Harry Potter fans, take note: I hope lots of people out there are reading AkataWitch by Nnedi Okorafor.I have been reading kid lit books like crazy for my VCFA MFA writing program, and this is one of my favorites so far. How many books? At least 100 books per year for the past two years. Phew!
When they call Akata Witch the Nigerian Harry Potter, they are right. Except I like it even better than Harry Potter.
Why will the Harry Potter fan Enjoy Akata Witch?
a fascinating and fully realized magical system
a brilliantly portrayed magical world for you to escape into
vivid curmudgeonly mentor characters with great quirks
tons of action and excitement
a strong sport-related theme
fun scary-but-not-too-scary villains
friendship between strong characters
middle school characters who learn how to do magic together and have to pass many tests along the way
a fast and engaging read, therefore, wonderful for reluctant readers
What makes me like Akata Witch better than Harry Potter?
It’s set in Nigeria, a place I want to learn more about. It’s got the transporting fun of a travel book.
The magical world of Akata Witch is just as rich as Rowling’s, and it is a fresh magical system, treated with creative, yet cozy whimsy.
There’s almost a video game feel to some parts of the magic. Bonus!
The main character has real internal flaws to overcome in order to master her magic, and herself. She has to struggle, which means the stakes are high.
Akata Witch has humor that arises from character.
The heroine is bicultural, having grown up in America, and being NIgerian by blood. This gives her yet another difference to overcome.
The action happens onstage rather than being discussed second-hand, or overheard by spying younglings. Overall, a masterful handling of exposition.
The protagonist is female. (Being female, I like that. I’m ready at any moment for Rowling to write a whole new set of adventures starring Hermione. She can have more of my cash for that!).
The protagonist’s albinism gives her an extra dose of difference, and injustice to battle.
Characters’ mistakes lead to real consequences.
We need diverse books—boy, do we ever right now, and this is a great one!
Seriously, everyone who loves middle grade and fantasy, no, actually, just everybody who enjoys good stuff needs to check out this book.
The sequel, Akata Warrior comes out October 3, 2017, so happy birthday to me, in advance!
Have you read Akata Witch? What do you think? What other books fit in that Harry Potter sweet spot for you? Please comment below!
“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”
—Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect
Think back to you middle school English classes and you may remember there are many kinds of conflict. There’s hero against nature, hero against God, hero against society, hero against himself, and hero against someone else. Antagonistic forces like storms or totalitarian governments can destroy your protagonist’s world. If these kind of antagonistic forces are powerful in your story, you may not need a villain. Plenty of stories don’t have one.
In The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, there is no villain. The antagonistic forces are the protagonist’s overwhelming grief and guilt tied up in the death of her friend, the divorce of her parents, and her own inability to connect, possibly because of an undiagnosed neural diversity.
In Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, 15 year old Caleb Bosch is losing his mind, caught between a dream world of a voyage to the Marianas Trench, and the increasing menace of his own real world paranoia and disorganized thoughts. The captain of the voyage at first seems like a mentor character, and slowly transforms into something darker as the story progresses. Here the author has chosen to personify the main character’s dilemma, creating a kind of villain, but through most of the story, the hero’s mental illness is the main antagonistic force.
The human mind finds it easy to externalize evil, and as writers we gain many advantages by putting a human face on our antagonistic forces; by creating villains. Want to rail against what you hate? Want to show what’s wrong with a certain philosophy of life? Give it a human (or alien, or unicorn, or dragon, or Ewok) face.
Javert, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Voldemort, President Snow, the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Moriarty, Joseph Stalin, and Hitler—all vital to the stories in which they appear. Try to imagine Harry Potter without Voldemort (he’d be a boring little kid, and his lack of specificity as a character would be more glaring than it already is). Who would Clarice Starling be without Hannibal Lecter? (Just an FBI trainee—would she even be in the story if Jack Crawford hadn’t needed to dangle her like bait in front of Lecter, the real crime fighting master sleuth of Silence of the Lambs?)
QUICK SELF-QUIZ ON VILLAINS
Write down your top five villains. It may be someone who rubs you the wrong way, or someone who just personifies evil.
