Books on Writing: What Works for You?

01 Aug

It’s funny that Peggy decided to write about the value (or lack thereof) of process advice this week, because I’d been thinking about craft advice.

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on Slate about Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat! The writer blamed it for the overwhelming sameness he was seeing at the movies. (The article is here if you want to read it.) Now, I’d seen many many many MANY writers (novelists as well as screenwriters) recommend this book in blogs and on twitter and sometime last winter I downloaded the sample to my Kindle. I was so turned off by the obnoxious tone of the book I firmly put it aside as “not for me” and moved on. But then this Slate article piqued my curiosity again, and two other writing friends started talking about it on Facebook and I caved. I ordered it and read the whole thing. The tone didn’t get any more to my liking, but underneath the casually smug attitude there was some advice that resonated with me about refining one’s idea and how to make sure the structure of one’s story is sound. It turns out it’s a book that I’ll probably pick up again and again.

I had the opposite experience with the book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Apart from Dixon’s use of the Oxford comma in the title, not much in that book really worked for me. Oh, the central idea is very sound, and, in its way, profound, but it just didn’t feel like the revelation that so many writers told me it was for them. I don’t think it’s a bad book at all, it just didn’t have the particular craft advice *I* needed at the time when I was ready to read it. (For those of you who have wanted to try this book out but were turned off by its high price, I discovered while writing this post that it’s *finally* available as a reasonably priced ebook.)

Another book that did work for me is a creative writing textbook, not chatty, not fluffy, dense but readable: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I find myself turning to it again and again for good solid reminders about the fundamentals of craft: characterization, pace, structure, setting. This was the first book I read whose advice on removing linking verbs (such as: be, feel, seem look, appear, experience etc.) in order to deepen POV really clicked for me. This is a basic lesson of writing, not something arcane or difficult, but the passage was written in the right way, and I read it at the right time, for it to resonate deeply. I remember closing the book after reading just that page and thinking “I have to re-write everything I’ve ever written. It’s all wrong.” This sounds like it might have been depressing, but I remember the elation of something fundamental and true clicking into place.

Writing is a skilled craft. Doing it well requires both diligent practice and careful study. One could easily spend too much time in either direction. Writing a lot is important, but writing 2k words every day won’t make one a better writer without knowing what good writing looks like. Learning about one’s craft is important, but won’t actually make for a better writer unless those lessons are put into practice.

What about you, do you have some tried and true craft books you keep coming back to? Do you find craft books inspirational or depressing? How do you balance between study/practice?


Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Idaho


13 responses to “Books on Writing: What Works for You?

  1. Judith Keim

    August 1, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Nice blog, Corina! I attended a seminar given by Deb Dixon and at first found it confusing and then later, while working on a book, used the GMC idea to give my characters life. I’ve taken on-line classes and attended seminars, which work better for me than reading a book. I don’t think any writer can ever learn all there is about the craft of writing but it’s meaningless if you don’t get butt in chair. And then it helps if you have good critique partners.

    • Corina Mallory

      August 1, 2013 at 9:25 AM

      Thanks! It’s fascinating how we all learn differently. I’ve always had a difficult time absorbing things presented verbally. My mind eventually wanders, no matter how interesting or valuable the subject or how engagingly it’s presented. I can concentrate on, absorb, and remember written material much more easily.

      And I couldn’t agree more about good critique partners. They’re invaluable!

  2. Suzie Quint

    August 1, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    I’ve found all three of the books you mention worthwhile, but I definitely agree that timing can be crucial in what we find valuable as writers. I have a number of books that have made it to my “precious” shelf: Hooked by Les Edgerton, Writing Romance by Vanessa Grant, Getting Into Character by Brandlyn Collins, all 3 Save the Cat! books, buy my writer’s bible is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. It’s not a book you see mentioned much, but it’s the single book on writing that I wouldn’t want to give up.

    • Corina Mallory

      August 1, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      Thanks for the recommendations Suzie! I think I have Hooked on my Kindle but haven’t gotten around to it yet, I’ll definitely check out the others. It really is interesting how sometimes you’re not ready for a particular book. If you’d read it six months earlier, or two years later, it might have been exactly what you needed.

  3. Lynn Mapp

    August 1, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    This is a tough one, Corina. I have read the Swain book at least two time, but…I’m a slow learner and it takes several readings to reach my brain. I’ve got a hard head problem.

    • Corina Mallory

      August 1, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      That’s not a hard-head problem Lynn, it might be more of a timing issue. Advice (of any kind) just isn’t useful unless we get it at the right time and in the right way for *us*.

  4. marsharwest

    August 1, 2013 at 3:03 PM

    Hey, Corina. When someone first told me to read Debra Dixon’s book on GMC I didn’t know what GMC stood for. LOL Still haven’t read it, but have taken on-line courses on that an other subjects that I’ve found very helpful. The first time I experienced Margie Lawson’s colored highlighters, my mind just melted down. I couldn’t take it in. But a couple of years later, I was scarfing all her jewels down and applying to my book as best I could. Made a big difference. I do think timing has to be right to hear a particular message. It may take a couple of times of hearing before you get it. At least that’s how I work.
    But for books, you can’t go wrong with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brownne & King and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Both books recommended to me by a judges in the first contests I entered. I totally needed those books. They are dog-eared and full of sticky notes and yellow highlights. I’ve frequently recommended them to others. Thanks for a great post.

    • Corina Mallory

      August 2, 2013 at 8:41 AM

      Marsha, thanks for your comment! The Elements of Style is a true classic. Someone gave it to me when I graduated high school and I still have that copy somewhere. Of course, I should probably actually READ it more often than I do.

  5. ValRoberts

    August 2, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    Chiming in late…My favorite craft books are Scene and Structure (Jack Bickham) and Story Engineering (Larry Brooks). Story Engineering is a lot like Save the Cat, only written for novelists and without Blake Snyder’s, um, unique point of view. Those were my known weak spots when I found those books, so they hit me at exactly the right time.

    When Writing the Breakout Novel came out, I ran into Donald Maass at the one and only PNWA conference I have ever attended (my CP Kathy was courting him for her agent at the time; I was clueless as to who he was other than this nice guy hawking a writing book). Of course, I wasn’t ready for it. I bought it, he graciously signed it, then I read it and didn’t get much out of it.

    When the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook came out a few years later, I had completed a couple of manuscripts (that shall remain forever in the proverbial drawer, I hope) and it clicked. Same information, only a slightly different format, but I had progressed to a place where it suddenly made sense.

    The moral of my story is: Timing can be vital.

    • Corina Mallory

      August 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

      It’s a blog Val, it’s here forever (or as long as the internet lasts and WordPress doesn’t disappear), no such thing as a late comment!

      I’ll have to check out Scene and Structure and Story Engineering. I do feel like I could use some help in that area. (Among many others.)

  6. Janis McCurry

    August 6, 2013 at 6:14 AM

    I have also read a lot of books on writing. I tend to “think” I forget everything I read and write the same, but that’s inaccurate. I know I retain some info and my writing has improved.

  7. maryvine

    August 9, 2013 at 1:46 PM

    I usually like to read one craft book per year, but you remind me I haven’t started one yet. They definely inspire me, especially when they encourage me to put my butt in the chair and write.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    August 13, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Not everything I read works for me. I can’t for the life of me outline a book. Then there are some books that not only speak to me, but yell at me. Not everything works for everyone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: