Browsing Tag

genre

My Top 5 Most Useful Books About Fiction Writing

Craft of Writing, Writing

Let’s face it, writing a good story is hard. It’s entirely different from telling your best friend the story about what happened Friday night. Face to face stories are easier, because you have tone of voice and inflections, as well as body language, to help convey your meaning. With a novel or short story, you only have the words.

I am an addict. I admit it. I have more books on the craft of writing than my local library does, I’d bet. I use these books for my writing, of course, but also for when I’m editing or teaching other writers. I learn a lot from reading the stories of authors, but there’s also a place for an educational slant — for having an explanation of why something works.

To that end, I’m listing my Top 5 craft of fiction writing books. These books sit on the shelf right beside my desk. They’re always right there.

Now, these are the top 5, but they’re not in any specific order. You can’t really say that a book about creating character is better (or worse) than a book about writing a synopsis. They’re about different things. So while this is a Top 5 post, it’s not a ranked top 5.

Also, a while back, I wrote a post about my two favorite books on revision. Since I’ve already mentioned those, I’m not going to include them here.

And with all that said, here we go!

Writing the Breakout Novel

by Donald Maass

I got this book relatively early on in my fiction writing journey and it really opened my eyes to the idea that a book can be planned. Not in an outlining sort of way (which it can, of course, and which I was highly resistant to doing at the time), but in a larger-scale sort of way. From a 30,000 foot view, so to speak.

The purpose of the book is to write a novel that pushes past the mid-list and becomes a breakout seller. Think Harry Potter, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey. A book that captures the minds of millions of people, rather than thousands or hundreds.

Donald Maass, who is a very successful agent who owns his own agency, identifies the things that he observes as pillars of a breakout novel. With section headings like Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, etc, this is a high-level view of story creation that every author can benefit from.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

by Nancy Kress

What author hasn’t struggling with slogging through the middle of their novel? We’ve lost the bright, shiny feeling of the beginning and we’re not yet at the exciting, climactic end. There’s a reason many novels are abandoned in the middle. Fiction writing isn’t always easy.

Nancy Kress addresses all these things — the bright, shiny, the exciting, climactic, and the slogging — in her book. She gives authors tools on how to stay on track in their fiction writing, especially in the middle, which is arguably the longest part of a novel.

Each chapter ends with exercises designed to give writers practice in implementing the author’s suggestions. Some of the exercises involve reading and identifying things she’s discussed (such as reader expectations after the beginning), some involve writing, both new and assessment of current writing.

If you have trouble finishing your stories, you might find this book especially helpful.

Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach

by Pam McCutcheon

If you’ve ever struggled with creating a synopsis, this book will be your savior! There are actually very few books on writing a good synopsis (compared to other writing topics). Mostly, writers are just expected to figure it out, maybe from talking to other writers, maybe by osmosis. In recent years, there have been a few more books (but only a few), yet this one, written almost twenty years ago and for most of that time the only book on synopsis writing, is still the gold standard.

McCutcheon takes you through the steps of writing a synopsis using three relatively well-known movies as her test subjects. She provides a number of worksheets to help you along, but that are also useful in the writing process, as well. She focuses not just on what should be in the synopsis, but also on tone and voice, as well.

This book also has exercises at the end of each chapter, but the result, if you do them all, is that you’ll have a synopsis by the time you’ve finished the book.

Characters & Viewpoint

by Orson Scott Card

This is probably one of my most recommended books. A lot of newer writers don’t understand the difference between omniscient point of view and 3rd person limited point of view, and so I often see a lot of what is called head-hopping: jumping from different points of view within the same scene, paragraph, or even sentence. This book explains those points of view very clearly, using a camera lens as illustration. I’ve seen more than one writer have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reading the section on viewpoint.


The guidance about character creation is also valuable, especially in conjunction with the character creation advice in the other books on this page. Card gives information about where characters come from and what makes for a good fictional characters. And then goes into more in-depth things, such as how the reader should feel about the character, what the stakes are for the character within the story, and transformations.

This is one of those books that I believe should be on every writer’s shelf!

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

edited by Michael A. Arnzen & Heidi Ruby Miller

I’m a bit biased about this book, I admit, because I have an article in it called, “Demystifying What Editors Want.” However, even if I didn’t have work in it, I would still have this book by my desk.


It’s a collection of over eighty essays about everything about writing popular fiction, from craft topics to life balance topics to promoting and marketing. Contributors include authors from all over the genre spectrum, from smaller published authors to mid-list authors to heavy hitters like David Morrell (First Blood [Rambo] and others), Tom Monteleone (Borderland Books), Nancy Kress (her name should look familiar 😉 ), and Tess Gerritson (Harvest and others). I’ll sometimes pick it up and just choose an essay to read when I’ve got 5 minutes. There’s always something to learn.

I often joke that this is my MFA program in a $30 book (the Kindle version is only $10!). 🙂 This is a really comprehensive collection of experiences and advice from authors and editors working within the commercial fiction publishing industry.

