Two books on fiction writing that made me a better writer

I said WRITE AN OUTLINE

I hope we can agree on three things:

>>> You can’t learn how to write from reading books about writing. You have to write.

>>> You can, however, improve your chops by reading books about writing. Even bad ones can have at least one good idea.

>>>  You can learn a lot about fiction writing from a book that is not about fiction writing.

Throughout my endless quest to attain some undefined skill level whereby I consider myself a good writer, my eyeballs have soaked up a lot of writing books. Unfortunately, my head makes a lousy sponge, because most of what I read leaks right back out.

A few things have stuck, though, like when literary agent Ann Rittenberg advised people (via her instructional book, Your First Novel) to stick their first novel in a drawer and forget it, because it’s not any good. I had already found that out the hard way, but we’ll get into that later.

Nevertheless, I can definitively cite two titles that have been more helpful to me than any others: How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat, and Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein. Before you say, “But Baker, I don’t crime thrillers, and I certainly don’t write movie scripts,” I want you to look at item three on my list above. I don’t write those things either, but that doesn’t change the fact that these two titles influenced me. Now, if you’re done giving me a hard time, read on!

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I’m the kind of person who learns best when people just tell me what I’m doing wrong. I don’t need to be coddled. In How toWrite Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat told me what I was doing wrong.

The unpublished manuscript I alluded to three paragraphs ago was a romantic suspense novel that, aside from one agent’s request for a partial, drew little interest from the literary world. So I was hoping this crime/suspense “how to” book might teach me something the other three or four crime-suspense “how to” books I’d read clearly did not.

It taught me this: I shouldn’t be writing romantic suspense. When I was working on that manuscript, pretty much everyone who knew me said, “So, is it, like, dark sci-fi/horror?”

I would say, “No, actually, it’s a romantic suspense.” Then I’d grumble to myself, why does everyone assume I’m writing horror just because all my previous stories have been horror and I’m a horror movie junkie?

It turns out they all knew what I didn’t.

More importantly, Wheat’s blunt instruction made me realize all the things I had done wrong, from inert plotting to overly dramatic dialog. If you like writing instruction that says, “Don’t do X, because only shitty writers do that,” this book is for you.

But even more important than helping to professionalize my prose, How to Write Killer Fiction turned me into a pantser (a writer who writes without an outline). Wheat does not say anyone should or should not be a pantser, but when I found out it was OK to write without a plan, and that I should trust my instincts, my storytelling ability improved instantly and dramatically. I will never write another outline (unless forced to by drunken elves or Jawas).

It didn’t hurt that her examples of famous pantsers included some of my favorite authors, such as Elmore Leonard, who never typed an awkward phrase in his life.

She also includes chapters for outliners, so don’t go into it worried that anyone is going to make you join the pantser cult. But if you feel stuck in the intermediate phase as a writer and are not sure how to reach the next level, give this book a shot. It’s in print and readily available, because your good buddy Eric would never talk up a book that you can’t get.

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Though the middle section of Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein delves into screenplay formatting, just about everything else in here can serve the fiction writer well. Epstein, like Wheat, doesn’t waste time on touchy feely. The message (adapted by me, right now, for novel writing) is: I’m not going to tell you how to write a story. I’m going to tell you how to write a story that publishers and agents won’t throw away after five seconds.

A couple of week ago here, I groused about how hard it is to get publishers interested in genre-bending stories, even short fiction. The Crafty Screenwriting response to that is, “Gee, that’s tragic. When you are ready to write something publishable, let’s talk.”

Epstein discusses developing a hook, populating your story with the right characters, incorporating essential plot elements, structure, and pacing with the stated intent of getting someone in the industry interested in what you wrote. It reads like a checklist of dos and don’ts, often framed as “Is your hero like this? Then change him, because we’ve seen that a million times.”

Crafty Screenwriting full of practical tips for fleshing out the inevitable stock characters without turning them into clichés. Many real-world examples from popular entertainment are given for each concept covered as well.

Whereas Carolyn Wheat’s book can be useful to writers of micro-flash on up, Epstein’s screenwriting instructional is probably most worthwhile to those who are about to tackle a novel and want to avoid mistakes – or who have just completed a first draft and found it rife with problems. By the way, the intent is not to turn your writing into generic pabulum; it’s how to write something commercially viable without turning it into pabulum.

Crafty Screenwriting is available at all the usual haunts, or you can break into my apartment to try and steal my copy. Fair warning: I keep a claw hammer handy.

This is the part of the blog post where I invite you to talk about your favorite writing books in the comments.

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12 responses to “Two books on fiction writing that made me a better writer

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I’ve read so many writing how-to books in my time, and luckily do tend to remember specific bits of advice, just not necessarily which book them came from.

    I did a big cull of all my writing books six years ago when I thought I was going to give up writing forever. That didn’t happen, and since then, there are only two books I’ve deemed important enough to replace:

    One is a now out-of-print Writer’s Digest book published back in 1992 called Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction by Robyn Carr. I love this book so much so, my way of “replacing” it was insisting the person I gave it to give it back to me. True to its title, there is a “practical tip” on almost every page. One of the most useful to me has been the following: “the goal is not to get EVERYTHING in[to your story] but to put in what works best”.

    The other book is Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This one taught be a lot about voice (presentational vs. representational, dramatic vs. narrative), as well as key characteristics of first-person and third-person narration.

  • elappleby

    All the books I’ve ever read about writing say plan, outline and plan some more. I started NaNoWriMo on a whim with a very sketchy idea and no outline, and it’s working better than anything ‘novelish’ I’ve tried to write before. Turns out I’m a pantser too (although over here we call them trousers). I might even buy that book. Thanks!
    Oh, and I learnt a new word: pabulum. I will use it in a sentence today. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      You already used it!

      My problem with outlining is I box myself into conventional plot structures. Wheat’s book suggests adding dramatic elements that you the writer aren’t even sure about, and see where to takes you. You may end up cutting it out… or you may come up with a great twist that happens organically.

  • nrhatch

    I tend not to outline novels.
    I also tend not to finish novels.

    Coincidence, or not? 😉

    They sound like good books for sound reasons. Thanks, Eric. Have a GREEN M&M. Oh, what the hell, have two!

  • B.L.W. Myers

    I love King’s “On Writing,”

    But I want to take a moment to thank you for introducing me to “claw hammer,” which up to this point in my life I had just referred to as “hammer.” I will have reason to refer to the tool frequently this weekend, and I’m gonna make darn sure I specify “claw hammer.”

    • ericjbaker

      It sounds like a vile tool of destruction that way, doesn’t it? A hammer is for putting up 2x4s. Cal it a “claw hammer,” and you’re ready to kill some zombies.

      I know you’re not a big on zombies, but in case some decide to show up, I’m glad you are properly armed.

  • pfabgirl

    Have you ever read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks? I pantsed my first novel. It took me about 3 years to finish it, but I a) finished it and b) learned how to put a book together. Story Engineering basically articulated everything that I had learned through trial and error. What he writes just makes so much sense. I’m not a crazy plotter at all but he provides you with a way to build the frame of the story and still not be too constrained!

    • ericjbaker

      Sounds promising! I’ll see if I can borrow it from the library. Sometimes a good writing book can get the creative juices flowing too.

      Are you shopping that novel or have you moved on to other things?

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