What makes the villains you listed memorable?
WHAT A STRONG VILLAIN CAN DO FOR YOUR STORY
Drive the plot
Push the hero to the breaking point
Keep the muddle in the middle from getting too mucky, e.g., to fight Act II sag by getting busy doing bad things.
Keep your tension rising
Provide a foil for your hero’s life philosophy
Provide a dark mirror for the hero’s dilemma
HERO AND VILLAIN – A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN, OR HELL?
Sometimes heroes and villains are exact opposites, and sometimes, often in Noir stories, they are dark and light mirror twins. One could argue that Harry Potter’s closest relationship, especially in the later books, is with Voldemort. There’s a lot to be made of what is different and what is the same between hero and villain.
To go deep on this vital relationship, do some side writing:
Pretend your hero and villain are in couples counseling. You be the therapist and see what happens – write down what everyone says.
Write a scene in which your hero and villain meet before the villain has gone bad. What if the one guy helps the other out of a bad situation, and they end up taking a road trip to Vegas? (not possible with the unreasoning relentless kind of villain or the Satan trope, which is just pure evil).
KINDS OF VILLAINS
The Extreme Philosopher – Great theory, taken too far – Javert, who loves the law and rationalism so much it blinds him to compassion and complexity. Javert realizes that he’s made himself a villain and jumps in the river. Tommy Lee Jones in the The Fugitive, who becomes the ally.
The Anti-Villain – this guy or gal helps the hero solve the crime or right the injustice. Lecter is also this guy. Godzilla, who in the sequels kills worse monsters to save humanity.
The Unreasoning Beast/Machine/Monster/Zombie/Alien/Supernatural Whatever – This character represents the urge to destroy, is utterly irredeemable and unstoppable. He just keeps on coming. She never sleeps. Nosferatu, Jekyll, Yul Brynner in the film Westworld, The Terminator in (not uncoincidentally) The Terminator, the girl in the well in The Ring/Ringu. All those Walking Dead gray guys. The Martians in War of the Worlds.
Doctor Evil – Basically he has a nefarious plan to take over the world and he will monologue about it. Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. If you’re going to use this trope, you may want to give it a comic edge, or find ways to go for more depth (see below), or spin it in a surprising way, because it has been done to death, to the point at which it begs to be lampooned with great relish. See Doofenshmirz in Phineas and Ferb, see Brain in Pinky and the Brain. See, of course, Dr. Evil in all the Austin Powers films. The Charming Sociopath – Hannibal Lecter is a variant of this form. So is Moriarty. So is the Frank Langella or Gary Oldman Dracula, not the Bram Stoker variety. This guy you often don’t see coming because his social skills go to eleven. The Social Darwinist – Anyone so sure of his own superiority that he is bent on genocide. Dr. Mengele in Boys From Brazil, Sir Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man. The Wounded Villain – Roy Batty in Blade Runner. (Until the last scene he seems to be the Machine.) The Phantom of the Opera. The Petty Bureaucrat/Flunky/Minion/Thug – Agent Smith in The Matrix, Gil Lumbergh in Office Space. They love to torture others with the rules. They enjoy just following orders. The Bully – Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, All the Heathers in Heathers. Nurse Ratched, Ace in Stand By Me. This is a type we all meet in life, so their easy to hate. The Stealth Villain – Thought your best friend was on your side? Surprise! He’s been plotting your downfall all along. The best friend character in The Truman Show. Norman Bates is this for a little while. Tommy Lee Jones in Laura Mars. Oops – Dissociative Identity Disorder. The Corrupted – Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. These guys used to be idealists, dreamers, but not any more. Often they serve as a warning to the protagonist by showing the results of bad choices. The Disturbed – Annie Wilkes in Misery, Norman Bates in Psycho. Major Axis I Diagnosis.
