5 of My Favorite Writing Craft Books

I have an addiction…to writing craft books. In my bookcase two entire shelves are devoted to them, easily 15% of my entire fiction/nonfiction library. I find a new one or two every year, and believe me I learn something from each. Some of my old favorites have gone out of print, sadly, but most are still available, which just goes to show that craft books age very well.

Every so often I like to share my favorites with you. So here we go with five that I love. (You can order any of these, and others I love, through my Bookshop affiliate link.)

  1. Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, by Lisa Cron

Why I love it: First, I’m a nut for anything that has to do with brain science, and Cron makes a compelling case for the way that our brains process story. Second, she provides a template for thinking of character development and story arc in terms of how we process story – and can’t we all use a template?

Caveats: I’ve read the first half of this book over and over, and applied her techniques to my writing, and love them. But in the second half she makes a case for planning a novel that goes against my pantsing grain. I just don’t read past part 1.

  1. Steering The Craft: The Twenty-first Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula Le Guin

Why I love it: Who doesn’t love Le Guin?? In this simple, short book she tackles very specific issues, one per chapter, with clear explanations of what they are and how to deal with them, and includes useful exercises at the end of each chapter.

A pile of writing craft books

Just a few of my other favorites – stay tuned for the next list.

Caveats: It’s not comprehensive, but sometimes you need something this short and sweet.

  1. The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist: A Book for Writers, Teachers, Publishers, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction, by Thomas McCormack

Why I love it: This little book gave me an insight into one of the core principles of story-telling, which McCormack defines as “the master-effect”, or that feeling that you can’t let go of when you’ve finished reading a great book. It’s singularly responsible for any success of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

Caveats: This is a somewhat erudite book, not for reading when you’re tired.

  1. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French

Why I love it: This is probably the most comprehensive craft book, ever. It’s like an MFA in paperback form. Superbly detailed explanations of craft issues, accompanied by excellent examples, and a bunch of exercises. It’s been re-issued over and over, so look for the most recent edition. You could spend a year just working through this one.

Caveats: You could spend a year just working through this one.

  1. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

Why I love it: Alternately funny, irreverent, and incisive, this book is like taking a writing workshop with someone who really knows what he’s talking about, and makes you laugh while you learn. Lots of unusual ways of looking at craft.

Caveats: Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, and sometimes you feel like that’s the book you’re reading.

Again, you can find any of these books, and others I love, here, or at your favorite indie bookseller.

Do you have a favorite you don’t see on my lists? Please share! (I’ll probably order it…) Next time, I’ll review some of my more “classic” favorites.

Final Hot Tip: The Bad Guy (Antagonist) Thinks He’s Good

We’ve reached the end of my short hot writing tips for cold nights (even though those cold nights are still with us, here in Montana at any rate). Today I want to present a final hot writing tip – about the antagonist.

Opposites Attract

Protagonists in stories need counterbalancing. They need opposing forces, obstacles, difficulties. Why? Because we all contend with difficulties in life, and the primary purpose of story is to give readers examples of forces in opposition.

Kids need to learn how to deal with the many issues they will face in life, and story is one way kids find examples to “live by”. How does Harry Potter assume an identity as a wizard, and what mistakes does he make that he needs to learn from? (Hint: he’s constantly questioning authority, which gets him into trouble; he may be right, but often goes about defending himself in an abrasive fashion; he has to live up to huge expectations, which makes him want to ignore advice, etc.)

An antagonist is a force of opposition. An antagonist can be a person (Voldemort), or nature (in Gary Paulson’s Hatchet), or society (The Hunger Games). The antagonist throws obstacles against the protagonist and we all read to see how the protagonist will handle them.

Katniss and guards

Katniss in opposition to the Capitol

How the Antagonist Thinks

By reading the above, it would be natural to assume that the antagonist is just plain bad. Evil. Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache. But that’s incorrect.

In the best stories, the antagonist thinks he or she is the hero. Voldemort is ridding the wizarding world of the pestilence of Muggles and oh, by the way, he was bullied as a boy. The Capitol is reminding its people that rebellion leads to punishment, and oh, by the way, rebellion leads to social disruption. (I don’t know what nature is thinking about in Hatchet, but let’s assume nature, as it does in Jurassic Park,  “will find a way”.) As such, the antagonist is not a flat cut-out, but a three-dimensional nuanced character with flaws, pitiable losses, and, yes, strengths – even if we and the protagonist come to see those strengths as demonic.

