Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?
I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!
For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:
The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books
Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:
Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.
Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.
This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?
How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.
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!
Many thanks to the mellifluously funny and gifted writer Chelsey Monroe, a truly amusing gal I was lucky enough to meet at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, for tagging me in this hullaballoo. Please to enjoy her talk about her writing and its process here.
Now here’s my thang:
What am I working on?
Young Adult Fantasy Novel Guardian of the Chalice.
Here’s the logline:
16-year old Avery Dickenson discovers the has magical powers and inherits a magical chalice that makes her the most powerful witch on the planet. A cabal of dark immortal magicians want to use her power, so they take her father hostage and steal him away to Rome. To get him back, Avery must sail to Europe with her friends and her hippie witch aunt, learning magical combat. But can Avery resist the ultimate temptation—to bring her dead mother back to life—in order to save her father and friends from the ultimate evil?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Two Kinds of Magic: A key conflict in my novel is between two different ways of doing magic—the Left Hand path, which derives power from causing pain and extracting energy from others, and the Right Hand path, in which strength comes from being in harmony with nature and ones true self.
The Eternal City: Rome used to be called the navel of the world in ancient times. Rome is the center of magic in my novel, which gives my work a DaVinci Code feel. Avery’s italian heritage and the Italian witchcraft she learns from her Aunt Nina are unusual and culturally rich motifs in my novel.
Time Travel: One of Avery’s key powers is traveling in time and space. So my novel has special fun with time travel, issues with paradoxes, and timelines across centuries that affect each other.
A Tiger in Your Tank: Oh, yes, and Avery can shape shift into a tiger, but only when she’s particularly angry.
Creepy Decaying Historical Bad Guys: My bad guys are real historical magicians who made themselves immortal in the past. Every 21 years they must renew their immortality by an especially brutal ceremony. But every once in a while a witch like Avery comes along, with so much power that if they can use her, they can make the immortality permanent. All previous attempts to do this have failed but they all believe this is the time it will work. As it gets closer and closer to the time of renewal, which is Midsummer Eve, the bad guys’ bodies start to fall apart a bit. It starts with peeling and cracking skin, and gets yuckier from there.
The Knights Templar: Oh, yeah, and wrapped up in all of this are the Knights Templar, and a conflict which stretches back to the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Modern Goths: But also, Avery and her friends are Goth teenagers at a fancy prep school with normal teen issues like staying loyal to friends, getting good grades and trying to get into the college of their choice.
Team Neither! And since all of this is going on in this book, the first of a trilogy, it’s a darn good thing there are no vampires or werewolves in sight!
Why do I write what I do?
Thank you, Harriet The Spy! Children’s books were my best and only friends in elementary school. I write books for tweens because I want to do that for someone else.
Who are you? I really like challenges that come into play with Young Adult fiction. I’m fascinated by questions of identity. The process of choosing who we will become, what contribution we will make in the world, how we will use our strengths—I find all of that fascinating and mysterious. It’s such an important time in life. And yes, I think I’ll always be fourteen inside where it counts.
Burn, Witch, Burn! I was, for a time, a practicing pagan. There are so many different kinds of magical systems and pantheons and ways of practicing. I met people who worshipped the Hawaiian gods, the Norse Gods, the Faeries. I met people who practiced Kabala, too, and alchemy, and Freemasonry. I still love the idea of a spirituality connected to nature that balances masculine and feminine, that honors the earth. There’s a book called The Chalice and the Blade that most pagans have read, and it tells an alternative version of Western History with a feminist slant. It may not be great scholarship, but it’s a great idea.
How does my writing process work?
I did Nanowrimo in 2012 and revised my novel for 2013 Nanowrimo.
Knowing I was going to do Nanowrimo, I came up with a rough outline.
I am an outliner, not a pantser.
During Nanowrimo I wrote for 45 minutes every day at lunch. Most days, that got me up above the minimum daily word count of 1667 words. If I got behind, I’d catch up on weekends. I just wrote like the wind, letting it all come out and not revising at all as I went. I still think that’s the best way to get stuff down on paper. Just go.
My novelist husband has this motto for writing: Make it crap; fix it later. It works.
I like writing in public, with lots of distractions, but I do turn on my White Noise app and plug in my earphones.
I can’t write with the TV on.
If I get stuck, I skip that chapter and go to something that happens later in the story.
I work on Scrivener, but please O Scrivener Literature and Latte Folk, My Kingdom for an iPad App!
Sometimes I procrastinate.
But usually I put the meat in the seat and write, no excuses.
Next on the Hit Parade:
Stay tuned for these wonderfully talented tagged writers, Posting on May 12, or thereabouts:
Back in the roaring eighties, Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller was the managing editor of six international magazines (including Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, Night Cry, and GalleryMagazine). Since then he’s had two science fiction Bantam Books novels published (The Host and its sequel, Short Blade), an original TV sitcom pilot produced, and numerous movie options taken out on his work by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer. When he’s not writing, he’s acting — particularly as a voiceover artist. Yes, that’s Stoney you hear resonating mellifluously in radio ads, making silly voices in cartoons, and dying a thousand horrible deaths in video games. (Hey, it beats working for a living.)
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.