Last week, I discussed my favorite writing craft books. I’m back this week with a second list of recommended reads for writers.
1) If you’re ever planning to attempt National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). In November each year, hundreds of thousands of writers attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. Don’t go for it without the definitive guidebook from the founder of the annual writing exercise. No Plot! No Problem!by Chris Baty.
2) Novelist Claire Cook (most famous for Must Love Dogs) recently came out with Never Too Late. There’s also a free companion workbook at her site. Great reinvention stories in here. If you ask me, the story of the table read and Christopher Plummer was worth the cost of the book. Love this one.
3) Another novelist, Barbara Samuels wrote The Care and Feeding of the Girls in the Basement which is another collection of inspiring essays about the writing life. Stephen King coined the term the boys in the basement for the weird, subconscious mind of a writer. The romance novel version of this is the Girls in the Basement. It’s why I figured out the missing second half of the second act just as I sat down to watch the Minion movie. Successful writers learn to hone those strange flashes of inspiration and Samuels does a good job discussing it.
5) And her husband, Dean Wesley Smith, also has some great writing books out there. They both have fabulous blogs also. I think if I had to pick my favorite, I’d pick Killing the Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing, but much like Rusch, you can’t go wrong with any of his titles.
6) Larry Brooks is another author in this same category. Anything he’s written. All of it’s great. And his website is wonderful (Storyfix). I think Story Engineeringis my favorite but I also laugh at Warm Hugs for Writers a lot. If I need just the right pick me up, I’ll grab that.
7) Though it may seem odd, one excellent way to learn to structure novels is to learn from screenwriting. There are multiple books out there on that very subject. One of the best and easiest to understand is by author Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. She also wrote Writing Love, which may be helpful if you’re trying to write a romance.
8) Okay, so maybe it’s not technically a book (yet-I’d love for him to write one). Storywonk’s Alastair Stephens The Journeyman Writer, a thrice weekly podcast of 5-7 minutes on various writing topics, Alastair does a brilliant job of dispensing practical advice to the working writer. I seriously have breakfast with this podcast three times a week. Love it. (Full disclosure–Alastair is also my copy-editor).
9) Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. This book contains the famous explanation of a scene and a sequel scene showcasing the character’s reaction and making a plan. I’ve read this one over and over and still find new insight. Definitely a keeper.
Last week, I talked about my path to becoming a writer. This week, I thought I’d share some of my favorite craft resources. I am a craft book addict. I read writing blogs, listen to podcasts, and read writing books constantly. I’m always seeking to learn and improve my craft in any way I can.
Once, when I was having a particularly discouraging writing day, I looked around my home office at the craft books lining the walls and realized that I’d never actually be able to quit writing. It’s just too ingrained in me now.
So, without further ado, here are my top ten writing book recommendations.
These first three books are pretty standard creativity recommendations. I’ve read all three multiple times. I can’t recommend them highly enough and often turn to them over and over again.
Wise, witty, and wry take on the writing life. Great to read when you’re stuck on your WIP or get a savage critique. I love it so much I own the audiobook too.
2)On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.
Part autobiography and part direct, straight shooting advice about living a writer’s life, King does an amazing job in On Writing. His metaphor for writing as digging for fossils is how I still think about drafting today. And the clearest explanation of a writer’s mind I ever read is the one he gives about driving along and bouncing between radio stations. I re-read this every few years and mine new gems out of it all the time.
Cameron lays out a 12 week course for recovering creatives. She insists on two tools, Morning Pages, and Artist’s Dates. In later books, she adds a twenty minute solo walk. I’ve never been able to fit Artist’s Dates (a one weekly creative excursion) into my life but I have done morning pages before. Except I never wrote them in the morning 🙂 Some people find Cameron a bit airy-fairy but I can’t deny that the tools work. I think every writer should try a twelve week stint of morning pages, at least once.
The rest of my recommendations tend toward pragmatic writing advice. Even in school, I was never great at theoretical teachings and I think this list reflects that. These are in no particular order.
Actually, any of his writing books are fabulous. I’ve read them all but Plot and Structure is the one I’ve read over and over again. I’m still working through his analyze six books exercise.