In The Artifact Hunters the antagonist feels misunderstood and wants his lost high position back, and to achieve that, he must defeat Isaac and steal Isaac’s key. In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, the antagonist has been wounded in love, and believes she must find immortality and personal power by exploiting the children. Neither believes they are bad, just getting what they are entitled to receive after suffering.

So, Your Final Hot Tip

Make your antagonist nuanced. Give him or her flaws, desires, losses, even relatable strengths. Your story will be more powerful for it.

Even More Hot Writing Tips: Plot Devices

Plot. It can drive you crazy, especially if you’re a new writer. How many different ways are there to represent plot? Are there plot devices you can lean on every time?

Do you Save The Cat? Or do you take The Hero’s Journey? Do you Write From the Middle? Or do you listen to The Plot Whisperer?

I love all of the books above – seriously – and would recommend them to anyone wanting more on crafting plot. But this series is for short, quick tips so here are two hot tips I recommend incorporating into your toolbox.

Where To Put Those Pesky Flashbacks

Inevitably, you will need to recall something in your character’s past in order to help the reader understand where that character is coming from. You’ll want to put something in flashback form: a memory, a short scene, an ah-ha moment of recognition. Stephen King maintains that there should be no flashbacks before chapter 3. I think he’s (mainly) right. (Note: I have broken this rule, but not before I’d written four published novels.)

Leave the backstory flashbacks for later in the story. Try to weave them into the story as seamlessly as you can. Something relevant should trigger the flashback – an image, a feeling – because the emotional content of the flashback must be the reason to include it.

In THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, Isaac escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague to end up in Scotland. The reader knows he feels guilty about leaving his parents behind, and that he wants to be a hero but doesn’t know if he can be one. Not until well into the book is the real reason for his fears revealed. And it’s revealed as a moment of great guilt and pain – a memory he wishes he could erase, an action he wishes he could reverse. This technique adds to the story’s mystery and allowed me to develop the emotional aspects of Isaac’s character.

The Rounding of the Story Arc

Don’t forget that a character’s internal desire – what he or she needs to “learn” or understand – must be clarified and resolved before the story’s end. The climactic scene is the place for this satisfying resolve.

Let your main character reveal what she’s learned in the climactic scene. Your main character must evolve from ignorance to understanding. The place to reveal just how far they’ve come is in the climax, that scene of highest tension, right at the precipice near the end of the story.

Kat, in THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, reveals her growth when she defeats the antagonist by understanding her weakness (and how it relates to Kat’s own faults), and Isaac in THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS defeats his antagonist with his recognition of the strength of friendship.

To Sum Up

  1. Layer flashbacks in late in the story – and make them relevant to your character’s emotional state.
  2. Complete the character’s internal emotional journey by creating an ah-ha moment in the story’s climax.

I hope you’re enjoying this series, as the days grow longer!

 

More Hot Tips For Writers

Welcome back to my writing craft “mini-series”, with more hot tips for cold winter nights! This week I want to look at some macro issues.

Why This Book?

When you sit down to write, you should always ask yourself “why you are writing this book”. Why not something else? What is important enough that it must be said, by you, right now, in this way?

You have something to say, about the world, or your experience of it, or how you perceive others’ experiences. This is not to say you have to write a sermon – and definitely not for us writers to be didactic – but your reason for writing, your “why” speaks directly to your story’s theme.

CARRY ME HOME is a book about homelessness, but that’s not completely why I wrote it. I wrote it to let the child reader know that it is all right to ask for help. That if something is going wrong, it’s okay to turn to someone you trust. My theme, then, is “never be ashamed or afraid to reach out to a trusted adult.”

The Wizard of Oz

“There’s no place like home.”

 

I often have to write an entire first draft before I understand my theme. And I’ll add that my themes can often be expressed by a cliché and that’s just fine. For example, “there’s no place like home” and “love is blind” could be the themes for The Wizard of Oz and Pride and Prejudice.

Plot Is Not Just “Stuff That Happens”

Plot is enhanced by “cause and effect.”

Everything that happens in a story leads to the next thing happening. If you are writing a first draft it’s very tempting to write something that has little relationship to what came before. But that’s just a sequence of events, not a story.

In THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, when Kat makes a mistake and loses track of her chatelaine, that sets up a near-tragic chain of events and series of conflicts. One thing leads directly to the next.