The Ultra-Hot Villain – The hero should be terrified, but instead, he’s hot and bothered. The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, any femme fatale in any Noir, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction Pure Evil. Satan, Sauron, Lucifer and variations. The personification of Evil. The Wicked Witch of the West. Max Cady in Cape Fear. Villain as Protagonist Dexter in Dexter – a psychopath who fights crime. Humbert Humbert, American Psycho, Alex in A Clockwork Orange Unintentional Villain – Frankenstein’s Monster, King Kong, Claude Rains’ Invisible Man.
MY VILLAIN IS FLAT AND BORING. WHAT DO I DO?
Give them higher stakes. Why ruin one person’s life when you can destroy the world?
Give them a fun backstory, a wound that they might try to heal with vengeance. A wound can make your hero and your reader empathize with the villain. This can be a wonderful complication. Check out the origin stories of comic book villains. What turned your bad guy bad? Could it have gone another way?
Give them a heart. In The Phantom of the Opera, the disfigured Phantom falls for Christine, then starts murdering people to help her get ahead. He is a monster, but he can love and be hurt.
Give them a contradiction. The human mind is fascinated by things that don’t fit a neat pattern. Hannibal Lecter is a vicious cannibal who can murder without his pulse going over 80 beats per minute, but he also has a great sensitivity to beauty and the highest kind of culture. (Harris is probably making a big point there.) He gets out of prison but doesn’t go after Clarice because “he would consider that rude.”
Give them a rationale. Remember, everyone is a hero in his own life, and every great philosophy, when taken too far, can lead to horror and dystopia.
Give them a sense of humor. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie won moviegoers over with this bit of dialogue in which he describes his former boss, played by Jack Palance, “He was a thief, and a terrorist. On the other hand he had a tremendous singing voice.”
Give them a secondary role in the story, like mentor, or love interest, or surprise ally.
Weapons and Furnishings. Give them an object that they always carry around. Give them a catchphrase. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” “Yippe-kiyay!”
These books and websites have some great material on Villains:
One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.
Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.
Ya Gotta Do It
Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.
So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.
A Quick Method for Outlining
Put each story element on file cards
put them in the order you want
go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)
If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.
Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method
Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.
I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.
A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method
Here are the 7 Points:
Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!
Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?
Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.
A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!
I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.
Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!
The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.
Plot like this on a spreadsheet:
Name of Chapter
POV Character – only one.
Day, Date and Time
Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
Key Plot Points Revealed
Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.
For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.
Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!
The point of view you choose for your novel will affect the way your reader sees your story. How do you decide which point of view to choose? And once you’ve chosen one, how do you keep it consistent?
Below I lay out the kinds of Point of View writers use, and at the bottom I give examples.
What is Point of View?
“A position from which something is considered or evaluated, a standpoint, or a place of perception.” — Jill Elizabeth Nelson, author of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View
Point of view (POV) is the framework through which the reader experiences your story. To keep the reader within the fictive dream (aka, hooked in your work) choose a POV that enhances the tone and style of your story. Then, stick to it.
The first person narrative of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” enhances the intensely fearful atmosphere of the story. It’s as if the POV character has reached out and grabbed the reader with shaking hands. Take a look at the opening lines of the story below.
“The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe – First Person POV
True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
How Many Kinds of Point of View are there?
There are three basic POVs you can use in your story or novel, and each will lend your tale a different flavor. These POVs each go by the term ‘person.’ a term referring to verb conjugation in English. See the quick examples below.
First Person—”I do this. I do that. I did this I did that.”
The voice of a first person narrator should not be bland. First person is a great opportunity to establish a strong voice and personality for your main character.
Narrative distance is close.
Second Person—”You do this. You do that. You did this. You did that.”
This POV can be edgy, which works well for urban, in your face, New Adult novels like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. If you choose to write in this POV, make sure your story will benefit from this slightly avant-garde tone.
Narrative distance is close, and can feel aggressive—in your face.
Third Person—”He does this. She does that. He did this. She did that.”
Third Person Options
Third person breaks out into two subcategories:
Objective, aka Limited—the story is told from within a single character’s consciousness and perception at a time. You can switch POV characters, but if you do, it’s usually best to make a section or chapter break.
Be careful the narrative distance isn’t too great. Take extra care to give the POV character a strong vivid voice.
