Thursday, December 13, 2007

Building Blocks For Writers

Recently I was called upon to give some advice to a beginning fiction writer. In reading through his first several chapters, I was reminded of the journey a writer takes as they learn the craft. When I first thought about writing a novel, I figured it was just taking the day-to-day happenings of a cast of characters, transcribing them to paper, and waiting on the street corner for a publisher to stop by, much as one waits for a taxi. How wrong can one person be?

Those of you who are already established on this road will find this review brings back memories. If your journey is in its first stages, I hope this helps.

Begin with plot. Decide what's going to happen and how you can make it interesting. The best resource I can recommend in this area is James Scott Bell's book, Plot and Structure. Not only is it excellent for the neophyte, I firmly believe that every novelist should review it periodically. Then populate your novel with interesting characters. For this, read Brandilyn Collins' book, Getting Into Character. Guard against "head-hopping" or shifting points of view. For this, try Mastering Point of View by Szeman. For more insight into story arc, consider this book, one I only learned about recently: The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. You'll also get help from all of Noah Lukeman's books, but especially The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens.

Now you have your plot, your characters, and your story arc. Write, revise, write, revise, repeat as needed. No one--I repeat, no one--just pops out a novel without sweat, tears, and many revisions. For this you'll need to consult the classic The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. To spice up your punctuation, it's back to Lukeman, this time for A Dash of Style. For that final rewrite, read Donald Maass' Writing The Breakout Novel. And watch for James Scott Bell's forthcoming book, Revision and Self-Editing.

Is that all? Of course not. If you're down about your writing, read Bird By Bird by Ann Lamott. Read Stephen King's King on Writing. Had enough? Probably so, but there are another dozen or more writing books on my bookshelf, and there's no dust on any of them.

Two last bits of advice. Read. Read the works of authors whose fiction you admire. My friend, Alton Gansky, told me, "Once you start writing, you'll never read the same way again." That's true. See how they do it. That's one way to learn. Then write. Nolan Ryan didn't become the best strikeout pitcher in the major leagues by reading about it. He practiced. A lot. So should you.

Don't be scared to fail. We all do. Failing isn't terrible. Not trying is. Write on.

4 comments:

Crystal Laine Miller said...

What a great list of books--and good advice--for beginning writers!

What is your favorite genre, and/or authors to read? (Are you allowed to say?) I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I gave up book reviewing and can read ANYTHING I want to. And I notice that it is affecting my writing and what I want to write.

Richard Mabry said...

Crystal,
Since you bring up a good question, the answer of which is relevant to my suggestion to read authors whose work you admire, I'm going to break my self-imposed rule and respond to your question directly here.

I take my own advice and read the work of authors whom I'd like to emulate.Hands down, my favorite fiction writer is Robert B. Parker. Has been for decades. He writes suspense fiction that grips me without being "dark," and his protagonist is sort of a Smart-Alec (so I identify with him).

In the CBA field, I really like the work of Brandt Dodson, whose writing reminds me of Parker's. I predict a bright future for Brandt.

Jim Bell's latest book, TRY DYING, is his best work, and I think it rivals anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote.

And in the field of medical suspense, although Tess Gerritsen gets most of the publicity, her work is too dark for me. I prefer Dr. Michael Palmer's novels, especially his newest, THE FIFTH VIAL.

That isn't to say that the work of other authors isn't good. But, frankly, if I were choosing books for a desert island, these would be at the top of my list.

Timothy Fish said...

It seems like writers love to write about writing, so there are a lot of voices out there and they don't all agree. I think the choices a writer makes concerning those he listens to and those he ignores as well as when to chuck them all and just write has as much influence on the writer�s final product as anything else.

Timothy Fish said...

It seems like writers love to write about writing, so there are a lot of voices out there and they don't all agree. I think the choices a writer makes concerning those he listens to and those he ignores as well as when to chuck them all and just write has as much influence on the writer�s final product as anything else.