To write a great story is to find that linking chain of cause and effect. You can plan your entire novel with a cause-and-effect technique called “The Inside-Outline” (developed by Jennie Nash at Author Accelerator), which you can find out more about here and which I also offer as part of my coaching business here.

The Hot Tips This Week

  1. Discover, through brainstorming/freewriting why you are writing this book.
  2. Your theme comes from your “why”, and can often be expressed as a cliché.
  3. Plot is a linking chain of “cause and effect” not just “stuff that happens”.

Thoughts?

Teacher & Librarian ARC Give Away: Carry Me Home

Teachers and librarians! I have a bunch of ARCs (advance reader copies) of Carry Me Home, so I’m hosting an initial ARC give away on Twitter this week! Here’s the link to the Twitter post. (This give away is being hosted solely on Twitter, but watch this space for more give aways throughout the spring.)

Carry Me Home follows a pair of young sisters who are living with their daddy in the back of a car, when Daddy goes missing. Lulu, the older sister, has to try and manage life for herself and her younger sister Serena. Lulu is afraid that someone will discover their situation, and that the sisters will be separated, never mind that she is just starting to find her place in her new school. But how can a twelve-year-old from Texas take care of food and school and all of life when she has no money and her only home is a Suburban parked in a wintery Montana RV Park?Three ARC copies of Carry Me Home

 

Here is an interview I did on Mr. Schu Reads that will tell you a little bit more.

I think (I fear) that this story is all too timely. I’ve personally known families who have lived in cars because they couldn’t afford adequate housing. I truly hope that none of your students are in this situation, but if they are, I hope that this book helps all your students to discuss and empathize. I’d like to have them think about and discuss what they might do if they discovered that a classmate was living in a car. Or what they might feel if they needed help and were afraid to ask for it.

I have more copies to give away throughout the spring so please watch for those. If you’ve entered this first giveaway and didn’t win – I’ll keep a record and re-enter you for the next!

Edited to add…………I’m blown away by the response to this giveaway, so I’m increasing the number of copies I’ll give away this time to 6!!

And thank you for the good work you are doing with the kids who need you.

Hot Writing Craft Tips for Cold Winter Nights, Number Three

For this week’s hot writing craft tips, let’s look even more closely and with a sculptor’s eye at words and sentences and paragraphs.

Diction and Syntax

Diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) are more than just grammar terms – they are the materials writers use to shape thought. By understanding and using how the brain processes written information, you can connect more effectively with your readers.

image of Burroway's Writing Fiction craft book

Janet Burroway taught me a number of things about using the right diction and syntax.

The most important word in a sentence is the first (noun). The second most important word in a sentence is the last. These two words should be strong and solid. Here’s an example from THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS: “Isaac’s childhood stood on the far side like a long-ago tale.” By beginning and ending the sentence the nouns “childhood” and “tale” immediately connect the reader to the fairy tales of their own childhood.

Verbs are best when active, not passive. Here’s another example from THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS: “In the dusky light the castle hulked against the sky.” I could have said “was silhouetted” but “hulked” gives the castle more menace, and it feels more alive, in a creepy way.

Avoid distancing the reader by avoiding the use of words like “saw”, “heard”, and “felt”. Again, in ARTIFACT HUNTERS, I said, “Nausea roiled through Isaac.” I could have said, “Isaac felt nauseous” but you can see right away how that distances the reader from Isaac’s immediate sensations.

When Every Word Matters

It took me several years to write VOLCANO DREAMS. I removed many more words than I added. Every single sentence, every single word has to be just right – especially in the case of a non-fiction, scientifically-accurate book like this. For example, “The elk tucks his bulk into feathered grass” implies the size of the animal (with a little internal rhyme) and the age of the grass (feathered being a mature, late-summer grass).

Picture books must be particularly tight in all the ways I’ve described above. And more – in a picture book, assuming you aren’t the illustrator, you must leave room for the illustrator to interpret and enlarge upon your vision. Rather than writing “A cloud of balloons in red, green, and blue”, write “A cloud of balloons in riotous colors” allowing the illustrator to choose odd and interesting combinations.

My three hot writing craft tips for this week:

  1. Make sure you use strong nouns to frame your sentences.
  2. Use active verbs that carry deeper meaning. Avoid passive verbs and the verb “to be” in any form.
  3. Avoid distancing words like “saw”, “felt”.

Do you have any tips to share?

 

Round Two Writing Tips

These small tips are my Season’s Greetings to you all!! And maybe I’m making a small statement about 2020?

