Reading the Right Book on Writing: Improving your Novel-Writing Skills

(Part 1)

This summer I’m giving myself a mini self-guided MFA program on novel craft. As I perused numerous books that purport to teach me the craft of writing, I decided, what better way to absorb their material than to write a brief review of each?

Brief being the goal. I’ve actually never been brief in my life. 

You can read my first two reviews on Goodreads here:

The First Five Pages: For novice writers looking to avoid common writing pitfalls, and for any level of writer hoping for good writing exercises to stretch themselves.

The Art and Craft of Fiction: For all levels looking for breezy, feel-good, albeit digression-filled insights on the writing life (and some techniques.)

Writing Blockbuster Plots: coming soon 

As I launch the project, I pose a few thoughts about what makes for a useful book on craft. Why? Because asking ourselves what a “good book” on craft should teach requires us to define those intangible questions we’ve been struggling with in our own writing life. So please, in response to this post, pose the questions you’d love to see addressed by a non-fiction book on craft. 

  1. My initial reaction when reviewing books on writing– and this holds for conference sessions, writing workshops, and even college courses– is that we want the content to deliver what is promised  by the title, subtitle, and back cover copy.
  2. Even though a book can’t replicate a class, we want a book that can come close to doing so. We need concrete, tangible, actionable advice, not mere espousing on the art of writing itself. Lamott (Bird by Bird) has already done this so well we likely don’t need too many others.
  3. If we’re getting close to publishing, we want the insider scoop on the industry, not complaints or condescending treatment by editors tired of seeing spelling mistakes.  
  4. Sure, we like when something inspires us, but more often we want exercises that can improve us.
  5. Sometimes, we want help getting through a block, but we need the many kinds of writers’ block addressed, not the “I just can’t think of anything to write” advice blather that many articles and blogs toss out without thought, further trivializing our efforts. See my blog on this topic.
  6. Of course, we often reject self-help and how-to books when the proficiency level doesn’t jibe for us. That means, folks, that this part of the job is on us. Aspiring authors would benefit, as they begin searching for craft resources, from some understanding of their current proficiency level. This can be hugely hard to peg, considering we’re likely too hard on ourselves and considering that our friends are likely too kind to us on the topic. 

Personally, I’d love a book detailing what current, saleable novel arcs should look like. We all know that we won’t make our debut with an arc such as House of Leaves or Slaughterhouse Five, or with a word count like Rowling’s. So next—The Plot Whisperer, and then I plan to also evaluate Save the Cat, On Writing, The Story Grid, and at least one other on the topic of overall novel pacing/plotting. 

Any suggestions for what you’d like me to review?

Portrait of girl with glasses and open book sitting on pile of books
Portrait of girl with glasses and open book sitting on pile of books

Lastly… here are some questions to ask yourself that I’ve gleaned from teaching writing (and some “tells” I spot with new students that I use to keep in mind to meet them where they’re at.) I can’t provide an exact equation for the list below, but if you say yes to several, you’re probably at least in the intermediate-plus range. The problem inherent with this list, as with the art of writing in itself, is subjectivity. And you well may be an accomplished dialogue-writer with a serious lack of awareness of plot and story arc. Or vice versa. I’ll discuss techniques for gaining reflection on yourself as a writer, and thus a better audience awareness, in a future blog—once I’ve finished reading all these books!

Do you write four plus days a week?

Do you write at least an hour when you do write?

Do you read in your genre regularly?

Have you attended any creative writing conferences?

Have you taken any classes in creative writing?

Have you taken any MFA courses?

Have you published any short stories, poems, or novels?

Have you written any short stories or poems in the last month?

Have you finished a novel (first draft?)

Have you finished a novel (edited?)

Have you published a novel?

After reading my blog on “Distinct Dialogue” did you already know most of the basics mentioned in the first few sentences?

I promise, these questions are not meant to engender guilt or a feeling of inadequacy. We’re all amazing creatures with complicated lives that conspire at times to keep us from writing as much as we’d like. If you want to accomplish any of these goals, you eventually will!

So stay tuned for Part 2 of my search for the most useful books on writing!

5 Comments on “Reading the Right Book on Writing: Improving your Novel-Writing Skills

  1. I highly recommend The Story Grid you have on your list already. I also think The Emotional Craft of Fiction – How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass is also very good; plenty of examples in each chapter and questions to get you thinking about your own writing.

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    • Thanks for the tip! I have been anxious to try the Story Grid on my novel.

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      • There is a free download of an excel file with all the beats set out ready for planning on the website. It includes an example breaking down Silence of the Lambs. At least there was a year ago when I grabbed it. It’s very handy.

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  2. I think your comment about reader expectations–what the book promises vs. what it delivers–are right (write) on. I’ve read many craft books, attended many workshops, and enrolled in MFA classes all in the 10,000 hour quest to develop my writing. Some resources have been gems, some misshapen hunks of lead. I’ll be interested to see what your review of The Story Grid is like.

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  3. Pingback: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: A Review of the Book, not the Cat – Writing Through Windows

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