Omniscient—the narrator isn’t in any one character’s head, and the narrator knows everything in the story. This POV is like a crane shot in a movie, or as if God was telling you the story. It can be hard to pull off. Technically, you could switch from showing one character’s thoughts and feelings to showing those of another within the same scene, but this is usually jarring to the reader—this is what’s known as head-hopping.
Third Person Omniscient has the grandest scope, and it can feel old fashioned.
It is typical of 19th Century novels.
It has the greatest narrative distance.
You may want to compensate by keeping the tension and stakes high, and focusing on shocking events in your characters’ lives.
Narrative Voice – Giving POV Shades and Color
No matter which Person you choose for your POV, you can select from the various narrative voices below:
Stream of Consciousness—based on the William James’s psychotherapeutic technique of having the patient blurt out whatever comes to mind. This style of POV puts the reader right inside the POV character’s head, privy to every passing thought and feeling, whether these thoughts make objective sense or not. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Marcel Proust used this technique. At worst, this technique produces dense impenetrable walls of text. It can be hard to not to make this approach seem pretentious, especially when you are a writing newbie.
Character Voice—The way a character sounds is his or her ‘Voice’ as he or she tells the story to the reader. Voice should be as specific as possible. A unique voice makes a protagonist more vivid and forges a bond with your reader. How do you get specific with your voice? Use words and phrases only that character would use. That gives your character an unmistakable way to express him or herself. And if you switch POV to that of another character, switch voice so that the reader knows they are now inside someone else’s head.
Kinds of Narrators—
Reliable—This kind of narrator tells the truth as he or she knows it.
Unreliable—This kind of narrator may lie or withhold key plot points, keeping the reader guessing (Amy and Nick in Gone Girl).
Epistolary—a story told through a primary document, rather than through narration, e.g. letters, social media status updates, diaries, and text messages (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The sections of Gone Girl that are Amy’s diary are epistolary. ‘Epistle’ means a letter.
Narrative Time – Tense
You can say it happened, or you can say it’s happening, just keep it consistent, or you may lose your readers.
Past Tense—It Happened
Past tense is the mainstream convention for telling a story. Think of “Once upon the time there was…” We’ve grown up with stories told in past tense. A past tense story feels as though it is happening in the present.
Present Tense—it Is Happening
In present tense, stories feel immediate, as in blow-by-blow sports coverage, or water cooler gossip. Present tense is often how we tell stories from our lives to our friends. “So I go to the office this morning and I get in late…”
Narrative distance is the level of closeness that your readers feel to your narrator. The closer your reader feels to the experience of the POV character, the more the reader is hooked by the story.
In most cases, closer is better because the reader is immersed in the POV character’s experience. There are times, though, when a bit of extra narrative distance can help you tell a story. In Gone Girl, Nick keeps the reader at a distance, which clues the reader in on his unreliability. Gone Girl is essentially a who-done-it in which we, the readers, rather than a detective character, work to solve the mystery. So, when Nick drops a few bombs on us in the second act, we are not completely shocked.
Many novels begin from greater narrative distances, the literary equivalent of a helicopter shot, and then later, zoom in on one character’s internal and external experience. Often starting with a greater narrative distance gives room to establish the broad scope of the story, and the world in which it unfolds.
Examples of Narrative Distance
Far – John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.
Close – Veronica Roth’s INSURGENT
I take Tobias’s hand. The wind picks up as we stand at the edge of the car opening, like a hand pushing me back, toward safety.
But we launch ourselves into darkness and land hard on the ground. The impact hurts the bullet wound in my shoulder. I bite my lip to keep from crying out, and search for my brother.
Tips about Point of View
Stick to one POV per scene. No “head hopping,” i.e. switching POVs mid scene. Yes, Hemingway did it in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Are you Hemingway and is it 1951? Head hopping disorients your reader and gives him or her a chance to lose interest in your story. There is a way to do it skillfully, but it is a pet peeve of many literary agents and editors and can make your work look amateurish.
