Friday, May 21, 2010

Good How-to Writing Books

by Jean Henry Mead

There are a number of good books on writing available, many of value to even the most experienced writers. During the past year I’ve accumulated several that I’d like to share:

~Richard Curtis’s How to be Your Own Literary Agent has been around since 1983, and was revised and expanded in 2003. Curtis doesn’t advise fledglings to become their own agents, despite the book’s title, but offers advice for those brave enough to try. A top notch agent with forty plus year's experience, he outlines in detail what his job entails. He also lists the reasons why publishers can no longer afford over the transom submissions.

How to negotiate your own contract alone is worth the price of the book as well as termination and revision rights, royalty statements and the bookkeeping games that publishers play. He also talks about warranties, permissions, option causes, ancillary rights, cyberbooks and hyper authors, ebooks, movie and TV deals and what writers need to know to launch their careers in today’s publishing environment, among other insider tips.

~Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style by Hallie Ephron is another book writers should read. Novelist and broadcast journalist Hank Phillippi Ryan swears that Ephron’s book enabled her to write her award winning novels. Ephron talks about planning a novel, writing a dramatic opening, creating a sense of place, fixing plots and characters, and targeting agents.

Ephron also discusses villains, choosing a title for your book, introducing your protagonist, planting clues or red herrings, laying in backstory, minor characters, point of view, dialogue and everything in between. I highly recommend this book written by a best selling novelist.

~How to Writer Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat is another book writers should have on their shelves. I especially enjoyed her chapter on writing killer fiction. Her introduction quotes the late John Gardner, who wrote, “Fiction is like a dream.” She goes on to say that “Fiction can send us on a roller coaster ride of sensation, or it can produce images as distorted as any to be seen in the funhouse mirror in the carnival.” And “If fiction is like a dream, then suspense is a nightmare. The hero, and through the hero the reader, is plunged into chaos, driven from one extreme to the other, hounded and disbelieved and threatened with ultimate danger.”

Wheat writes of many aspects of her “Funhouse of Mystery,” including organizing your novel, the two-layered ending, spy fiction offshoots, the hero’s journey, how to finish your book before it finishes you, endings that satisfy, the storyboard, comic relief and much more.

Another how-to book I’ve been hearing about for some time but only acquired recently is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, an abstract and somewhat shocking account of her journey as a writer. A fiction writing teacher, she writes of her experiences growing up, in her classroom, as well as writing her own novels. In the book she says, “Now, who knows if any of this is usable material? There’s no way to tell until you’ve got it all down, and then there might just be one sentence or one character or one theme that you end up using. But you get it all down. You just write.” Word by word. Bird by bird. The writing advice and lessons she offers her students as well as her readers is invaluable.

I’ve saved some of the best for last: Chris Roerden’s award winning books, Don't Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. The former New York editor, freelance editor and author lists ten reasons writers cause editors to cringe: Arrogance, as in:
~ My book is so good it doesn’t need editing.
~ The only thing it could use is maybe a light proofreading.
~ Everyone will want to buy it.
~ Every publisher will want to publish it.
~ They’re getting a bargain at 150,000 words.
~ To make sure no one steals my ideas, I’ve already registered the copyright.
~ I don’t have to read guidelines, write a synopsis, or play by any of those other Mickey Mouse rules because those are for amateurs.
~ I never read books about writing.
~ What genre is it, you ask? Let the publisher figure that out. They’re in the business. It’s got romance, mystery, history, and biography, and autobiography.
~There isn’t another book like it.
(Excerpted from my soon to be released book, Mysterious Writers)


Maribeth said...

Such a great list! It's hard to know where to start. How about I go with the first to arrive?
Very helpful post. Thanks.

Giggles and Guns

Mark W. Danielson said...

As you know, Jean, the list of books on writing can be overwhelming. Your list helps narrow things down. No doubt, writers (particularly novice writers) need advice, and these self-help books are a good source. Critique groups and mentors can be equally helpful.

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're very welcome, Maribeth. There are quite a few others out there that are just as good.

And, Mark, I'm afraid I have to disagree about critique groups being equally helpful. Unless the members are well published, you can receive less than helpful advice, as I did when I was first started writing fiction. I was, however, fortunate to have been taken under the wings of best selling western novelists, Richard S. Wheeler and Fred Grove, who served as mentors.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Thanks for this post. I have Bird by Bird and Don't Murder Your Murder Mystery. I'll have to check out the others.

Bird is great. Roerden's looks fantastic. I've just skimmed it as I want to wait until I finish my ms and use it for edits.

Anonymous said...

A little brag here. Chris Roerden notified me she quotes me in both of her books. I don't have a copy of either so I can't tell you the page numbers, but she has indexes.

I'm always interested in other writers' choices of helpful books. I think Carolyn Wheat's book is one of the best.

I don't want inspiration in a how-to book, I want perspiration -- just tell me how to do it. I have a short stack of such books and CDs that I wouldn't part with.

Tom Sawyer just sent me a complimentary CD of his Storybase, as a thank-you for my unwavering and highly vocal support of his 2 novels and I'll download it this weekend.

I still haven't dipped into my CD of New Novelist's "Start Writing Your Novel," co-produced by Charles Dickens' grandaughter or great-granddaughter (I forget which but you can't get a better recommendation than that!)

Pat Browning
Krill Press 2008
Now on Kindle $1.99

Anonymous said...

There are some really great books out there that share some really interesting advice. While most of it can be found if you look for long enough online, it doesn't really beat having the book nearby for quick reference and all the bits of advice stored in one place.
Thanks for sharing this list.