Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Make Your Own Private Writer’s Conference

Just part of my writing library.
By Tiffany Reisz, @tiffanyreisz

Hi Writers!

I’m off to a writer’s conference this week. Everyone goes to conferences for different reasons. Some writers are looking for agents. Some writers want to mingle with their favorite authors. I go to learn. I love all the workshops and the writing tips. I learn something invaluable every single conference I attend.

But fear not! You don’t have to fork over a thousand bucks for plane tickets and conference fees just to learn how to be a better writer. You can do it in the privacy of your own home or public library. Here are five of my favorite writing guides. Read them and you too can learn invaluable writing tricks without ever having to fly to Atlanta, Georgia in the middle of July (God help me).

#1 – Stephen King’s ON WRITING.

This book is where you start. Always. There is no other writing book to read before this one. Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t like horror novels. I’ve never read a Stephen King book. Why should I read this book?” GLAD YOU ASKED. Because we all want to write bestsellers, yes? There isn’t a writer alive who could say they weren’t interested in writing a bestseller. So if you’re going to learn about writing, might as well learn from a man who has hit the New York Times bestseller list…over twenty damn times.

Favorite Quote: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us go to work.”

#2 – Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT.

Yes, I realize SAVE THE CAT is a screenwriting guide. I don’t care. Read this book if you want to learn how to save yourself heartache and rejection. Screenplays are like books in miniature with all the plot points hugely exaggerated. A screenwriter has to do what a novelist does, but has only 120 pages to do it, not 400. Do you want to understand three-act story structure? Read this book. Do you want to know shortcuts for creating sympathetic heroes your readers root for from chapter one? Read this book. Do you want to know how to outline your book with fifteen notecards instead of a hundred? Read this book.

Best Advice: “The hero cannot be lured, tricked, or drift into Act Two. The hero must make the decision himself.”

[Side note – while writing this quote I realized my heroine in my new book is tricked into act two. Now I’m brainstorming a way to make her more pro-active and less of a victim of circumstance. Thanks, Blake! Even a professional writer needs to remind herself of the basics.]


The previous two books are written by authors. Great. Now let’s hear from an agent’s perspective (Maass is also a novelist). No one sees more crappy books than agents do. My own agency received 35,000 queries last year and took on maybe ten new clients. So no one on earth is better equipped to tell you what not to do in your book than a literary agent, and Donald Maass is one of the top literary agents in the world. His clients include Anne Perry and Anne Bishop (if your name is Anne, you’re more likely to be a bestseller. Just ask Anne Rice.)

Maass’s trick to improving every single novel ever written including yours without even reading it first? “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this—RAISE THE STAKES.” [shouty caps mine]

#4 – Ronald B. Tobias’s 20 MASTER PLOTS.

A writer friend of mine was horrified when she caught me reading this book. She believes books that teach plot archetypes stifle creativity. But there’s a big difference between me and my writer friend who hates writing craft books. I’m published. She isn’t. Freestyle writing is about as safe and smart as freestyle house building. Structure matters. In 20 MASTER PLOTS, Tobias sketches out the structure of the twenty most common types of plots you’ll come across in fiction. These plots transcend genre. A science-fiction or a Western novel can have a Quest Plot. Cinderella is a classic Underdog plot. But so is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When I’m struggling to understand the book I’m writing, I always return to 20 MASTER PLOTS. When I realize I’m writing a Transformation story instead of a Love story, I know how to better focus my attention more on the protagonist’s zero-to-hero journey than her romantic interest.

Best reason to read 20 Master Plots? Once you know the basic structure of archetypal plots, you’ll know how to subvert them to your advantage. My second book, THE ANGEL, employed the classic UNDERDOG/Cinderella plot. Except my Cinderella was a teenage boy who’d once attempted suicide and his Prince Charming is a recovering drug addict/trust fun baby. My boys are easily my most beloved couple I’ve ever written.

#5 – Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.

Once you’ve read all these books you may be exhausted and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of craft involved in writing a novel. That’s when you take a break and read this classic work of inspiration by one of the most interesting, humble, and brilliant writers ever. The title comes from a true event in Lamott’s past. Her brother as a boy had forgotten to do his bird project. It was due the next day and he panicked. Their father calmed the boy down and helped him with his project. “Bird by bird,” her father told him. In other words, take it one step at a time. A novel seems like a huge undertaking, but really all books start out as a blank sheet of paper. All of us start out not knowing how to write. I couldn’t even read when I was born much less write. We grow up, we learn, we write word by word.