No Narrative ESP. Avoid showing sensory details and knowledge the POV character could not know. A POV character can’t see her cheeks flush if she isn’t looking in the mirror. So if you write “Susan’s cheeks got pink.” and she is the POV character, if she can’t see her cheeks, you’ve broken your POV.
Keep your tense consistent within your scenes. Make it clear when you go into and come out of a flashback, which will, in general, take you back one tense, e.g. from present to past, or from past to past perfect.
Stay aware of your narrative distance. In your most intense scenes, keep your reader close to the action. But if you are establishing a new setting, or en entirely new world, it’s okay to start wide and then zoom in.
Examples – Points of Views in Literature
First Person Past – THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
First Person Present – THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Second Person Present – BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again it might not.
Third Person Omniscient Past – George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”
“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead that’s proof enough for me.”
Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later.
Stream of Consciousness (First Person) from James Joyce’s Ulysses
a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early
An Invisible Frame
In this post I have laid out a lot of technical jargon and information about something that ideally should be invisible to your reader. The reason you choose a POV and keep it consistent is to enhance the reader’s engagement in your story. Ideally the POV should be invisible to your reader because they are fully immersed in your story, eager to find out what happens next.
If you’re a writer like me, one of your vices is probably books about writing.
I call it a vice because reading a book on writing is one helluva way to avoid actually doing any writing. I know this from experience.
Publishing companies seem to know that aspiring writers tend to buy books on writing like one of my great aunts liked to buy Hummels. A search of ‘fiction writing’ books on Amazon.com yields a result of 47, 843.
How Do I Choose?
So how to pick your next writing book? I am particularly obsessive about finding the one treatise on plot that can rule them all! I have a number of contenders, but I still haven’t found the one great book on story structure.
In the mean time, I want to know which books on writing my favorite writers recommend, so then it’s internet and another first-class time suck. It’s okay. We all do it..
Great Writers’ Favorite Writing Books
As I trawl the interwebs in search of the best books on writing, one in particular, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, shows up frequently, alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Gold’s Writing Down the Bones, Save the Cat, and so on.
I must admit I avoided Bird by Bird because of the title. It seemed overly precious, and I wondered why the author would pick that, since it seemed to have nothing to do with fiction writing. That shows how much I judge a book by its title.
I finally decided to see what the fuss was about, so I downloaded Bird by Bird from Audible.com.
I love Audible.com. I require a steady stream of compelling audiobooks because traffic turns me into a Viking berserker.Unless I have some compelling distraction, I might ram my Toyoto Echo into that douche of a BMW who just cut me off on my way from the 5 to the 134.
This book definitely helped me keep my driver’s license.
Best Books on Writing: The Life
There are many books on technique, on how to build character, how to show not tell.
Bird by Bird has great pointers on plot, character, description, but what it mostly has is relief-giving advice on how to walk through life as a writer, the kind of advice that when you hear it, makes you sigh, feel understood, and, most vitally, feel motivated to go on and do what you are here on the planet to do.
Because if you are a writer, you know it ain’t easy.
Writing is a solitary affair, and the best ideas can be killed by that evil laughing hyena of a critic, that bitter maniac we all carry around inside of us.
The Audible version of Bird by Bird is ably narrated by Susan Bennett (also the voice of Siri!). The prose is precise. The way Lamott describes her own process, the obsession, the procrastination, the ADD, the hypochondria–it’s hilarious. Her narrative voice is strong and encouraging.
This quote below made me cry “yes!” as I was hiking up over the Silver Lake hills, listening to it on my iPhone.
“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”
Ah, the need to be seen and heard. Thinking about it still brings up an old old ache behind my eyes and at the back of my throat. Yep, there’s my old friend.
So many things are quotable and tee-shirt wearable in this little book.
“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism.”
“Messes are the artist’s true friend.”
And then, there are the practical suggestions, which I’ve woven into my own writing practice.
“…write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.”
Now from time to time I have told myself that I will never write my memoirs because my life is not terribly interesting. But Lamott’s book has given me the permission to write down as much as I can remember, and it feels like it’s opened something up inside me. And it keeps my daily thousand word goal going strong. I think it’s making me better. And I can thank Bird by Bird for it.
