Five Guides for Puzzled Writers
Given the choice between reading a book about doing something… or doing that thing, I opt for the book every time. Which explains why I must have opened every ‘How to Write Fiction’ book ever written. Opened… Read a couple of pages. And – in most cases – put back down again.
I don’t have the world’s longest attention span, and you’ve got to be short, funny and/or include pictures to keep me reading. Surprisingly, that isn’t an impossibly hard task.
1. How Not to Write a Novel
Write better… or the kitty gets it…
This has be a brilliant book. JUST LOOK AT THE COVER. On a more serious note, How Not to Write a Novel does exactly what it says on the tin. It uses made-up examples of excruciatingly bad writing to illustrate how not to tackle plot, character, dialogue, setting and voice. It’s snarky, it’s very rude, I laughed out loud in places… and I wished I’d written it myself.
Pick up this book today and, if you’ve been writing for a while, I challenge you to read it without cringing at least once. Authors’ website is here.
Quote from How Not to Write a Novel, page 55-56:
Some descriptions of characters sound like a police report:
Joe was a medium-sized man with brown hair and brown eyes.
Alan wore a white shirt and blue jeans on his tall frame.
Melinda had a nice body and a pretty face.
Descriptions like this make your characters feel like stick figures. No one thinks of himself as a brown-haired man of average height. Police-report descriptions in general will be received by the reader much as if it had read “Horace was a man with two legs, two arms, and a head on top.” […] If you’re going to tell us something about a character, tell us something that we wouldn’t have assumed on the basis of species and gender. Err on the side of specificity. Novels are seldom rejected because the characters are described too well. Try to concentrate on features and qualities that are specific to your character, or if your character is in fact average, describe those features in a way that is specific to your character, a way that suggests her personality. (“Marianne detested the way she didn’t stand out in a crowd.”)
2. The Story Book
Storytelling is among the oldest human traditions, so you may wonder why you need a book on ‘How to Tell a Story’, but telling a story in two, five, or 150,000 words is harder than it looks. There’s a reason why William Shakespeare is still showing in British theatres after 450 years. He created plays that tickled the human desire for stories with conflict, rising tension and a clear beginning, middle and an end.
Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee is The Definitive Textbook for storytellers, but I prefer The Story Book. It is a step-by-step guide to story creation that turns novels into flat-packed furniture with words. Still annoying and fiddly to put together, but at least you’ve got a screwdriver and a plan. It covers the same ground as Story, but it’s shorter and less academic… And it has pictures. Click here to visit the author’s website.
Pictures from The Story Book, page 90-91:
I used Story Book to plan my own work-in-progress novel (in an Excel spreadsheet…). Wrongly or rightly though, my book sometimes sacrifices story for milieu, which brings me neatly onto my third entry…
3. A Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy
This guide by Orson Scott Card first introduced me to MICE. No, not squeaky cheese eaters. MICE is short for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.
A story is how we humans make Events entertaining. We tell tales by saving the most exciting event until last. Did Fred slay the dragon? Did Helena get the guy in the end? The Story Book tells you how to sequence Events, but only high-octane thrillers are 90% event.
In science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, the setting – Milieu – is as important as what happened. A murder in Tudor England and on Mars aren’t the same story. Likewise, science fiction was traditionally a novel of Ideas, asking ethical questions like whether smart robots should have the same rights as people. Finally, literary fiction often focuses on the psychology or inner turmoil of Characters.
Since novels have word limits, Milieu, Idea, Character and Event compete for space in your story. Showing Martian cuisine reduces the amount of words you can spend developing Freda’s relationship with her aunt. There are a lot of assumptions embedded in a high-octane made-up-by me-on-the-spot first line like:
‘The President of the United States dived behind the desk, but I had already aimed the Glock and pulled the trigger’.
We’re on present-day Earth, maybe in the Oval Office, the President is being assassinated, and this will probably set in motion a major international incident – maybe even nuclear war. The weirder your setting, the harder it is to produce an Event-driven first line like that one. There’s a reason why SF&F writers often use tropes like vampires, zombies and cyberpunk megacorps…
Quote from The Writer’s Digest Guide, page 77:
The milieu is the world – the planet, the society, the weather, the family; all the elements that came up during the world creation process. Every story has a milieu, but in some stories the milieu is the thing the storyteller cares about most. For instance, in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift cared little about whether we came to care about Gulliver as a character. The whole point of the story was for the audience to see all the strange lands where Gulliver travelled and then compare the societies he found there with the society of England in Swift’s own day – and the societies of all the tale’s readers, in all times and places.
The MICE Quotient isn’t the only reason to pick up this ring binder, but that’s worth the entry price alone – especially if you’re writing SF&F. Visit the Writer’s Digest website here.
4. How to Write the Perfect Novel: A tongue-in-cheek guide to certain literary success
I did not know the dog’s name. He stared at me from the rusted, rotten twisting metal and concrete of a decayed groyne. I stared back.
‘Genre’ is one of those strange terms you’ll hear as a beginner writer. What ‘genre’ is your book in? A Death at the Vicarage is in the mystery ‘genre’.
How to Write the Perfect Novel is the best guide to genre you’re ever going to read. And it uses the time-honoured tradition of making stuff up and taking the mickey. If you’ve ever wanted to read mick-takes of the worst romance, literary, spy or crime writing – now you can.
Quote from How to Write the Perfect Novel (literary fiction), page 47:
“Dog,” I said.
He cocked his head yes
“Why don’t you have any punctuation?”
Dog laughed Haven’t you figured it out yet
I shook my head. “Why do you sit here, dog, day after day?”
Dog smiled I’m a literary cipher mate It’s my place to be enigmatic and make readers wonder what my symbolism is I’m a bleedin metaphor
That’s for me to know and you to find out moosh probably on page 362 when the book finally ends but in such a wet indefinite way that the reader will be left scratching his noodle wondering what the fuck all that was about If he makes it that far
5. On Writing
Stephen King is among the world’s most best-selling authors. According to Wikipedia, his books have sold more than 350 million copies.
On Writing is a combination memoir and textbook for writers. King rambles a bit (as he does in his books), but this is the airport novel of writer’s guides. King is a genius storyteller. It’s a warm, easy read and you learn something at the end. Bonus. You can visit his website here.
Quote (shortened) from ‘What Writing is’ from On Writing, pages 113-117:
All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe writing offers the purest distillation […]
Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage about the size of a small fish aquarium. In the case is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.
Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course; some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red: some receivers will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see other shades. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome – my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.
[But…] We all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same room… except we are together.
We’re having a meeting of the minds.