Just when I think there may be some breathing room between culture crises, along comes another one. Now, almost everyone I know or follow is pointing fingers at one issue or group as being the sum of all the world’s problems. I think the biggest problem is too many people are screaming their opinions and not taking the time to listen to the real problems. There is some big picture stuff happening in our culture, but we only see the symptoms. It’s like those Magic Eye pictures, you have to step back and change your focus, then you see the three-dimensional shark. Time to wake up, people!
Meanwhile, I will stay in my book-lined safe space and tell you about the “How to” writing books that helped me to understand that the very raw first drafts I scribbled were worth developing into manuscripts, and how I was able to approach revision.
The first of these, and the book I consider the benchmark for storytelling, is “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 1998) by Christopher Vogler. It analyzes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey theory, one of the most basic story structures, from the point of view of a veteran story consultant and scriptwriter. Vogler really delves into why this kind of story speaks to humans, and cites plenty of examples to help you to understand the concepts. He even gives workbook questions at the end of each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your favorite stories. If you read through it, with your own finished rough draft in mind, I think you can’t help but see ways to improve your work. Vogler admits that any and all of the guideline he presents can be broken, sometimes to great effect, but it’s easier to be a breakout writer if you already know what is expected and actually works. [Since posting this, I have had a chance to read the third edition (2007) of this book. Vogler goes much deeper and broader into the theory, and you really shouldn’t miss it!]
Because of the popularity of writing stories from the woman’s point-of-view, usually more introspective and self-creative than the Hero’s Journey, many articles are being written to accommodate this shift of focus. Personally, I haven’t found any of these articles to be half as effective as “The Virgin’s Promise” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 2009) by Kim Hudson. This book maps out the journey stages of self-awareness found in many Fairy Tales, and the mythical princess breaking out of her tower plotline. It is similar to the Hero’s Journey in some ways, but widely different in others. Don’t assume this it is only for female characters, because it is about the idea of growing beyond the role society has placed on you. In my current work-in-progress it is the male antagonist/love interest who is firmly on this path, and it was easier to understand him once I knew this.
Another way to check your rough draft is to run it past Noah Lukeman, a prominent New York literary agent, in the form of his book, “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” ( St. Martins Griffin, New York 2002). It is written in a crisp, insightful way developed from his many years of reading manuscripts. (Over fifty thousand in five years. Yikes!) The first two chapters are full of questions you had better have an answer to, before you send your work to an agent or publisher. Probably the biggest impression I got from his advice was Don’t Bore The Reader! Boredom equals an unfinished or discarded book; a book that doesn’t get recommended, and word-of-mouth is the best promotional tool for a writer. I personally love his Sahara-dry wit and no-nonsense advice. Mr. Lukeman also has another book high on my reading list called “The First Five Pages” that I suspect will be just as important to read, since that is where you hook your reader into the whole story.
“How to Write a Damn Good Novel” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987) by James N. Frey is another excellent resource you can use to refine your story. He covers the usual topics of character, conflict, plot, climax, voice, etc… in a very readable and engaging way, but also covers such in-depth topics as theme, premise, and symbolism in a way that makes sense to the writer and satisfies the reader (and how to not over-use these hidden gems). The age of this book makes it a bit out of date in the current e-book and internet savvy world, but you should still be able to wield those skills he tries so hard to instill. I won’t re-read it after every first draft, but once a year or so might be a good idea.
Another important book, if the sheer number of sticky paper tags sprouting from the closed book is any indication, is “By Cunning & Craft” (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati 2007) by Peter Selgin. He covers many of the same topics as the other books, but everyone has their own spin on the way to address and analyze the questions EVERY writer asks themselves when trying to tell a story. Mr. Selgin has a deeply insightful way of choosing the tone and style of a particular story, and–more importantly–why. The subtle nuances of storytelling are his to command, and he will show you by example. He also encourages you to be as true as possible to your voice, as a writer, while still producing a marketable book. The chapter on Revision is a well written pat on the head, a tight hug, and some wise words as you are sent on your way.
My internal conflict between the writer’s voice and marketability prompted me to grab onto “The Joy of Writing Sex” (Story Press, Cincinnati 1996) by Elizabeth Benedict with both hands when I found it by chance in a used book store, and to not let go until I had it home. It was one of very few books that addressed this topic when it was published and completely novel in its approach, although now her advice is the standard model for mainstream novels. Current trends in off-mainstream books have shifted away from “Less is more” and graphic detail is standard for some sub-genres, especially the many bastard children of Romance and all of the other Speculative Fiction genres, not to mention the increasing popularity of Erotica. Still, I got a lot out of her examples of restrained detail, along with a greatly increased reading list. And even this main proponent of “less is more” nearly tittered in horrified fascination as she gave a few examples of the bolder, more graphic writers of her time. My biggest take away from her book was to be subtle if you can, but if you can’t… go all out!
These are the books I have kept as valued hard copies on my book shelf, and I have saved them for going back to if stuck or confused about my writing. This is a tiny sample of what is available, so please, feel free to add any books I haven’t mentioned in the comments. What helped YOU on the road to becoming a writer? It may just be the one book that will help the next writer coming along.