I hope you enjoy!

Conflict and Tension

Every story benefits by having high tension and strong conflict. First drafts are generally not high tension drafts – it isn’t until revision that I add as much tension as I can. Not only is tension crucial to keeping reader engagement at the broadest level of a story – micro-tension is made by certain word choices and sentence structures and must be deliberately added.

I turned to a random sentence in The Artifact Hunters and found this: “The door blew open and Kat raced into the room.” Both of those verbs, “blew” and “raced”, ratchet up the tension in the scene.

But, great conflict isn’t about constant confrontation or physical danger. Internal conflict is even more important, even when not fully understood by the character until near the end of the book.

Ask, what is going on inside the character? What does the character really want, need, desire? That longing – for love, security, approval, etc. – underlies every action that the character takes, for good or ill. In Faithful, my main character Maggie desperately wants to find her mother. This longing drives everything she does, even to the point of making poor choices that endanger those she cares about the most.

For much more on tension check out any of Donald Maass’s books, especially The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

My Round Two Writing Tips Are…

  1. Add tension at both the macro and micro levels. Be sure to select strong action verbs and solid nouns over adverbs and adjectives to describe tension.
  2. Internal conflict is just as, if not more important than, external conflict.
  3. Check out Donald Maass’s books for more on conflict and tension, and also James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense.

Hot (Writing) Tips For Cold Nights

The more I write, the more writing tips I collect. These little tips distill much larger thoughts on the writing craft down to understandable ideas, and I’m going to share a few with you over the next weeks. And if you are on Pinterest, check out my story boards on writing tips (thanks to Deb Gonzales!)

Before You Write A Word

Spend time thinking about your story before you begin your first draft. Distill your idea – the kernel of the idea that sparks your interest – into a couple of sentences and then let things simmer. Why?

Because your subconscious mind will chew on the idea, and you’ll be surprised by how many things float into view. As an example, when I began writing The Artifact Hunters, I knew that it would be a sequel to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle; I knew that my main character would be a boy; I knew that clocks had to be involved in some fashion, because I wanted to play with time travel; and I knew it would be set a couple of years later than Charmed Children.

The creepy inspiration for The Artifact Hunters – a “death’s head” watch.

As I let the idea simmer, without warning or searching on my part, I stumbled upon the death’s head watch. I hadn’t known these watches existed, never mind how they looked. The watch became the centerpiece of the story, and as a magical artifact, inspired the notion of the Vault of Magical Artifacts and then the entire story unspooled before I began to write.

As another example, I thought about my forthcoming novel Carry Me Home for almost five years before I knew how to write it, and that time allowed me to write the novel in a month.

When You Begin To Write

Remember that whoever your main character is, he or she has had a life before your story. This is what we mean when we say that a story begins in medias res – in the middle of things. Your character has a past, and the start of your story propels them into a new situation. That “newness” and the unbalancing of your character should start on page one of the story, in order to draw your reader right in. (For more on hooking the reader, see my Medium post on this subject.)

In other words, don’t start with throat-clearing, i.e., description, long narrative explanations, etc. Start with a problem, presented to a character who is fully formed by her past experiences.

So, my three hot writing tips for this week:

  1. Think before you write.
  2. Hook the reader on page 1, with a problem.
  3. Present that problem to a fully formed character.

Let me know what you think!

Need Books? Try Bookshop!

If you are lucky enough to live in a town with an independent bookseller (and they deliver or provide other pandemic-related services), I hope you support them. But if you don’t, I hope you’ll consider Bookshop as your online retailer for your book purchases.

Bookshop supports indie booksellers by giving back a percentage of sales, and it supports authors by allowing us to set up affiliate links to our in-print books – wherein authors also receive a percentage of sales. You can find curated lists of great reads. Right now they offer gift wrapping and free shipping, and they always offer books at a discount comparable to other retailers, including the one we all know and love to hate. They are constantly updating and improving their services, and I love the whole idea.

My Spooky Middle Grade group has a “bookstore”, and I’m also an affiliate, so if you’re looking for spooky books or my books you’ll find them there.

As always, if you would like to purchase my books and have them signed and personalized, I do have a wonderful indie bookstore right here in Bozeman, Montana, Country Bookshelf, and they’ll be happy to let me know of your wishes.

Rather than purchasing your book gifts this season from the Big Behemoth, if you don’t have an indie bookstore or can’t get out to buy books, won’t you consider Bookshop?