Reading about Writing

Sarah’s busy with house-related stuff, so she asked me to take the morning slot. Little did she know, I’ve been a bit under the weather for the last couple of days, so writing- and thinking!- have been a little patchy. Patchier than usual. Whatever.

I’ve been told that I should read books on how to write books. Weird logic, that. I thought I was supposed to wing it.

Funnily enough, I was always that kid who learned best from books- I had a nearly eidetic memory until my early twenties- but nowadays, it’s a less-useful technique for me. I have a few ‘how-to-write’ books on the shelves, but most of my learning comes from reading other fiction and taking note of what I like and what sells.

I’ve committed the unforgivable heresy of starting but not finishing Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. It’s been a while since I put it down, but I vaguely remember that there was so much information in it that I couldn’t absorb everything at once. Then I set it aside, got busy with other things, and never went back.

One book that has been rather useful- and I should read it again- is Patrick McManus’s The Deer on a Bicycle. It’s about writing humor, and incorporating humor into other fiction. Some tips are a little dated- the author was focused on writing for trad pub- but in general, it holds up well.

Romancing the Beat, by Gwen Hayes, is an odd little book. So far- I haven’t finished it- it’s been useful for write-by-numbers romances, and not much else. So if you’re looking for advice on how to incorporate a romantic subplot into a book of another genre, this one probably isn’t the way to go. On the other hand, if you want to write books firmly in the romance genre, it gives a great overview of plot structure and how to construct individual scenes.

Your turn! What writing-related books have been useful to you? Which ones don’t mesh with your style?

13 thoughts on “Reading about Writing

  1. Saves the Cat Writes a Novel was mind-blowing. I went back and revised the beginning of my current WIP because I recognized so much of what the book talked about in terms of beats and pacing. (Mind, I still don’t know what “beats” means, but I’m now capable of using it in a sentence.) Also, not only did it help with plotting, it helped with my blurb writing, and I think I’m seeing increased sales as a result of it. Yes, it’s that awesome. I recommend reading it rather than listening to it. Given that much of what it talks about is organizational, plotting, pacing, etc. it helps to see the bold headers, so you understand the discreet chunks the information is broken into.

    Flinthart’s Fight Like a Girl was useful for fight scenes, even though in my stories most of the fighting is done by men. She compares men and women’s responses to fighting, so you actually get both.

    Lastly, my WIP is kind of a mystery this time around. I stalled out when all my suspects seemed too similar. Dwight Swain’s Creating Characters finally resonated. I loved his Techniques, but hadn’t found Characters that interesting when I got it a few years ago. This time around, it was super helpful.

    I think that sometimes craft books are helpful depending on where you are in your author journey. That’s certainly true for me.

  2. Orson Scott Card, How to Write SF & F. Pretty much does nothing but state the obvious, but in a way that’s soooo easy to relate to. Further, back in my early days I read (or tried to read) a bunch, and this was the only one I made it all the way through without glazing over or giving it a good wallbanging.

    Dean Wesley Smith, Writing Into the Dark. Pretty much codifies how I’ve come to do it, so I can wave it at others whose natural method is pants-what-pants??

    1. I second Card’s book. I also found Swain as a useful reference, especially to return to in order to see “why is this going ‘thunk?'” Usually I’m failing the rising-falling tension pattern, or wandering off into “author loves this bit but has nothing to do with the plot” land.

  3. Ones I do find useful / have found useful:

    Books I re-read for reference:
    The Art and Craft of Writing: Secrets for Taking Your Writing to the Next Level by Jagi Lamplighter
    (I have yet to master all the things she talks about, so I keep going back to this. The Two Strings bit alone is worth the purchase price.)
    The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Becca Puglisi
    (lists of physical reactions and other descriptors to various emotions)
    What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro
    (The how and why of people’s reactions, that makes you easily able to pick the *right* descriptor from the thesaurus above)
    The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester
    (Dwight Swain’s student, who taught Jim Butcher. It’s much easier to read than Swain.)

