These are the books on writing that excited me most when I read them, which I still consult when I need advice.
1. Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein. First published in 2005 this is the essential guidebook on how to write for our times. Broken up into sections and covering both fiction and non fiction it contains a mother lode of practical advice on issues from the writer’s job, to the keys to swift characterisation, to adding resonance.
What grabbed me about this book though was the focus on practical advice. Almost every page of my copy has a section underlined and a corner turned. This is the book I turn to again and again. If you can only afford one book on writing make it this one.
2. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maas. First published in 2004 this is the workshop book for Mr Maas’s famous Writing the Breakout Novel book and training modules. Its three sections cover a wide range of topics under the section headings character development, plot development and general story techniques.
I went for the workbook version because I like to fool myself that I’m focused on the practical. The exercises at the end of each chapter made real sense to me too. They made me think about how to apply the excellent writing observations Donald describes so well. My copy of this book is heavily underlined and there are notes sticking out of it. I also return to Donald’s book at critical points in the development of a manuscript. This workbook should definitely be in your library, especially if commercial success is something you aspire to. If you want to write and then starve, you definitely won’t need it.
3. Conflict, Action & Suspense, by William Noble. First published in 1994 this book provides step by step guidance on setting the stage, creating and building suspense and bringing it all to a gripping conclusion.
My copy is poodle eared. For me suspense is one of the most important aspects of any novel. It’s why I keep reading. It’s what keeps me turning those pages. It’s what Michael Connelly does to make me want to buy every book he writes. What Harlan Coben does to make every book he writes go to the top of the bestseller lists. If you want to write suspense well, this is the book for you.
4. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. First published in 1991 Diane’s book is a grand tour of the realm of the senses. In it she describes the evolution of the kiss, the sadistic cuisine of eighteenth century England, the chemistry of pain and a lot more.
Structured into chapters for each sense, including synthesia (yes, it’s the combining of constituent elements into a single or unified entity), this unusual and thought provoking book is a treasure filled garden for those who are interested in helping readers see what they see and feel what a character feels.
5. The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. Subtitled, A writer’s guide to staying out of the rejection pile, Noah’s book covers a lot more than just five pages.
Sensible advice about creating an opening hook, the use of phony adjectives and absolutely incredible adverbs is mixed with sage advice on how not to use metaphors, like stale confetti, and how not to turn melodramatic. The life and death of a writer are contained in these pages. For anyone who wants to avoid having their work head straight for the great landfill in the sky this is an excellent book.
6. Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, by Jessica Page Morrell. First published in 2008 Jessica’s book is dedicated to those who want to get to know a character’s sinister side.
For me, there is something endlessly fascinating about the dark side. You could ask my psychiatrist what that means, if I had a psychiatrist. But actually it’s simple. Great stories need great conflict. And great conflict often comes from situations where some of the characters insist on being bullies or bastards or bitches. If you want to understand the differences between unlikable protagonists, anti-heroes, dark heroes and bad boys read Jessica’s wonderful book. It may open up a whole new dimension for you.
7. The 3rd Act, by Drew Yanno. Drew’s book helped me understand how to build a good ending. It’s mainly aimed at script writers and it features lots of references to many of the best movies of all time. But I don’t think that makes it any less relevant to fiction writers.
There are so few books about how to construct a good ending this one deserves a place on your shelf not only for that reason, but also because it makes planning the build up, the final battle and the denoument so much more pleasurable when you understand how the masters do it. The check list at the end of the book is worth the price of admission alone.
I don’t suggest slavishly following the rules in any of these books, but to know the rules is useful, particularly if you’d like to bend them, and then break them, with your fist in the air and your hair flying out behind you. I hope you enjoyed the list.
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Sliding on the Snow Stone author, Andy Szpuk, tells us about finding the right voice:
It was back in 2007 when I conceived the idea of writing Sliding on the Snow Stone. I’d already written a box full of short stories and was developing my writing craft, taking small steps daily, and occasionally, bigger leaps.
However, when my father recounted the experiences of his childhood in Ukraine and subsequent journey through the horrors of famine, Soviet Terrors and Nazi brutality during World War 2, I knew I had no choice.
It was a story that needed to be told. Ideas began to form in my head about how to approach it. First, I considered producing it in standard biographical format. Biographies are generally written in the second person, but with much of my father’s material consisting of so many powerful personal experiences, I felt second person would create too much of a distance for the reader.
Often, biographies can become academic in their tone. Instinctively, this didn’t feel right for my father’s story. I felt I needed a way to project the emotional drama, to capture how it must have felt.
I spent many hours talking to him, and making copious notes, collecting details and building a picture. It was sometime during this process when I realised it was HIS story, so I needed to write it from his point of view. I decided it would need to be written in the first person.
It presented many challenges over many months. Managing a story in the first person presents obstacles: the viewpoint is limited, and the voice needs to be consistent and authentic, and also there needs to be variation in the first person delivery, i.e. starting too many sentences with ‘I’ can become over-repetitive for the reader.
Finally, after much editing, Sliding on the Snow Stone was published in 2011 by That Right Publishing. It was quite a journey to undertake, but I feel I’ve added a small piece of jigsaw to the history of the world, and I’ve given voice to a story that might never have been heard.
For details on my other written work, including a diary of a 10-day stay in Ukraine in 2012 when I visited my father’s old home, visit my blog: Lines from the Word Lab
Thanks Andy for being our first guest post writer. Your story is very interesting. War casts a long shadow. Please visit Andy’s site and if you like what you’ve heard Sliding on the Stone it’s available to buy there.
This guest post is the first in a regular series in 2013 where I will be showcasing emerging writers on this blog.
You can help by clicking through to their sites, buying their books, sharing this site on Twitter or Facebook and coming back, or by Following this site (click the button above right), to see who is next in a few days.
And if you are a writer and want to be featured send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the submission guidelines.
I met Ken Atchity on a visit to a writer’s conference in San Francisco. Ken was one of the speakers. He is both a master storyteller and a great producer. Below you will find a brief biography of Ken, and below that his answer to this question, what is your number one piece of advice for storytellers, Ken?
Kenneth John Atchity or “Ken Atchity” is an American producer and author, who has worked in the world of letters as a literary manager, editor, speaker, writing and career coach, book reviewer, brand consultant, and professor of comparative literature.
Ken’s films include the Jim Carrey movie, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Amityville 4 among others.
He and his companies, The Story Merchant, Atchity Entertainment International, Inc. The Writers Lifeline, Inc, and The Louisiana Wave Studio, LLC, produce films and develop books for publication; and books, screenplays, and films for television and cinema. They also consult with writers about their career strategies and tactics.
So, Ken, what is your number one piece of advice for storytellers?
My advice to storytellers is to recognize that your stories can change the world, and that you can make that happen best by retaining control over your own career and getting your stories onto the Internet and into print without losing your publishing or other rights!
You are born under the lucky star of the Worldwide Web and it would be a crime for you not to take advantage of that piece of good fortune.
Ken is supremely positive about the impact of the web and about the opportunity it provides for writers. We are on the cusp of a new age. Thanks Ken.
Ken’s latest novel is The Messiah Matrix, available on Amazon here. It is a rousing twenty-first century adventure story that moves from the wrecks littering the floor of the Mediterranean to the corridors of the Vatican.