Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Writing Basics: Resource Books on Writing

photo cred: © Glen Noble – Unsplash

Unless you are in a writing program or already have a close network of friends who just so happen to be writers/editors/professors, chances are you are striking out on your writing journey alone. If you are lucky, you may even some background experience with fiction/literature.

The best guide on the lonely road to writing success is a good resource book.

Don't let your solitary journey bring you down. Many writers, including George R. R. Martin, began writing on their own, using how-to books and resources as their guides.

Unlike Martin, who checked out the same how-to book from the public library for almost a year (VanderMeer, p. 296), you have the advantage of using digital resources like blogs and ebooks to improve your writing.

Now, I'm hoping you find some of the posts on this blog useful for your own writing (like the posts on purple prose, the stages of plot, heroes and villains, and exposition).

Personally, I use a combination of digital and physical resources to expand my knowledge on the craft of writing. Reading blogs is a great way to learn new information (Chuck Wendig's blog is one of my favorites), but sometimes I prefer to sit down and flip through a physical book. Physical books are really better for reference, anyway, because it is easy to flip back and forth from point to point.

There are many things you should consider when choosing the resource book that is right for you:

  1. Are the explanations understandable? If the explanations and exercises are written in such a way that you cannot understand what is going on, that resource book may not be for you. When/if you find yourself in this type of situation, don't let it get you down: the book may be intended for more advanced writers.
  2. Do you know who wrote the book (the good side)? Some writers (Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.) have literally written the book on writing. If you find yourself consistently drawn to a certain author's writing, look around and see if s/he has written a resource book. Chances are you will connect more (and be more likely to actually use) a resource book one of your favorite authors has written.
  3. Do you know who wrote the book (the bad side)? Just because your favorite author has written a how-to book doesn't mean that book is necessarily the right resource book for you. Don't get "Tolkien-syndrome" and become so caught up in the fictional world of your favorite author (remember: there is a difference between imitation and making yourself into a carbon-copy). In the interest of growing as a writer yourself, you may want to find a resource book written by an author with whom you are not very familiar.
  4. Are there visual aids? I don't know about you, but sometimes the term "visual aids" makes me feel like a child. Many times, I have to remind myself that in terms of writing everyone is a child. Writers are always changing and growing (if not, they probably aren't very good writers), and this means that they are always learning new things. The point: many concepts in writing are more easily understood with some form of visual aid (can you say "Freytag's Pyramid"?). Regardless of how the term makes you feel, you may want to look specifically for a resource book that has some great visual aids (as does the first resource book I suggest below :) ).
  5. How is the content presented? Much like a good novel, a good resource book should flow. If the book bounces around or does not present information in a manner that is cohesive for you, put the book back on the shelf and keep looking.
  6. What do the exercises look like? Some resource books have great exercises that relate to the chapter/section in which they appear, but there are some resource books that basically amount to "101 of the Best Writing Prompts Around!". These types of resource books contain lists of writing prompts veiled with snippets of "tips" or "tricks" for improving your writing. If you are looking for a brainstorming book, feel free to purchase, but if you are looking for a book that will actually help you, look elsewhere.
  7. To whom is the book being marketed? Questions about marketing always leave me feeling a bit queasy because I am not familiar with the in's-and-out's of marketing; however, even I know that a book marketed to beginning romance writers isn't going to be much help to an intermediate fantasy writer.
  8. Is the book genre-specific? A lot of resource books look at writing from a genre perspective instead of a general writing one. Be sure to thoroughly flip through the book or carefully read the product description if you are purchasing online. You don't want to end up with a book for steam-punk writers if you need a book on literary tropes and cliches.
  9. How long is the book? This may seem like a silly qualification when purchasing a resource book, but chances are a 50-page book is not going to be as thorough as a 150-page book. Longer doesn't necessarily mean better, but it does mean more information.
  10. How much does the book cost? I am listing this one last because it should be your last consideration when finding the perfect resource book. You should consider the cost of your book from two angles: 1) a cheap book may not have good information, and 2) an expensive book may not be the type of resource book you are looking for. In short: don't end up with a 20-page Kindle book for .99 or a $130 physical copy of someone's doctoral dissertation.
Remember: The goal here is to find the perfect resource book for your needs. Don't get bogged down by price, or who published the book, or the prestige of the author. Find the book that is best for you.

Here are five resource books I suggest every writer have (including publishers' blurbs* and Amazon links):
*I did not write these blurbs. They come directly from Amazon.

This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.

[A] revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery.

[T]his handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing. Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. She also offers a comprehensive guide to working in writing groups, both actual and online. 

From the book:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'" 
From Publishers Weekly:
Lamott's suggestion on the craft of fiction is down-to-earth: worry about the characters, not the plot. But she's even better on psychological questions. She has learned that writing is more rewarding than publication, but that even writing's rewards may not lead to contentment.

Written by Gotham Writers' Workshop expert instructors and edited by Dean of Faculty Alexander Steele, Writing Fiction offers the same methods and exercises that have earned the school international acclaim. 
Once you've read-and written-your way through this book, you'll have a command of craft that will enable you to turn your ideas into effective short stories and novels.
I turn to some of these time and time again when I am stuck in a chapter or have a question about writing (like the difference between plot and structure; post coming soon), and I hope you find them as valuable as I have.

What resources do you consistently turn to when writing?

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