I mentioned earlier in the week that I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’ve already told you about the stories I’ve been enjoying. This post will discuss some writing-related books I’ve consumed recently.
I’ve been wrestling with some plotting demons in A Thief & A Gentlewoman, which have stopped me moving on with the story. Sometimes plot-doubts are simply us as insecure writers second-guessing ourselves … but sometimes there really is a flaw in our plotting. The outline of AT&aGw has gone through a few changes, with a parallel plot added to increase complexity (and ensure it reached a fantasy-appropriate word count!), but coming back to the story after a break, I now feel that that addition has actually diluted what was a strong plot with an exciting climax. So I’ve been focusing on books about plot to get some ideas for how to move forward.
I picked up The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing a couple of months ago as it has interviews with some interesting writers and articles on topics not covered by some of my more specialist writing books, and it seems like good value – a big chunky book for £10.
Plus, I’ll admit it, I like getting new writing books.
This is more of a dip-into book, rather than a read-straight-through (which is what I did with Write to be Published). I’ve read or skimmed through a few articles and particularly the section on plot, since that’s what I’m working on at the moment. It seems quite good so far, though not utterly amazing, however I’ve only looked at a few parts and I suspect it will become more useful as I dip into other areas.
I found Monica Wood and James N. Frey’s articles on plot fairly helpful, though in a broad way of getting myself thinking about plot and encouraging my subconscious to start working on the problem of what is and isn’t working in my plot. There wasn’t necessarily anything in these articles that I hadn’t read elsewhere, but this book would be useful for someone looking to get a one-stop reference for different areas of novel writing. Like Write to be Published, it gives a broad overview and is a handy resource for having information all in one place. I do prefer Write to be Published, though, as I found it more readable and like Nicola Morgan’s voice and her take on different subjects.
A couple of years ago a friend gave me a copy of Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, as somehow he’d ended up with two copies (no, I don’t know how, either, but thanks, Darron!). In light of my current issues with my WIP, I finally got around to reading it. Again, I used a combination of skimming, dipping in and reading fully, since some sections were more useful to my current position than others.
Despite the horrible cover (sorry, I hate it!), I liked this one and have found it really useful. It articulates a lot of things that we already know about plot and structure from being readers and consumers of narratives, which is helpful for clarifying that feeling of “I know this plot does/doesn’t work, but I’m not sure why!”
Bell does get a big obsessed with his own ‘systems’ (complete with acronyms – are you an OP or a NOP?) and it gets a little annoying reading repeatedly about “the LOCK system”. He does also reference his own fiction fairly often, which I didn’t think was particularly great (sorry!) and in one instance was actually quite over the top when it was meant to be giving an example of downplaying emotion. But if you can get past those minor niggles, then this is a very useful book for helping you think about plot, whether you’re coming up with one from scratch, or re-working a flagging one.
He includes plenty of exercises to try out and some handy appendices to help write your own back cover copy (a helpful part of the plotting process) and a checklist of key elements. There are tips for generating ideas and fixing plot problems, as well as a great section on revising and rewriting, specifically focusing on plot. I do recommend this as an excellent reference for your writing shelves.
Why the hesitation? you might ask. Well, something about this book just seems a bit gimicky. Maybe it’s that the writer encourages you to buy a fresh book each time you want to write using her Book in a Month (BIAM) system (what’s with writing books and their ‘systems?), or maybe it’s the very idea of a ‘system’ of writing (nevermind that it’s advertised as ‘fool-proof’ in the tagline.
But there was something that appealed to me about this book – perhaps it’s all the forms to be filled in (which is why she suggests you get a fresh copy for each novel you write, personally, I’ll be using photocopies of the forms!), which must have some sort of appeal to the woman who played ‘office’ and ‘teacher’ games extensively as a child (Complete with made up paperwork. Yes, sad, I know!).
Anyway, I’ve read the preparation part of the book (that is, up to the point where you begin the 30-day programme) and I’m not regretting my decision to buy it. Schmidt discusses and encourages you to think about all the excuses you make not to write or not to finish a manuscript, and the possible reasons behind those excuses. She takes a psychological approach, looking at the ways we sabotage ourselves, reasons for resistance and methods of motivation, which is no surprise when you consider she has a doctorate in psychology. I’d suggest keeping a journal alongside this book, where you can write about the issues raised and the questions posed – this has already helped me to feel more motivated.
Alongside this, however, she does address the writing itself and how that can prevent you from continuing. One of my favourite sections so far is how she addresses the idea of theme and what it is you want to say with your story, explaining that sometimes the theme conveyed in a plot that isn’t working for you is a theme you’re not passionate about. She helps you uncover your ‘writerly identity’ and visualise what it is you want to be known for as a writer, which helps you focus on writing the things that motivate you or, even, how to make an assigned piece of writing (eg, something outside of your usual genre of interest) more appealing to your own interests and passions.
There are some down sides of this book – for instance, she encourages you to write your first draft without any subplots to get the novel written in a month. I disagree with this strategy as a good subplot will often tie in with the main plot of the novel, perhaps even helping the protagonist find a solution to their problems. Also, the psychology-talk does get in danger of straying into ‘psychobabble’ territory sometimes, but there’s nothing to stop you from skim-reading!
So far, I’m finding this and interesting and useful book, which I plan to use to finish AT&aGw, once I’ve worked out the plot problems. I’ll give more feedback when I’ve finished that!
What about you, what non-fiction have you been reading? Got any writing book recommendations (or ones to avoid!) you’d like to share?