I’ve actually avoided books on writing over the last few years. A lot of them are written by writers who don’t have the success to justify 200-400 pages of advice. There are similar books and blogs about marketing your books and finding a publisher. Still, there are a few books over the years I’ve found helpful.
The first serious writing book I read was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. For the first time, I got to look under the hood of paperback novels to see how they were put together. It was still a daunting task to write a novel. Two hundred or three hundred pages? Really? That’s a lot of typing?
It was 1988 or so, and word processors were a rumor to me. I had an electric typewriter with automatic margins and correct tape. Real state-of-the-art stuff that I never really learned how to use. But I could clack away on the typewriter just the same. After reading Block’s book, I tried to write a novel. After several false starts, I wondered if it was endurance. Block recommended an outline, so I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. For one thing, I literally used Licence to Kill, the James Bond movie, as my outline.
Then I moved to Cincinnati and discovered the Canon Wordstar. This gave way to a Packard Bell with Microsoft Works. Yes, they had programs that looked like typing and would format your text and set your margins for you. Helped that I learned to really type about this time. I reread Block’s book and made a couple more serious attempts at it. By 2002, I was working on the early efforts that became Northcoast Shakedown. It was around the time I shopped it around that the next writing book that actually gave me something came out.
After the accident that nearly killed him, Stephen King put out his famous memoir, On Writing. Part autobiography, part writing clinic, On Writing was simply one guy talking about what he did for a living and how he came to do it. I think I got more out of the biographical part. Obviously, I’ll never have the success King has had. I doubt any writer will again. But the pitfalls of success that snared King can happen to anyone in any walk of life. But there were things that gave insight into what gives King’s writing its humanity, something a lot of horror writers fail miserably at. Before I started each follow up to Northcoast Shakedown, I reread On Writing and Writing the Novel From Plot to Print.
Now, as I dust off Holland Bay and lay the groundwork for a science fiction novel, someone recommended to me The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler basically condenses and expands on Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler writes from the standpoint of screenwriting, but the “hero’s journey,” as he calls it, applies to novels as well. Apply it without imagination, and the hero’s journey looks just as formulaic and trite as its critics accuse it of being. Applied skillfully, and it becomes a roadmap for a writer to put together a screenplay or a long work. Vogler also makes it clear that this is not the only type of storytelling. It is, however, what Hollywood uses to judge a screenplay. If you look at the best movies, most of them (not all, but most) confirm the validity of the hero’s journey. If you look at the worst ones, either they fail to follow the hero template (or any other type of storytelling out there) or they simply follow it by rote, adding nothing new or of substance.