Okay, so those are my Top 5 books for fiction writing. I’ve tried to choose books that run the gamut of information that authors need to know about, from character creation, to doing the writing, to stuff needed to get published.

What fiction writing books do you find indispensable? Drop a line down in the comments!

Keep writing!

How to Create an Amazing Critique Group: Ramp Up Your Writing

Writing

Critique groups can be a big leg-up for authors as far as polishing their work before either sending it out on submission or self-publishing it. If you haven’t found a critique group that works for you, consider creating one. I’ve got a few things to keep in mind when creating or looking for a critique group that might help you with getting some compatible folks in your group.

Critique Group or Beta Readers?

Some people don’t realize there is a difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. The main difference is writing.

Critique partners are other writers.

Betas are readers.

It’s worthwhile to have both reviewing your story. They will bring different things to the table.

Writers should bring more of the professional view — how to improve craft issues, such as writing dialogue or description. Readers will bring a more general, consumer-focused view — such as whether the story is interesting, where they lose interest, if the characters are engaging.

Knowing what you’re looking for will help you decide which to utilize at each point in your writing process. I wrote a post a while back about things to think about when picking beta readers.

Find Writers

The first step to finding or creating a critique group is to figure out where the writers are. Meetup is a decent place to find local writers. There might already be critique groups or just general writing support groups. You can find other writers to talk to there about creating your own group.

You can also look for writing organizations in your area. Go to Google and search “writing organizations” <your city>. Attend some of their meetings, schmooze with other authors, and find folks you mesh with (more on that below!).

Also check out the national organizations for genres — RWA, SFWA, MWA, HWA, etc. They often have local or regional chapters where writers congregate.

Finally, you can find a lot of critique services online. Groups like Critters and Critique Circle have been around for years and have established a good base of writers who critique each other.

Choose Your Partners

Sometimes writers who are looking for ongoing critique partners assume that the criteria for choosing should be something like “writes in my genre” or “reads in my genre.” And while this can be helpful, there’s actually a more accurate thing to gauge whether someone will be a useful critique partner. That thing is: do we have similar writing goals?

Someone who is writing only for themselves or their family will not be as helpful a critique partner for someone who is aspiring to become published professionally. If everyone in the critique group is on a similar path, then the comments and suggestions they give will be aimed more at getting your work up to snuff for publication.

© Ben White; used w/permission

This doesn’t mean that someone who is just writing for themselves or family can’t give good contributions, of course. But we’re talking about getting the most bang for your buck. And in this case, you’re going to get better feedback from someone who is on a path parallel to your own.

Something else to consider is which time zones you’re each in. Obviously, if you’ve got local writers in your group, that’s not an issue. But if you find folks online that you mesh with, goals-wise, then time zone becomes important. It’s not easy to get together for meetings with someone who’s 8 hours different in time. Someone will be getting up really early or staying up really late.

And finally, also think about work ethic. Does your potential partner write regularly? Are they focused on their writing as a career or business? This goes back to finding someone who has a similar outlook. If you’re putting out 25 pages in a week and they’re only doing 5 (or vice versa), then there’s going to be a work mis-match.

Discuss & Organize

Will you have your critique sessions in person or online? Or maybe on the phone?
When you get together, will you be getting together for a writing session or to critique each other’s work?
If critique, will you have critiqued the work beforehand and discuss in person, or will the work be read there at the session, then discussed?

These are things to think about when organizing your sessions. Set the rules as the leader or have an open discussion and set the rules as a group. However it’s accomplished, everyone should be on the same page as to expectations, so that all feel included and feel as if they’re both giving and getting something of value from the group.

Act

Once you’ve got your group going, everyone should be consistent with their work. Certainly, life happens and some weeks will be more or less productive than others. But consistency is about showing up — both literally and figuratively. Agreeing to be in a critique group is a commitment. Everyone should honor that commitment.

Give to the sessions what you want to get from the sessions. It’s the old adage of “you reap what you sow.” All members of the critique group should put in the amount of effort they’re looking to receive.

Having a critique group can be a great support for any writer. Hopefully, this post has given some insights into how to find those members of your tribe! 🙂

Do you have a critique group? How did it get together? What challenges have you faced with your group? What are the strong points of having a group?

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

5 Things to Think About When Picking Beta Readers

Writing

What I’m Listening To: “I Bring Me” from the TV show Star (this is one of my favorite songs, currently)