5) Much like James Scott Bell, you can’t go wrong reading anything by Chuck Wendig. His blog, Terrible Minds, is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read all his writing books and they are all great. The Kick Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, & Earn Your Audience is probably his best. Warning: Chuck isn’t your guy if you’re easily offended by profanity. But he’s hilarious and fun and smart. So there’s that.
6) If you’re like me and struggle with putting emotions into your writing without saying “She was mad!” the Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is the book for you. It lives on my desk. I use it nearly daily. Fabulous resource!
7) Anything by Holly Lisle but especially her Create a Character Clinic. It contains my all-time favorite exercise, the Shadow Room. You can also find that exercise by subscribing to her fabulous website. When I first read the exercise, I was skeptical and then I tried it. Now, it’s the first character exercise I do, every time.
9) Let’s round out the top ten with two writing business books. Any writer needs to master social media in order to thrive but it’s especially critical for self-published writers. Kristen Lamb runs the My WANA sites. Her Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World gives step-by-step advice for setting up your social media presence. If you’re planning on publishing, you need this book. Probably yesterday.
10) For a very thoughtful, direct take on the state of self-publishing today, read The Indie Author’s Survival Guide by Susan Kaye Quinn. (NOTE: Be sure to get the second edition as the first edition is outdated in this ever-changing new publishing landscape). She’s got a sequel coming out soon, called For Love or Money. I’ll be snapping that up too. Great actionable advice in here.
And that’s it for the first top ten. I’ll be back next week with ten MORE recommended writing books.
Today’s post is the first in a series about how to become a writer. Following the old medical school adage of learn, do, teach, I thought I’d set down my experience, just as my first novel is coming out next month.
“Fox says you’re a writer.” My son’s camp counselor waylaid me at summer camp drop-off this morning. “What kind of writing do you do?”
As I struggled to put his two hundred pounds of gear away in his cubby (seriously—these kids pack for summer day camp like a trek to the Himalayas! Mommy gets to play the role of sherpa and pack mule.), I said, “I’m a novelist.”
The first time I’d ever said it aloud to anyone not a family member or life-long friend. She stared at me. I shuffled my feet, eager to get home to my keyboard and my newest hero and heroine, and not very comfortable in my new identity. As I spend most of my time hanging around with writers and imaginary characters, I tend to forget that most people have never met a novelist. Many people long to be one, intending to write their book on some far-off someday, but fewer still ever put words on a page.
She didn’t say, “No, you can’t be, you ridiculous poser.” Or “I read a lot and have never heard of you.” Or “Who says?”
Instead, she said, “I’ve always wanted to write. I had so many wonderful experiences in my homeland…” She went on some length about her life story, as I stood, trapped against the cubbies, ending with, “How did you learn to write?”
Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I thought I’d spent the next few weeks on the blog trying to answer it.
The first step to becoming a writer is to be a reader. I don’t actually remember a time before I could read. Though both my parents read me bedtime stories, my mother is the reader and passed her love of reading to her children. Growing up, she gave me and my younger sister a book rich environment, including weekly library trips and books as presents for every major occasion. She also modeled the behavior by being a reader herself. All my aunts and cousins were readers, just something we all did, as we swapped books amongst us. By far, my favorite activity as a child, and still today, is to read. One of my favorite parts of parenthood is getting to read favorite childhood books aloud to Fox.
From being an avid reader, it’s usually a short jump to scribbling one’s own ideas down. I was no different. Fox’s Kindergarten program placed a great emphasis on being both an author and an illustrator, as did my elementary school. I wrote stories on and off until middle school or even later. Thankfully, these early tries were lost in a basement flood some years ago as they were as abysmal as one might expect such junior scribblings to be.
In high school, I funneled my writing talents into the school newspaper and other assignments. Creative or fiction writing mostly ended up pushed off to the side until I was out of law school, aside from a short story here and there. In between taking the bar exam and waiting three long months for my results, my best friend and I collaborated on a novel together. And that’s when the writing bug bit me hard.
