|Just part of my writing library.|
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.]
#3 – Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.
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).