    Books that had really useful information:
    Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker (taught me a lot about how to figure out the ending, and pacing, even if I don’t actually use her technique)
    Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting and Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell
    2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron
    (This does not have me writing at 10K words/day, but it taught me how to prewrite)
    Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
    (This one is worth it for me just for the breakdown on emotional beats by age and sex of the audience. Which isn’t that useful for me for writing, but gold when it’s time to think about marketing and audience appeal.)

    Wrede on Writing by Patricia Wrede
    (currently reading)
    Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V Swain
    (I have a very, very hard time getting through this. But it’s a golden reference in the field, so I try.)
    Sidelines: Talks and Essays by Lois McMaster Bujold
    (very interesting tidbits for writers in there, including how she writes novels starting from a strong scene that’s not in the beginning or climax.)
    The Freelancer’s Survival Guide by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    (business advice.)
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
    (Editing for those of us who didn’t have a good grounding in English conjugation and other grammar rules.)

    1. Also,

      Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller
      The Dark Secrets of SHTF Survival: The Brutal Truth About Violence, Death, & Mayhem You Must Know to Survive by Selco Begovic

      The first is a technical manual aimed at writers who have never been punched in the face. Granted, explaining fighting for your life to people who’ve never experienced it is not unlike a how-to-write-erotica book for an audience of virgins, but it’s a really good try, and for the rest of us, a really good reminder at what to put in the text to try to convey the experience to readers.

      The second is one of the best books I’ve found for what actually happens when the world breaks down. So many things go wrong when the power goes out and the water goes out, and the world breaks down, that it’s very hard to visualize it without prior experience. When it’s in an actual warzone and you have a lot worse problems that some post-Katrina looters… Selco describes life trapped in Sarejevo in the Balkan War, and what you have to do to survive. If you’re going to write warzones or post-apoc, this is a must.

      (This is actually a book to read at least twice: the first time, to learn what he’s saying. The second time, to think about what he isn’t saying. Because there’s a lot of horror, heartache, and pain in the silences and the things he shies away from talking about.)

      1. All good references. I meant to mention Miller’s book in the post and forgot. Thanks for filling that gap for me.
        I made the mistake of trying to read Begovic’s account all at once, while in an unfamiliar and stressful environment. That was a mistake. It’s definitely a book to be read in small amounts. I should go back and try it again, someday, even though I don’t want to put myself in that headspace again.

        1. The “problem” with Begovic’s book for us fiction writers is – how many of our readers would believe that things can possibly change so much so fast? Or at least, that the layers of “neighbors, tribes, then enemies” would peel away at that pace. In fiction, we have to foreshadow and set that up so very carefully, because otherwise I suspect a lot of readers will wall the book. (Other readers will nod and say, “What took so long?”)

      2. Also,
        Business for the Right-Brained by M.C.A. Hogarth
        (Excellent advice on balancing the many hats of indie writing and publishing)

        Arsenal of Hope by Jen Satterly
        (I didn’t get this for writing reference. I got it for the excellent book of strategies and mindset shifts to make living with and healing from PTSD possible that it is. However, when I sang its praises to several friends who are writers – because so few self-help books are worth the paper they’re printed on, much less worth their weight in gold like this one – several mentioned afterward that it was very eye-opening into the world of why their characters would do what they do, and when, and how.)

        …And that’s not all of them on my shelves, no. Look, I like research, okay?

  4. Swain . . . might have worked well for me because I’d already been writing for a while, both fiction and non-fiction. What I had not done was truly think about the elements in a story, and scene and tension. So a lot of his points came as “well, yeah, duh, of course,” but I hadn’t seen them described “from back stage” so to speak. That helped a great deal.

  5. Forensics and Fiction and More Forensics and Fiction by D.P. Lyle, MD
    Not exactly a how to write book as much as it’s a “what does this look like” resource.

    Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

    The One With All the Writing Advice by Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant.
    Honestly, all their writing books have something good to take away but this one was easy to read.

  6. Honestly, very few… Dot loaned me the Emotional Thesaurus, and that is about the only one I’ve found useful.

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