Posted tagged ‘writing craft books’

Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

July 14, 2022

I’ve just finished writing a second novel. I wanted to share a few of the tools I’ve found that helped me get it done, and will aid me in the future as I start on the third one.

By ‘tools’ I mean books on the craft of writing, and software.

There is a large industry devoted to selling advice on how to write novels to would-be authors. Not just books of course, but websites and software of all description. It’s hard to lift out the nutritious kernels from the dirt and leaves.

As time goes on, and I slowly become more experienced, I’m much less enamoured of those books which pretend to offer a surefire scheme based on arbitrary models of how novels should be structured. I’m thinking particularly of those books and authors who insist you must figure out three acts with certain obligatory ‘beats’. It all comes to seem so artificial and destined to bleed the life out of one’s writing. (And editors supposedly can spot the artificiality right away.)

Monetization and writing advice

I’ve understood that this is a means to sell how-to books and for monetization in general. If you’ve got yourself set up as a writing authority online, such as for just one example, the writer K.M. Weiland, then promoting a lot of bogus technique becomes necessary. It’s about the continual need for something to sell. (I don’t mean to pick on Weiland too much, it’s just I find her attitude about these matters annoying. She does have good instructive information on some topics.)

So I find myself better informed by books like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story or Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language. But I’ve written about those books here before. I will come back with some new (to me) titles that I found helpful recently.

Obsidian

But first to the software end of things. I am becoming a fan of the free note-taking and personal information management (PIM) program called Obsidian. I’ve just discovered it in the last few months and it is becoming an important part of my note-taking and thinking about the novels I’m writing.

I’ve always been on the look-out for note-taking applications that can accept my helter-skelter thoughts and intuitions, and later help me use them in the writing. Previously I found NoteStormTW which I still think useful, but Obsidian seems more comprehensive.

Obsidian is a Markdown file reader. It sits on top of any relevant files in a designated folder or vault and enables users to write, edit and interlink their notes. I don’t know much about Markdown or PIM but apparently, these features make it an object of near cult-like reverence in some quarters. (You can find in-depth discussions for instance of Obsidian’s relevance for Zettelkästen and other esoteric matters.)

I like it because it’s not online, you don’t have to sign up for an account, and it seems incredibly flexible. You download it, install, review a YouTube video or two, maybe a written tutorial, and you’re away.

It’s even promoted as a ‘second brain.’ You build systems of bi-directional links between your notes, and there are even graphical plug-ins that enable you to better visualize what you’ve got. The exciting part is to perhaps discover links you haven’t noticed before. (An excellent overview of the application is at Sitepoint.)

The writer Vanessa Glau gives a good description of how she applies Obsidian in her fiction writing. She’s much more organized than I am, but she outlines an interesting process.

Freewriting

I’ve decided to come back to more freewriting as a method to incubate or brainstorm ideas for the next science fiction novel I plan to write. (I’ve previously written about freewriting in About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II.)

Freewriting, to return to originator Peter Elbow’s insightful thoughts on the practice is about “… a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive.”

The process can be something like this: Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

A useful application which allows you to work with this is the simple writing program Q10 . It provides a distraction free writing environment with a timer. It only produces .txt files though, so you may have to open and save in some other program to get a format you want.

Now on to several books. After I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on, I ran into my usual issue of not quite having a handle on how to revise.

Story Grid… Eh

Initially I found Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne to be a reasonable guide for my revision. There are a lot of useful insights into the state of the publishing business. But he starts to spend too much time on this for my taste before he gets to his method.

The heart of it are six questions one needs to keep asking about the novel. These include what are the protagonist’s objects of desire and what are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Worthwhile questions for a draft. But then he goes on to elaborate the beginning simplicity into increasingly complex and prescriptive spreadsheets and templates. If you go online, you see the method turned into another one of these writing craft merchandising schemes. Here’s the secret sauce you need!

Book Architecture

Then I found the book Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz which became my guide this time for the overall revision of my manuscript. For the first novel, I’d done an Excel spreadsheet of all my scenes, with columns trying to incorporate the best advice about important points and characters.

Horwitz’s book laid out a similar method, which he calls Book Architecture, without the spreadsheet. As he puts it: “The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set.” Well, it could be seventy-nine or a hundred-and-nine, but you get the idea. Finding and ordering scenes, and connecting them to the tentative theme you find in the work is the gist of it.

Once found each scene is named in a brief informative way and then listed without looking at the manuscript(!). This helps to understand what stands out for you about what you’ve written. (Presumably by this time you will have read your draft a few times.)

I won’t go on with all the details, but one concept he introduces I found unusual and interesting is that of series. A series can be seen as integrating a narrative element across a number of scenes.

Using the fable of The Ugly Duckling to show what he means, he picks out a series of scenes about “ugliness” and outlines their variations and how their sequence builds.

Another book I’ve been reading is Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. She’s a science-fiction author who writes very well about the craft of writing, especially characterization and plotting. For instance: “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.” Of course, it is easy to put in too much. A fine line.

And finally, I’ve been reading an old book on writing by Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, which dates back to those prehistoric times before the internet. He’s a good, even great, fiction writer, although sometimes for me his writing is too over-wrought and jam-packed with dramatic crises and emotions.

A universal plot?

But I was struck by this description (mostly in his words) of what might be described as the ‘universal plot.’

1) A hero (or heroine) is introduced who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble.

2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.

3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before. It seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is — and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique character.

4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant. Having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.

Perhaps a little simplistic for all circumstances, but this is a pattern which many great writers have used.

And, finally, one bit of I writing advice which I actually did this time: reading out loud the entire novel. This was a later stage effort after already doing a lot of line to line revision.