I joined Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, Washington Romance Writers, in 1998. Back then, traditional publishing was the only viable path to publishing. For several years, I attempted the contest and query letter route with minimal success. The whole industry also seemed a fool’s game to me. I didn’t want to invest all my time into writing a novel that might never sell. Acting on some unfortunate advice, I sent queries before my novel was finished and then couldn’t send it back to the requesting editor in a timely manner. Discouraged, I pretty much stopped seeking to write for publication and turned to other hobbies to get my creative outlet.
For the next decade, I wrote on and off, taking a lot of time out for major events like planning my wedding to the Pilot, buying my first home, and enduring infertility treatments. I did publish a non-fiction book but couldn’t seem to crack fiction. I’d start many stories, never outlining, and get about 50 to 75 pages in before giving up. I also had a day job I enjoyed, which, in retrospect, I think made me fairly complacent about my pie-in-the-sky writing dream.
By the time my son arrived in 2008, I’d mostly given up the idea of writing fiction. I still wrote now and then but had no sustained practice. And then the e-reader revolution arrived. E-readers existed before then, of course, but they remained a niche until then. By 2010, e-publishing really took off.
I started once again pursuing fiction writing in 2011 but still struggled with finishing my work and learning the basics of craft. I didn’t have anything that I felt was publishable and, with a young child and a hectic, stressful job, I didn’t have much time to devote to it either.
And then, in October 2013, the federal government furloughed. Suddenly, I had three weeks where I got to experience what my life could actually be like as a full-time writer. Fox was in school, the Pilot was at work, and I wrote like a crazy woman. I wrote 54,000 words in 17 days, all of it fanfiction which I put up on a popular fanfic site. And once the comments and praise started pouring in, I was hooked.
Several fellow fanfic writers and I formed a sort of merry band of writers. In less than a year, I wrote over 300,000 words. Once again, I wanted to create my own stories, characters, and worlds. I finally, finally, finally managed to start a daily writing practice by following the amazing Chuck Wendig’s advice to write 350 words a day. (Be warned of some swear words at the link). I am not exaggerating when I say that that blog post changed my life.
That fall, Fox was due to enter Kindergarten and The Pilot and I wanted one of us to work from home during the “meet-the-bus” years. So, in August of 2014, I quit my job to be a work-at-home mom. And this August, my first book is coming out, just in time for my 44th birthday. I’m thrilled to bits to realize my dream of being a published novelist.
I finally finished watching Friends. Overall, I really loved it and enjoyed spending time in Central Perk with the six of them. I’m sure I’ll rewatch the episodes for years to come.
1) How much did the writers hate Ross? (Or what did David Schwimmer do to the show runner?)
Ross is my least favorite character and I think David Schwimmer comes across as whiney and shrill. Having said that, he also got the worst material and, yet, he continually gave it his all. I still loathe Ross but I admire David Schwimmer for his dedication to the role. It mostly wasn’t his fault that I wanted him to get hit by a bus every single episode.
2) Shipping wars alert
From a show perspective, I get why Ross and Rachel ended up together. I understand why she got off the plane. Having said that, I actually think Rachel would have been happier with Joey in the long run. They had much more in common. I hated the way they ended that relationship. It didn’t work for me at all.
I wasn’t surprised when Rachel got off the plane. I expected it. But, when I analyze it, I think that a stronger ending would have been for Ross and Rachel NOT to get together. Monica and Chandler were the happy family. We didn’t need Rachel and Ross to get together and it’s a weaker story, I think, for it. It was what the audience wanted but not what the actual story needed.
As a writer, I think I’d pick the story. But maybe not. Maybe audience expectations are just too strong in a case like that.
3) Change of Writers.
Season Eight showed a marked change to the humor in the show. It seemed meaner and more cutting-edge. I think this coincided with the departure of the show runners and a new production team. But watching it straight through, it was jarring. And the first half of season 10 was just deplorable. So awful!
Watching the shows mostly back to back over a compressed period taught me a great deal about character arcs and writing. (Or at least that’s my excuse for binge-watching 🙂
I’m thinking either Parks and Rec or the Office next… Any suggestions?
So, have you heard about the new trend of coloring books for adults? For the past several weeks, Johanna Basford’s coloring books, Secret Gardenand Enchanted Forest, have topped the Amazon bestseller charts. Full of fanciful illustrations, with plenty of room to color, these books are touted as everything from play for adults to creativity boosts to relaxation and meditation aides.
