Writing Fiction: What I Learned from Studying 227 Craft Textbooks
Mostly that I already knew what I needed to know, and that textbook studies don’t replace your own reading and a lot of practice by actually writing.
I went out to study the highly recommended books out there about How to Write a Damn Good (Fiction) Book – and threw away 95% of them.
That said, I did find some gold nuggets:
- Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande ( book | course )
- On Writing – Stephen King
- The Complete Plotto – William Wallace Cook
- Writing to the Point – Algis Budrys
- Characters & Viewpoint – Orson Scott Card
- Conflict, Action & Suspense – William Noble
- Shoot Your Novel – C. S. Lakin
- Writing Popular Fiction – Dean Koontz
- Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
- 20 Master Plots – and How to Build Them – Ronald B. Tobias
(These are in addition to the lectures and workshops by Dean Wesley Smith. His blog is good, as are his simple books like “Writing Into the Dark” and “Heinlein’s Rules.”)
The main point with this list of books is that they mostly don’t overlap. The other 217 books mostly or completely did. I’m still saving a dozen or so which are specifically about certain genres. But I’ll crack those after I have a few dozen of those-type genre fiction books already read and digested and can see what I like.
These are all craft books, not how-to books. There are tons of books out there on self-publishing and getting agents and contracts. Read those if you need to, but the first advice I ever ran across in self-publishing success was to “Write A Damn Good Book.” from JA Konrath. Since none of the books talked about this for fiction authors, I had to pile up this stack and go through them.
This list above, and this short chapter now tells you the path to train yourself into that success.
The tricks are few in this:
1. Write a lot. (And publish everything.)
2. Read a lot. (And only what you really like.)
3. Enjoy what you’re writing, or your readers won’t enjoy reading it.
All you really need to know about plotting is in the second chapter of Budry’s book. The rest is your PHD – piled higher and deeper. (Cook’s best contribution is in his explanation of how plots work. The rest of his massive “Plotto” is just the cherry on top.)
The funniest thing is that most of the top writers out of this list turned out to be “pantzers”. But they didn’t call themselves that. They said they were writers. (Not re-writers.) And wrote between a thousand and two thousand words per day. Every day. And once they finished, they started their next one.
You won’t find editors on this list, or professional proofreaders. There’s probably not any professor or academic anything in that list. Some do coaching on the side. Bradbury used to give local college lectures twice a year, but not for a living. Budrys used to teach writers and he was the exception. You’ll see when you read his book. Completely non-academic.
How to Weed Out a List of Books
The reason for this was to see what what out there. I got lists of books and scrounged those books here and there. Bought as many as I had to. Big stack of books. Big.
The first point was finding that the pro writers, who have decades of experience, gave the best advice.
But just because a person has written 75 novels, doesn’t mean much if they are also holding an Academic position. Wedged in with these were the people who were just collating the conventional wisdom and regurgitating it. You could tell these by how many of the “proper” terms they used in describing various writing viewpoints existed. Thick prose. Useless data.
Below that were the sheer volume of people who came up with their own terms to describe the same things everyone else was covering. Their own twist. But they were just repeating stuff without really improving on anything. Some of these were specialized for screen-writing, and I had to skip them as they weren’t covering basics, but special tricks and strategies for getting your screenplay accepted and paid for.
At the very bottom were “texts” on how to write fast and cheap and get people to actually buy it (like they just did to you.)
How to Learn Your Author Craft
1. Only read what you like. But read a lot. (Watching lots of good movies also works.)
2. That will give you examples and ideas of how to write best. And train your unconscious mind.
3. Trust your unconscious mind to give you a good story. Then coordinate this with your conscious mind to get the best story out of it.
4. Write every day. Publish at least every week – something.
5. Once you have your first hundred short stories published, it will get easier. (Eat your elephant one bite at a time.)
6. Every “great” author starts writing genre fiction first. And a lot of writers never become “great”, but have a great time and make a decent living.
What I Learned From This Process
Alfred Hitchcock said something like: “A story is just like life, but with the dull bits left out.” And that is all there is to writing. Leave out the stuff that will bore readers. Elmore Leonard said something like that, too.
There’s one plot: a character tries to find happiness. There is one overall structure. This is in Budrys’ seven points (or five, or nine, depending on how you count them.) And you have Lester Dent’s model, plus Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. They all fit into each other. They all say the same thing.
- People read to identify with a larger-than-life character with larger-than-life attitudes, problems, solutions, and drives. Readers want to be transported. And kept there.
- There are only two types of things you put into books: those things which forward the action (to solve the character’s problem) or deepen our understanding of the character(s). You write what readers expect. The best you can. And even better with your next story.
- Beats build into scenes, build into chapters, build into complete stories. (See Lakin’s book.)
- A beat, scene, chapter, and all stories only need to be as long as they need to be. The story will tell you. If you’re forcing it, then you wrote past the ending. Back up, find it, then delete everything after that.
- You start off by writing short stories, and these eventually will become collections or novels. Depends. On how you write them. Publish everything. (Use pen names to avoid embarrassment.)
- There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block. You just have to learn to empty your head so you have space for a story to come in. Then write it as best you can. (See Brande’s book on that.)
- Don’t listen to reviews or critics. (Except maybe-sometimes the 3-stars.) Take all criticism with a grain of salt. (“Those who can’t write, become critics.”) You’re already writing every story better than your last. And you always will. Free advice (criticism, reviews) is like a belly button. Everyone has one, and they aren’t all pretty.
- Keep improving your craft by studying only the best. If you don’t like what you’re reading, no matter who’s name is on the cover, then put it aside. Read what you like. Like what you write. Only. Writing is endless joy. If it isn’t, start from the top of this and restudy everything.
(PS. This means I’m done with the research. Now the hard practice starts – in earnest.)
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Also published on Medium.