BIRD BY BIRD is subtitled “Some Instructions for Writing and Life.” This is an example of what she means by that.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

Everything you would learn about writing at a conference you can learn by reading these books. The only downside? No bar.

Question to readers—What’s your favorite writing guide?

Tiffany Reisz is the award-winning and international bestselling author of The Original Sinners series (Mira Books). When she’s not writing, she’s thinking of new ways to torture her readers with chapter endings that make them call her a sadist on Twitter. Tiffany takes this as a compliment.

Follow her on Twitter @tiffanyreisz (if you dare).


  1. "Story Engineering" by Larry Brooks is an excellent guide to plot and structure. Also, Robert McKee's classic, "Story."

  2. The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass, is my current go to book.

    The others you mention - engrained in the brain already.

    But FIF is worth its weight in gold because he not only identifies places where tension might be lacking, but shows you several examples of how to increase it.

    After 10,000 hours or several million words, you have the basics down. Then you go to the checklists: making sure everything you know how to do is included in each scene. I've generated my own checklists from FIF, several chapters' worth - answering those questions always seems to deepen whatever scene I'm working on.

    The other chapter not to miss is 'Scenes that can't be cut.' Every scene I write/revise gets put through that wringer.

    I can dash off several thousand words of correctly punctuated dialogue, internal monologue, and action - the facility comes from years of reading and writing - but if it doesn't make it past the checklists, it isn't ready.

  3. I love books (and blogs) on writing craft! Some of my favorites, apart from the ones already mentioned, are:

    1. How to Write a Damn Good Novel (Parts 1 & 2) by James Frey
    2. First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke
    3. Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
    4. Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon

    In fact, I loved 'Manuscript Makeover' so much that I'm waiting to finish my developmental drafts quickly so that I can get on with fine-tuning the prose by applying the techniques from that book.

  4. Those suggestions are great, especially the King, Brooks and Maass books. "Story" by McKee has a lot of information in it, but I've always found it difficult to read.

    Here are my suggestions:

    1. "Scene & Structure" by Jack Bickham (or, alternatively, you could read "Secrets of a Best-Selling Writer by Bickham's teacher, Dwight Swain ... but I find Bickham's book easier to read and understand);

    2. "Building Fiction" by Jessie Lee Kercheval;

    3. "Growing a Novel" by Sol Stein;

    4. "Plot & Structure" by James Scott Bell;

    5. Nancy Kress' book on Creating Characters (I can't think of the exact name); and

    6. "Description" by Monica Wood.

    I'm looking forward to seeing suggestions from others ... I hope to find a new writing book that I can use!!

  5. GREAT POST! THanks to you and the comments, I have a long list to bring to the library! I just took a 4-day writing retreat at home--and spent most of my time writing! But as a writing coach (I've written and published ten books including a book on writing, Write-A-Thon), I am always trying to find new books to read to build my toolkit. I LOVED Save the Cat. I also find myself turning to The Writer's Journey. But last weekend, because I was working on my novel for kids, I brought a stack of kid's novels home to read. They helped me SO MUCH.

  6. The best book, bar none, that I've come across in a long time is Jordan E. Rosenfeld's MAKE A SCENE. I've had books that I wanted to take notes on before. This one had me feverishly writing notes, questions and thoughts for my own novel! Her way of writing somehow sparked my creativity as I read.

  7. I love Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge. And I just finished Screenplay by Syd Field.

    Also love Save the Cat.

  8. Love this post! I've read most of these but need to get Master Plots! I also loved James Frey's books and James Scott Bell's books are must reads!

  9. I'd also add 'Sometimes the magic works' by Terry Brooks and 'Turning Pro' by Steven Pressfield.

  10. "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit" by Lawrence Block is a light-hearted but still useful read, and great fun to go through.

  11. I gained so much from many of those listed...Sol Stein, Donald Mass, James Fry.

    My all time favorite is IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland. And I recent ENJOYED Elizabeth's George's WRITE AWAY.

    This a great post and one to book mark. When you're a writer...writing books are for what ails you. :)

  12. I love Jurgen Wolff's Your Writing Coach. It's inspiring and practical, and he suggests some unconventional things.

  13. Great post! I keep hearing about this "Save the Cat" book. I plan on reading that and 20 Master plots before the end of the summer. Thanks for the advice!