Here’s Lamott on character:
“…a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable.”
On just sitting down and pumping out that shitty first draft:
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”
On truth and using your own voice:
“You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”
Here is how she explains character-driven plot:
“That’s what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t, everything that tells them that they should sit quietly on the couch and practice their Lamaze, or call their therapist, or eat until the urge to do that thing passes.”
A key point on dialogue:
“…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.”
I was halfway through listening to Bird by Bird, and I knew I needed to own it on paper. I knew I was going to want to thumb through it, highlight parts of it, and tab pages.
Lamott is truthful about her own experience, about how overwhelming it can be to sit in front of a blank screen everyday and try to fill it up with something other than drivel. About how the choice to write surfaces massive insecurity.
Her solutions? Shitty first drafts, short assignments, the one-inch picture frame. I’ll never forget those. My brain can latch onto them. They work.
For the record, I still think it would do better with another title.
The anecdote it’s based on answers the question, how do you write when it’s such an overwhelming task? The answer is, the way Lamott’s father advised her brother to write a report on birds he had to do for grade school. “Bird by bird.”
Yes, that is true with writing. You just take it one bit at a time, and suddenly you are in the fictional dream, seeing and feeling it all.
“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
In my experience, books on writing can be full of fluff, throat-clearing and nattering to beef up content that might fit into a half-hour PowerPoint presentation. This one, happily, has almost no non-nutritive filler. Mr. Bell’s tips start in the introduction—including a great little exercise on how to sharpen your sense of plot.
Books on writing sometimes contain only uninterrupted prose, paragraph upon paragraph with few bullet points, sidebars, or headings. This one isn’t like that. It’s got headings and bullet points aplenty, so you can read it front to back, or you can scan it for the bit you need right now.
And the prose is beautiful, with lots of varied sentence construction. I really appreciate that. If you can’t write great prose, please don’t try to teach me how to write.
I also love all of the examples from books and movies I already know. And, if you don’t know these examples, Mr. Bell lays out the plot or sets the scene so you will get it.
I was around page 24, and I already felt so grateful that I tweeted the author to thank him. He tweeted me right back. So this guy is also savvy about social networking. A definite plus.
This revision stuff scares me like Mrs. Brody is scared of Quint. There is much to do. I have to delete delete delete sections and stitch the remaining scenes back together in a way that doesn’t leave the manuscript all effed up like the skin of the Frankenstein monster. I can get into a downtrodden frame of mind about it. Mr. Bell’s book tells you up front that this dark mood will come. It gives you several techniques to help combat it, like a little post-it somewhere in your space that says ‘I can fix it.’
Yes, darnit! I can!
I think this book is going to be my best friend as I tromp all Hobbit-like through the revision marshes toward the distant burning mountain of Draft Four.
I’m almost done with my second draft of my first novel, Tigers Slow Awake. I’ve been thinking I should have a blog about writing and process and how the heck do you get from just a few vague ideas to 160,000 words. And how do you get from there to something you actually feel confident querying an agent or editor about?
I don’t know yet what that will be like, but I know I’m going to do it.
I’m writing a synopsis, something like you’d see on a book jacket, something that tells the story and sells it, too. But it’s scary to face the task of putting all my plot in one place. I suppose there’s something daunting about every phase of writing a novel.
I’m using the program Scrivener to wrangle this draft, and although I like it, I find the Compile feature was not at all intuitive. I had to do a deep web search to get it to come out the way I wanted, and it’s still not quite there. I’m so ready for Scrivener to have its own app. Apparently they have been working on that at literatureandlatte.com for more than three years. This is supposed to be the year they get there. I wish them the best of luck! I could really use that app!
And I’m working with a great writing teacher in Sherman Oaks, Claudette Sutherland. I’ve put her website link here. She gives great supportive feedback and I think she’s helping get my prose into line, among many other helpful things!
One thing I’m struggling with is how to inject imagery into the action so the reader knows exactly where they are and can really picture it. It’s quite a discipline to write that way, a good challenge.