As writers we know books hold all the answers. At first we think that there must a book somewhere that will tell us the secret to writing a genre-busting, award-winning, best-selling novel. And, gosh, if it could provide maybe ten simple steps, that would be uber helpful.
But writing a novel is personal with no one-size-fits-all strategy to success. (I've found that my writing process changes from book to book.) The good -- and, well, bad -- news: There's not a 'right' way to write.
And though none of these books offers the 'golden ticket' to publication, they do offer some great tips, exercises and advice.
Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish by James Scott Bell – Let me start by saying, I *heart* James Scott Bell. Not in a way that might ruin my marriage, but he’s fantastic at peeling back the layers of novel writing and giving practical tips – and some groovy acronyms too. He analysed hundreds of plots and developed what he terms the LOCK system, which stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knockout.
Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell – This was a recent find. It was recommended by a fellow writer when I was struggling with revising a new novel. This is a great checklist. I reviewed the key points and was able to spot what wasn’t working in my story.
Write Your Novel From the Middle by – you guessed it – James Scott Bell – I think this is his newest. The middle is where novels get muddled. Bell offers a unique prospective on the middle. He says, “What I found was that this midpoint was not a scene at all. It was a moment within a scene…that tells us what the novel or movie is really all about.” Fascinating stuff. There’s even a diagram and everything. And thus end my lovefest with Mr J S Bell.
Vein of Gold by Julie Cameron – This one is more touchy feely. She shares Director Martin Ritt’s philosophy: “All actors have a certain territory, a certain range, they are born to play. I call that range their ‘vein of gold.’ If you cast an actor within that vein, he will always give you a brilliant performance.” She suggests that writers also have a vein of gold. The book includes a number of techniques to find and then mine your vein of gold. I also loved The Artist Way and The Right To Write by Cameron.
Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison – This book completely revolutionized how I revise my books. It’s a thin workbook, but it has a number of simple exercises that will help you dissect and diagnose what’s not working in your novel. The book was like a million light-bulb moments in a mere 108 pages.
Story by Robert McKee – This is not one I sat down and read cover to cover. I dip in and out of it as necessary. McKee is a genius at breaking down story into logical digestible parts. His focus is screenwriting, but the substance, style and principles he outlines apply to books too.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King – The title says it all. It’s difficult for writers to edit their own work. We read what we think we’ve put on the page. (That’s why we all need editors!) Each chapter has checklists and exercises. My favourite line from the book explains why writers should show and not tell: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”
On Writing by Stephen King – I’ve never read a Stephen King novel nor even watched a movie based on his books. I’m a wimp. But the guy knows about writing. Thanks to King I rarely use an adverb.
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias – I haven’t finished this one yet, but I’ve already read so many gems – lines or quotes that have made me figuratively slap my forehead and say, ‘Yes, of course. That’s it. That’s it exactly.’ Every page of my copy is a rainbow of highlighting. He boils down what makes an idea appealing, “A great idea should be uniquely familiar, and it should promise conflict.”
The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman – Funnily enough this book on plot gave me great insight into characterization. I always think of Lukeman when I’m developing characters and apply his technique of giving each a surface and profound journey.
This list could go on and on…I loved Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. For writing exercises, Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write. I’m sure my list will continue to grow and change.
But there must come a time in every writer’s life when we put down the book and pick up a pen or more likely switch on the laptop – and start applying what we’ve learned. I will confess that these books are always within reach when I’m writing. When I get stuck, I return to these books and look for a diagnosis to my plot problems, troublesome characters or unruly sentences. And I almost always find the answers.
Not to encourage more scribo-bibliophilia, but what’s your favourite book on writing?
Sara Grant has worked on both sides of the editorial desk. She has inspired and edited nearly 100 books for children. Her two YA novels – Dark Parties (SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, Europe) and Half Lives – are futuristic thrillers. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – Magic Trix. Sara is currently developing a new action-adventure series for tweens with Scholastic. She leads writing workshops in the US, UK and Europe as part of Book Bound and guest lectures at the University of Winchester. For more information on Sara, visit her website at www.sara-grant.com or follow her on Twitter @AuthorSaraGrant