Something Cool: Claritin. Because little gremlins in the air are making my head explode. Ugh.

~~~

By the time we’re done with a project, we, as writers, are probably way too close to it to evaluate it effectively. We already know the story and the characters, even what didn’t make it onto the page. When we read, we don’t always see what’s missing, because for us, it’s there in our heads. So it’s important to get fresh eyes onto our work. Here are some things to think about when gearing up to use beta readers.

1. Beta readers are different from critique partners.

Critique partners are other writers who critique your work, usually as you write it; and then you critique theirs in return. Beta readers are often (but not always) readers rather than writers. And beta readers serve a different function than critique partners. The goal is to make sure the piece works as a fully formed story. So your beta readers should receive the entire thing at once, not in bits and pieces. You will want, in many instances, overall impressions of the story, opinions on continuity and story/character arcs. You can’t get good, useful information on this if your beta readers are reading as you write.

2. Wait until after you’ve revised your entire manuscript

This goes hand in hand with #1. You want your ms to be as close to a final product as possible. Will it be a final product? No, of course not. But you want to have fixed everything that you see in the story already. If you don’t, then you’re wasting your beta readers’ time and effort on things you already know need to be fixed. This isn’t a good use of beta readers, because if they’re commenting on things you already know need to be fixed, then there are other things that they might be missing that you don’t see.

3. Who you choose as a beta reader is more important than you think

Once people know you’re writing a novel (or other type of story), they will probably ask you if they can read it. Don’t let everyone who does this become a beta reader. If you write romance and someone mainly reads in the military science fiction genre, they’re not going to give you much feedback that will be helpful. Same if someone reads romance and you write horror or high fantasy or thrillers. You want beta readers who read within the genre you’re writing or have a specialty that relates to something in your book. Perhaps you have a character who is former military; then you might choose a beta reader who has military experience.

Those who read in your genre or have expertise in a topic in your book will give you the most useful feedback.

4. Quality is always better than quantity

We all want everyone to read our stuff. But in the beta phase, having a few qualified beta readers is always going to be better than have a
dozen random beta readers. I always suggest 2-4 focused beta readers. Having more than four sets of comments on your work is overwhelming. This can lead to being unmotivated, because there seems to be so much to do, to fix. Also in play is #3: generally, if you have a lot of people beta reading, unless you’re in some sort of group relating to your genre and pulled beta readers from there, the chances of there being several ineffective beta readers in the group are high. You want focus, efficiency, and usefulness.

5. Figure out what you want to know beforehand

As noted earlier, most beta readers are likely readers and not writers.
They may not have ever beta read for an author before. Giving guidance on things you’re looking for is very helpful. Give them 2-3 questions before they begin that are things you want them to pay attention to. Perhaps it’s your story arc, or the believability of your characters. Perhaps you’d like input on your dialogue or description writing. And keep in mind that you can ask different things of different readers, too, based on their skills or background or reading genre preferences. Giving your beta readers this sort of guidance will help them to give you useful feedback on your story.

So there are five things to think about when choosing and using beta readers. Do you have other considerations? How do you pick beta readers for your work? Comment below!

Back with a Fun Announcement!

Spec-Chic, Writing

What I’m Listening To: West Wing 10 year cast reunion on the Today Show – Can I vote for Jed Bartlett this presidential election, please?

Something Cool: I’m reading (listening to) Laurell K. Hamilton’s debut novel, Guilty Pleasures, for the first time (shhh…don’t tell her).

Anyone who’s followed this blog over the years knows that I’m pretty bad at being consistent over the long term. At least this time three years haven’t gone careening by!

I’ve actually been very caught up in life since about March. There have been various medical things going on with me and my family (both bio and chosen) that have kept me completely sidetracked. I’m getting back on track though, finally! Expect more updates on the writing and some publishing projects!

Speculative Chic

The exciting thing today, though, is that I’m part of a new collaborative blog project called Speculative Chic! We’re a group of folks who are into specfic books, movies, games, tv shows, and pretty much anything else geeky and creative! And today is our official launch day!! Isn’t that super exciting? I’m completely stoked. We already have a lot of content up (check out our Sound Off on the new Ghostbusters movie!), so hop on over there and jump into the conversation!

Until next time!

Venessa G.

On Reading in One’s Genre…

Craft of Writing, Reading, Writing

A writer should read within his/her genre, absolutely. The obvious reasons are because you learn what’s been selling in your genre, what others have done, etc. You can consciously study others’ work. However, what is not as obvious is that reading deeply in your genre also allows you to subconsciously learn the mechanisms of that genre. You absorb how to write it. As an example, when I was young, I read voraciously in the horror genre (back, yknow, when there was one :p). I mean I would probably read thirty books in a year, just in horror. Some of it was awful, some of it was amazing. As a writer now, I don’t write horror, per se, but some of my stories do contain horrific elements. Those are the easiest bits to write for me. Those scenes tend to need the least revision and editing. And I firmly believe that it’s because of how deeply I read in that genre.

As an editor, I know right away when an author hasn’t read much in the genre she is trying to write in. Why? Because the settings are stock, the characters tend to be stereotypical and the plot is often predictable. And it’s because they don’t know what went before them. They don’t know the tropes of their genre, therefore that cannot avoid or otherwise set the tropes on their ears. You can’t play with something if you don’t know it exists.

Every genre has its rules, its reader expectations and its tropes and, as writers, we have to be educated in those items. In the same way that one cannot *effectively* break the rules of grammar unless one is very familiar with those rules, the effectiveness of writing within a genre is going to be tied directly to knowledge of that genre.

Do you read in your genre? Classics? Current stories? Why or why not?