught me more than the other hundred on my shelf put together.

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