And I say, yes to all of the above 🙂 I’ve been coloring with Fox for about three years. I started out with free mandalas and downloads from Don’t Eat the Paste. (Several of the ones in the photos are from that site). I saw Basford’s books a few months ago and ordered them quickly thereafter. They are wonderful, detailed and rich, with lots of hidden things to find.
As a recovering type A (my RL friends and family need to stop laughing at that!), I have tried to meditate multiple times. My monkey mind just doesn’t want to cooperate. However, with coloring, I can fall into a meditative sort of trance. I think it’s because the repetitive motion keeps my hands busy and the inner critic quiet.
I keep a notebook beside me and write down any ideas that pop up. That’s how I’m brainstorming my current WIP, Forever a Bridesmaid. Grab yourself a box of crayons or some colored pencils and give it a try yourself.
Have you heard about the latest wellness movement? It’s #wycwyc (pronounced wick-wick) and stands for “What You Can, When You Can.” The brainchild of Roni Noone and Carla Birnberg, the concept is that the crazy fad diets (cabbage soup, anyone?) and the marathoner mindset don’t help anyone actually become fit and healthy for life. Instead, the small daily actions that we squeeze into our real, overstuffed lives are what actually makes a difference long term.
For example, when going to Target, park as far as possible and get some extra steps in #wycwyc. Or get the side salad instead of the fries at the burger joint #wycwyc. Go to bed early so you’ll be ready for tomorrow #wycwyc.
I’ve been listening to their podcaston my own daily walks (#wycwyc baby!) and I love it. It’s like chatting with my best girlfriends (none of whom, sadly, live close enough to take a daily walk together). Their book recently came out. It’s a series of short essays illuminating and exemplifying the #wycwyc philosophy and integrating it into your daily life. It’s just the daily shot of motivation needed to keep #wycwyc-ing your way to your goals.
Carla and Roni really want to create a social media community of wycwyc-ers coalescing around the #wycwyc on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. They are both super friendly and approachable, real women who really understand the struggles faced by the average woman, in the real world. Roni’s Green Lite Bites has long been a favorite go-to recipe site for me.
As I was reading the book though, I was struck at how I, unknowingly, used the #wycwyc philosophy to change fiction writing from a hobby I dabbled in to my new career. I used to believe that I would write when life settled down and I had time—hours on end to devote to my craft, perhaps with a manservant or two to see to my every need. Guess what? That’s not happening. I will never have hours on end, free of all other responsibilities or interests to pursue my writing.
Instead, I took the Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds, challenge to write 350 words a day, every day, no excuses. (Link does contain some NSFW language but, if you’re a writer, you can’t beat Wendig’s down to earth approach and fantastic approach. Read Terrible Minds!) So, I started writing 350 words a day, whenever I could squeeze it in. Sometimes that meant at lunch, sometimes waking up before Fox, sometimes staying up crazy late. But I did it. And some days it was just 350 words and then sometimes, I’d make 1000+ words a day. I kept up my streak for 254 straight days, until we took a family vacation at Disney World. By then, writing every day was an ingrained habit.
Some other examples of #wycwyc for writing:
1) Load your e-reader up with writing craft books and read those instead of checking Facebook, again. #Wycwyc
2) Set up a newsreader of your favorite writing blogs to stay up on the industry #wycwyc
3) Listen to writing podcasts on your walk (double #wycwyc). Start with anything by StoryWonk. Their podcasts are master classes.
What can you do to #wycwyc your way to your dreams?
As I discussed in last week’s post, in The Lost Art of Second Chances, Bella leaves Italy and ends up in Boston, Massachusetts to raise her family. Partly, this was to mesh with Lucy’s story, which I’d already set in upstate Massachusetts.
In the book, Jack references a family tradition of Bella taking Lucy to buy a special dress and to lunch at Filene’s. Though the store doesn’t exist any longer, Filene’s was a department store in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area.
Because Filene’s placed their markdowns on the bottom floor, they helped coin the term “bargain basement.” Perhaps the most famous of their bargains was the semiannual “running of the brides” when wedding gowns went on sale.
