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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!

Travellust & the Writer – A Love Story

Life Stuff, Travel, Writing

Travellust & the Writer

That Was Then

I grew up in a small suburb, well outside of Chicago, IL. If we went into the city, it was almost always to visit my Aunt Barb, my grandmother’s sister, and all the cousins out there. There would be occasional school field trips to the Field Museum or Adler Planetarium, but mostly I stayed in my little suburb. Most of the sites in Chicago I didn’t see until I was an adult and able to travel on my own.

I tried to find a pic of me in Chicago, but couldn’t. So here’s TreeTop Park in Ft. Lauderdale 🙂

As far as travel outside of the Chicago area, most of that was for family as well. I can remember a number of trips to Indiana to visit my grandmother when she lived there, as well as a long drive to Connecticut when she was there also. And, for a long time, we’ve had family in Tennessee, so there were also the occasional trips there. The only non-family vacations I remember was a trip to the Wisconsin Dells when I was thirteen and typical moody teenager. (This was also, incidentally, the trip where I holed up in my room at the cabin and read The Stand, cover to cover. Like I said, moody.)

I’m not telling you all this for sympathy, but to explain one of the reasons I devoured books as a kid. As they are for so many people, they were an escape from a very not-interesting life. I visited London, England, and Derry, Maine. I rode the Orient Express and hid in an attic to escape the Holocaust. I solved mysteries with Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. As I got older and read more, I sweated in the Congo and helped build Hadrian’s Wall.

Books always showed me the world that I felt I would never see.

This Is Now

I’m significantly older now, of course. I’m settled in a home with my spouse. We’ve lived in this place since 2008. This is the longest I’ve lived in one dwelling my entire adult life.

Vals, Italy

I’ve traveled more — I’ve gotten a little taste of the world that I so desired when I was younger. I’ve been to almost two dozen states, one Caribbean island, and ten countries in Europe (don’t be too impressed; some of them were just drive-throughs!). And the things I’ve gotten to see have been incredibly cool.

The beauty of the world and its people have lived up to my expectations.

I know I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had these experiences. My teenage self would never have thought we’d be able to really go to London, to the Italian Alps, to Amsterdam. But we did, my teenage self and I. And it’s been glorious, seeing things that I’d only ever seen in magazines, or the encyclopedia, or, later, on the Internet.

Experience Greed and This Writer

But it isn’t enough.

Me at Westminster Abbey, London, UK

This year, especially, I’ve been jonesing to travel. I want to see the rest of Italy. I want to go back to London, and I want to see other places in England. I want to hang out in a real pub in Ireland and I want to see the Scottish moors. I want to visit New Zealand and Australia. There are so many places I still want to go. So many experiences I still want to have.

It might make me greedy, but that’s okay. Because I think experiences are all we can ever really have from this world. And time is always running short.

My plan for 2018 is to travel more, particularly overseas. This means that you’re going to see a lot more from me product-wise over the rest of this year and next, from books to classes. I hope that’s okay with you. It also means you’ll be seeing more travel postings from me. More pictures of things I see.

The Quarantine House in Curacao. I’m working on a whole blog post about this place!

I want more experiences to inform my writing and my life. I want to understand other cultures, as much as I can, and live in their spaces, even if only for a little while. I want to see more of our world and I want to be able to share it.


How about you? Do you travel? Where is your favorite place that you’ve visited and why is it your favorite?

 

All images are courtesy of Arjen Jansen.

Be My Guest: Bestow Your Wisdom on the Masses!

Writing

Just a quick post today.

I’m officially inviting other readers, writers, editors, and publishing pros to come and be a guest on my blog! I’m open to topics so feel free to let me know what you’d like to write about. Some ideas, randomly:

  • who inspired you to write/edit/whateveryoudoinpublishing
  • your favorite authors/characters/worlds and why
  • how you launched your most recent book
  • how you got into publishing
  • what your writing process looks like
  • what your favorite genres are to read/write in
  • what genres you’re interested in trying out
  • how you navigate the social media world and get actual work done
  • what conferences/conventions you love to attend and why
  • how you got your big break
  • how the publishing industry has changed since you started
  • what you’re looking for in submissions (for agents/editors)
  • what marketing/promo stuff worked for you

That’s just a short list to get your brain going, but as I said, I’m open to discussing what you might want to write.

 

 

Interested? Head on over to the Contact Me page and drop me a line! Let me know who you are, what you do, what you’d like to write about, and a give me a link to your online presence.

As a note, I’m looking for people who take writing seriously — published and aspiring authors — not just “pro-bloggers” who are trying to get their link all over the web.

As always, stay awesome!

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!

Venessa’s Top 5 Books on Her Shelf!

Reading

What I’m Listening To: baby birds chirping in the walls — apparently, we have a woodpecker nest in the siding of our house. I’m sure there’s a story idea in there somewhere!

Something Cool: I watched the Doctor Who spinoff show, Class, recently. I blogged about it at Speculative Chic!

Venessa’s Top 5 Books Found on Her Shelf

Okay, read this with the caveat that these choices can often changes with my mood… So I could likely do this once a month and come up with a mostly different list!

These are all books that have had a profound effect on me in some way, whether to influence my writing or my life in general. There isn’t a whole lot of genre consistency here. I have several genres that I love to read in (urban fantasy, horror, mystery/thriller).

Something they do all have in common is that they’re old (of course, I’m old, so there’s that…). If you have some great books with a more recent publication date, drop them in the comments! My TBR pile is certainly not big enough 😉

Okay, here we go!

5. Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

Love her or hate her, Anne Rice created a brand new subgenre protagonist: the romantic vampire. I remember this being on my mom’s bookshelf when I was about ten or so and I read it not too long after that. I was blown away by the sheer atmosphere of it. It put New Orleans on my bucket list to visit, which I finally did a couple decades later.

4. Hotel Transylvania – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

And if Anne Rice invented the romantic vampire, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro perfected it and, in turn, helped to create another subgenre: historical paranormal romance. I fell in love with the Count Saint Germain and continued to remain in love with him throughout my life. This book, and those that followed, gave me a great appreciation for the richness of history, because Yarbro wrote with such eloquence and lush detail. I eventually ended up a history major at college.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

DON’T PANIC!

If you’ve read the Guide, you know why it’s on this list. If you haven’t, you should. And then you’ll know why it’s on this list. You’ll meet Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin, and, of course, Arthur Dent. All great fun! You’ll be a convert, I promise.

Also, gave me a great appreciation for towels.

2. The Stand – Stephen King

I debated between this and Different Seasons, which is the first Stephen King book I ever read. I plowed through The Stand over a family vacation in Wisconsin when I was 14. It caught my attention and kept me entranced and, of course, I had to finish it before the end of the vacation, because it was on a bookshelf in the cabin we were renting, so I couldn’t take it home with me. I spent the majority of that trip either in my room at the cabin, reading, or carting that book around with me. It was worth it. And it made me a SK fan forever.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

Truly, if you haven’t read this book, you should. It is one of the most brilliant and vivid stories of revenge ever written, in my opinion. I believe most writers can learn from his use of deceit and strategy in this book. I loved it so much, I used to read this book every single year for a couple decades, but have gotten out of that habit in recent years. I need to go back to it.

 

So there are the top 5 books on my shelves! Have you read any of them? What are your top books?


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?