The first novel I wrote was brilliant.
I posted serialized chapters of it on a Fiction Board, where throngs of readers raved about my talent. And why wouldn’t they? Each week, I devoured up to six romance novels, so I figured I had a good handle on how to write one. My plot was super-complex and I took pains to include a boatload of vivid description. A thesaurus, thick enough to be wielded as a deadly weapon, became my new best friend. I ditched pen and pad, trading them in for (what was then) the wonders of modern technology. MS Word Grammar-Check? Yep. Spell Check? You betcha.
And what author’s office would be complete without artfully displayed volumes on writing craft? I had more than a few, and they added literary atmosphere to the place – gave my bookcase a real writerly feel. Oh, I skimmed some and picked up the high points, but it would have been criminal to fence in a natural ability like mine with
stodgy rules their suggestions. I was so busy writing that there was time for little else.
Besides, I already had fans.
I caught wind of a short story competition several months later. Bolstered by accolades from my readers, I dashed off a piece to Amber Quill Publishing’s Heat Wave Contest and, a few weeks after, danced around my office when they announced me a winner.
“Yes!” I shouted and fist-pumped the air.
Winning meant a publishing contract. So cool! I signed the necessary documents and AQP assigned an editor, who subsequently sent an email with an attachment. Ready for a heaping of more high praise, I opened the file.
One gasp later, a noxious ball formed and rolled in the top of my stomach. Then it plummeted. But I went numb before it hit bottom. I stared blankly at the screen, dumbfounded by the explosion of red typeface splattering the pages.
It officially blasted the twinkle right off my star.
I was lucky in the beginning to have found a Fiction Board where, I discovered later, readers were not allowed to leave negative comments. Don’t laugh, the fawning kept me writing. And I was lucky to have won AQP Heat. It must have been the story because it’s doubtful it was the prose. Yes, I was lucky, but not dumb. Only ignorant. And smart enough to know that I needed help.
The sheer number of books on writing craft is overwhelming, so where does a dejected newbie begin? I figured, seeing as how I’d just been slam-dunked by an editor, anything about editing would do.
I cast a sidelong glance at the bookcase serving as set-decoration in my office, and a slim volume that looked like it might provide fast answers virtually jumped out.
- Again it was slim, so it could be digested quickly, unlike a few of the 400+ page hardback wonders shelved nearby
- It was written in simple language, meaning no techno-speak for a beginner to slog through
- Most important, it had EDITING in the title, which was a tip-off that editing would indeed be mentioned in the book
Eureka. I held in my hands the little miracle, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. My lucky streak was suddenly on steroids.
Light bulbs clicked on in my head as I read, highlighted and reread each chapter, and this time actually completed the exercises. The authors showed with examples and rewrites just what makes good writing good and good writing better. This was such a great book, a fabulous book, and I was beyond fortunate that it was the first one I took seriously.
Sadly though, it triggered an addiction. I stood in front of the bookcase, stared for about thirty seconds, and began yanking the shelves clean. What else had I missed in the neglected craft books now piled on my desk?
Fake fans be damned, I decided to find out.
Sol Stein’s On Writing and How to Grow a Novel became my trusty highlighter’s next victims, followed by Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, both I and II. Did amazon.com have more? Yes. In full attack mode, I plowed through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, Robert McKee’s Story, the phenomenal Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, Jessica Morrell’s work, and a good chunk of the Writer’s Digest book list. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and sequels. Christopher Vogler. Holly Lisle. Noah Lukeman. Orson Scott Card. Martha Alverson. The list streamed on and on.
Two hundred and fourteen writing books and courses later, I can answer the following with a modicum of authority.
Why, yes. As it turns out, there are. Lots and lots of them. And once your head is fully packed with do-this and don’t-do-that, you find:
- The rules are always changing. Not at light-warp speed, but subtly shifting in response to societal tastes and influences.
- If you know the rules, you can break them. Does this even make sense? Yeah. It’s part of what they call style. (Some people balk at calling them rules, preferring the term, guidelines. Um, no. I disagree. But call the quibble fodder for another blog post.)
- The more that you know, the more you know you don’t know.
In other words, it’s important to read and reread craft books and, of course, to keep current in your genre (it reflects shift).
Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading. – Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was referring specifically to symbolism in his fiction, but the idea applies to craft books, in a general sense, as well. Where you are in your writing skill set, mental frame, and receptivity will affect how and what you’ll absorb.
In short, your baggage matters.
Mine sure did.
Publicly posting 70,000 words of self-indulgent tripe, finding it wasn’t brilliant, and then receiving an editor smack-down was kinda motivating.
It made me want to do better. I hope I have.
So, how about you? Have you read a book on writing craft that dramatically changed your work? If so, what influenced you to select it? How did it affect your writing? What made you pick up a craft book to begin with? How many have you read? Reread?
Share the love and tell about your favorites. You’ll be helping others with your recommendations.
I’d really like to hear from you!
Thanks for the Oops Girl picture, Michal Marcol
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What I’m Reading Now
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