Filenes also had a famous clock that became a common meeting place for shoppers, hence the phrase “Meet me at the clock.” My mother often reminisces about the lunches she’d enjoy after meeting her girlfriends under the clock and working up an appetite hunting for bargains in the basement.
Sadly, the store filed for bankruptcy and shuttered for good several years ago. The Downtown Crossing store was leveled soon after. So, no more meetings under the clock or running of the brides, except in my novel, The Lost Art of Second Chances.
Last month, I talked about watching the first two seasons of the sitcom, Friends, on Netflix. Now I’ve completed watching through the end of season five and I thought I’d share what more I’ve learned since then.
Last time I talked about how Joey, Chandler, and Ross are archetype equivalents to Kirk, Bones and Spock (respectively). Now I wanted to talk about the girls. They are also a power trio called the Three faces of Eve. Phoebe equates to the playful innocent one, Rachel equals the hot and sexy one, and Monica is the calm and capable wife or team mom. Interestingly, Monica is the one who shown to be someone who could build a home life and is therefore a good match for Chandler. Rachel is definitely the hot one, the one we all desire to be. Phoebe veers toward being a manic pixie dream girl when the show highlights her eccentricities to the point of weirdness.
Utilizing archetypes with a twist is makes an effective story by combining a universal element with a unique spin.
2) Comic Exaggeration
Over five seasons, the comic identifying characteristic for each individual becomes increasingly exaggerated. Joey starts out as somewhat dimwitted but by the end of the fifth season his stupidity is often played for laughs. Sometimes, I think he gets dumber every show. Phoebe was always eccentric but now she is just weird. Ross was always high-strung and type A but now he delves toward whiney jackass.
Some of these are due to the sitcom format. But it’s still a cautionary tale. Character quirks can quickly become irritating if exaggerated too far.
At the end of the second season, Ross and Rachel became a couple. In a sitcom format, they couldn’t allow them to be a happy couple for long so by the middle of season three, they go “on a break” and never really reunite as a couple. So therefore the beta couple of the show, Monica and Chandler, become the main couple and the heart of the show within a single season. They get together in the finale of the forth season and are moving in together at the end of season five. Ultimately, their relationship is shown as a healthy example and much more interesting than the endless on off-again, merry-go-round of Ross and Rachel.
I’m still enjoying watching the show. I’ll report back at the end of season seven.
As a professional writer, I often get asked why I would “waste my time” writing fanfiction rather than original work. I never quite know how to respond to that. The short answer is that, for me, it’s play or that it’s just for fun, like a baseball player tossing a ball around with his child in the yard or a ballerina going out dancing at a club with her friends. It is my way of playing with my writing talent.
I think most writers, if they’re honest, started out writing fan fiction. How many times have you seen a movie, watched a show, or read a book and wondered about some loose plot line or a different ending or even just what happened to them after the story ended? Writing that down is fan fiction. With the advent of the internet and sites such as Archive of Our Own (AO3) or Fanfiction.net, fan fiction can be shared easily.
Also, as a new writer, there’s a lot to learn—point of view, description, action, characters, setting… It’s daunting to have to come up with all that at once. It’s fun to play in another person’s world for a while. For me, I often set out to learn a specific technique, such as deep point of view, by writing fan fiction. I’ve also used it to teach me how to write certain story arcs or plots, such as sex to love romance (the inverse of the typical romance plot).
Posting my writing has led to interaction with readers and fans which I hope will be very helpful when my original work comes out. Writing and sharing my fan fiction has given me confidence in my own writing and the courage to publish my original work. It also taught me where my natural talents lie as a writer (dialogue, humor, angst) and what I will never be good at (Description!). It taught me discipline, to set deadlines and meet them, to finish my work and get it out there.
Additionally, it’s given me a writer community. I have dear friends and brainstorming buddies all over the country, connected by the wonders of the internet. We have ongoing Skype chats and a weekly “drabble night” where we gather together at the same time and enjoy writing sprints for a specified period of time.
When I decided to write this article, I asked my friends what fanfic taught them. And my dear friend, Heather, answered with this opening line, that I think encapsulates it perfectly:
Writing fanfic has taught me that I have stories and ideas worth telling.