Reading the words out loud lets you find awkward rhythms and phrasing, or sentences that go on way too long for one breath. Although a really long sentence might be alright once in awhile, I tend to write sentences that should often be broken up. And reading out loud informs you of other subtleties that make a difference.

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A Tale of Two Books About Writing Novels

September 10, 2020

The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, Adams Media, 2011
Plot, Ansen Dibell, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988
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I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. 

It’s a little like my quest for meaning and spirit during my twenties — a search for the book or person or method or experience that could make sense of the world in a deep way.  Unsuccessful in many respects, I might add, yet that impulse informed my life too.

So it is with wanting to learn more about writing novels.  It’s another kind of spiritual quest, if you want to get highfalutin’ about it, in the form of this impulse or desire to evoke imaginatively a world and characters to care about.  If done well, such creations can seep back into our every day world in surprising and even beneficial ways.

The frustration for me is how far off the mark my written meaning falls from what I want to inarticulately portray.  This frustration is part of the impulse — maybe I can do better this time.

I look to books on writing to help.  I have two here to discuss: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, and Plot by Ansen Dibell.  Both are about “plot” but are really structural guides for the entirety of a novel and its characters and settings.

I have to say, and it’s the impetus for writing this post, that Ansen’s book (I love that first name) has moved into the pantheon of my top three books about writing novels. It is there with John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story (for its inspiring analysis and formulation of the elements of a great story) and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel (for the solace of its wisdom about how daunting it is to discover the story that wants to come to life for you).

The Plot Whisperer

I will describe Ansen’s book in more detail below, but I wanted to start with The Plot Whisperer, which is presumably like a horse whisperer in leading you to water.

Alderson’s book is subtitled: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. That’s promising a lot — even me?!?

It’s a useful book in many ways about structuring and planning your novel. She has a method with schematics and diagrams, a plot planner, which may or may not inspire you. Her book, unavoidably, shares some characteristics with many, many writing craft books: Three-act structure, the importance of theme, showing over telling, what makes a good protagonist, what makes a despicable villain, and so on.

I confess to a prejudice against shoe-horning any novel into the three-act boot, as if it’s magical footwear, but I always translate it into just being statements about the beginning, middle and end of a story.

She is good about the emotional trials, how many writers struggle over their stories.

I found of use her visual way to lay out the different facets of your story as you develop it. I wrote previously, for instance, about her method of circling around potential themes in The Quest to Write with Meaning .

She has seven questions to ask for every scene and its relationship to the plot, which you can find in many places, but still are valuable:

  1. Does the scene establish date and setting?
  2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
  3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
  4. What dramatic action is shown?
  5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
  6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
  7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

There is much more to her book than I will cover here. The most inspiring thing I took away from Alderson’s work was her identification of “The Universal Story” and its three phases — comfort and separation, resistance and struggle, and transformation and return. That’s a lot to think about: what those words mean.

Plot

Ansen Dibell was an American science-fiction author who passed on in 2006. She also became well known for her writing about writing, in particular for Plot.

(Ansen Dibell was a nom de plume and probably a wise choice — her real name was Nancy Ann Dibble. It’s amusing that some reviewers on Amazon assume Ansen is a man (as I did at first). It probably helped, back in the day, with male science fiction readers’ prejudices about women writing in “their” genre….)

Without cutting down Alderson’s book too much, I rate Ansen’s book so highly because it seems to arrive from within the novel writing experience, whereas Alderson’s book is more from the outside looking in. Ansen’s stance is more “this is what it’s like, what I’ve found that works, what you need to think about” rather than as a template bestowed upon neophyte novelists.

I like Ansen’s writing voice a lot; that is her, still in the world.

“But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing and the more complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.”

And so we have this book of hers, with her strategies about two problems: creating plot and controlling plot.

Let me highlight just a few of the insights and strategies she talks about.

— I found invaluable a section on how to test a story idea. I’ve had so many great ideas for novels over the years that led nowhere. “I think that’s what the traditional advice to ‘write what you know’ really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.”

— She advises on practicalities: multiple viewpoints, how do you switch; the dread world-builders disease, where it becomes more fun to create the world than to write about it; keeping exposition under control.

— Her chapter called Building the Big Scenes: Set-Pieces really provided me a different and valuable way to think about the progression of a novel. Set-pieces! This is the first craft book I’ve read which talks about set-pieces.

What is a set-piece? These are the memorable landmarks of the story, like the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. “Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama and suspense in a story.” This isn’t every scene. In even a long novel, she says, there might only be between six and a dozen. She calls it “outlining from the inside” by connecting each set-piece, as you block out the story in a rough form.

— There is another entire chapter about using melodrama as a carefully administered spice to occasionally add zest to the story. It’s not always to be avoided, as would be my tendency. Get a little dramatic! “Melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language.” She uses the idea of “a curse” as a symbol for melodrama in her discussion of how to use it, which I found fascinating. Even if you don’t believe in it, some of the characters will….

There is much more but this gives you an idea of this excellent book about fiction writing.

Her final advice:

“Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. … It’s not the form but the content…

“Now, quit reading. Go write.”

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An afterword:

It struck me after reading over Martha Alderson’s seven questions to ask about a scene: The frame of mind to ask those questions is exactly not the frame of mind that allows the flow of imaginative writing to which we aspire.

The questions are good, but need to be limited to being pursued after something is written, for revision. Or even better maybe, reading them just before buckling down to the heart of the thing itself, following a man through a room as he abruptly swerves to speak to his sister… the devising is of a different order than a list of analytical questions.