Posted in Books, Writing

5 (Even More) Craft Books to Read if You Want to Be a Writer

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Last week I took a look at 10 amazing craft books (list one here and list two here) that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at even five more I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

This is one of the most famous craft books on writing, and there’s a clear reason why: Anne Lamott gives you some practical writing tips at the same time she’s delivering a wealth of inspiration. Bird by Bird is short enough that you can read it in full on a rainy afternoon, but it has so many great ideas that you’ll be thinking about it for weeks and weeks afterward. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, do yourself a favor and find yourself a copy!

2. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner

This craft book on writing is a bit more dense than some of the other books I’ve recommended, and it’s one that you can’t just breeze through in an afternoon by any means. I would suggest that this particular book is more for the dedicated novelist who wants to slowly read through a sometimes complicated but overall worthwhile text that gives tons of great tips on how to write a novel, and how to write it well.

3. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field

This craft book is more geared toward screenwriters — obviously — but I tell you, I’ve now read through this book twice, and I even taught a screenwriting class last fall using this textbook, and I truly believe this book is helpful to any writer of narrative. Whether you’re writing a full-length script or a novel, a short film screenplay or a work of short fiction, Field breaks down the very nature of story in this book to such a great degree that there’s so much to get out of every chapter.

4. Writing the Thriller, by T. Macdonald Skillman

Writing the Thriller is a craft book about the art of writing a novel in the thriller / suspense genre. The book is split into sixteen sections, which include important topics like Point of View, Setting and Atmosphere, Dialogue, Pacing, and Theme. This book is helpful in the writing process even if the novel you’re attempting isn’t a part of the suspense genre. Writing the Thriller is reader friendly, with most of the chapters focusing on key ingredients that, when mastered, make any kind of book better.

5. Danse Macabre, by Stephen King

Danse Macabre is a craft book about the field of everything horror, focusing on the history of the genre in a variety of mediums, for the most part between the years 1950 and 1980. It’s not as intensely focused on the art of writing like King’s brilliant 2000 craft book On Writing, but for anyone with even the slightest interest in the horror genre, Danse Macabre is a fascinating and necessary text that should be on your bookshelf. Most of the chapters are filled with helpful tips and wise observations that will give any reader a greater appreciation of the horror field, and I can’t wait to read it again!

Posted in Writing

When You Need to Change Point-of-View

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I’ve written nineteen novels in nine years. I’ve made mistakes, lots of of them. I’ve written flat characters and delivered poor endings. I’ve gone too long in some books and gone too short in others. I’ve done a lot of wrong in my many years of writing.

But never before have I picked the wrong point-of-view.

In December and January I wrote the first draft of my newest middle grade novel, a creepy ghost story. In the days leading up to the first draft, I thought long and hard about the point-of-view. My safety POV is always third person limited because you have more freedom in that point-of-view, the ability to see the thoughts and ideas of your protagonist but also be just a little bit outside his head to comment on the world around him, to bring a sense of authorial voice to the piece.

But this book was going to have many, many scenes of my main character seeing ghosts, and so I thought as I embarked on this latest manuscript that first person was the way to go.

I hadn’t written first person in a while. My thesis novel is third person, my middle grade book currently on submission to editors that I’d been revising for months is third person. I’d actually never even attempted a middle grade novel in the first person, so I thought, why not? This is a great idea! You got this, Brian, you got this!

Unfortunately, as I started making my way through the second draft in February, I quickly realized something was off. And no matter how much schooling I’ve received, no matter how many middle grade novels I’ve read over the years, it took the second draft for me to see it.

I was writing a twelve-year-old character in the first person.

And the first person sounded in no way like a twelve-year-old.

Most of the rejections I’ve gotten from agents over the years, plus a few editors, is that they didn’t connect with my voice. I have a great ability to tell suspenseful, entertaining, thought-provoking stories that hopefully hold the reader’s grip tight until the end.

However, I’ve always struggled with voice a bit, especially in my novels written in first person. And when it comes to middle grade, even more so than young adult, voice is critical. Voice is everything.

And instead of approaching my new middle grade book as a way to develop the voice of a twelve-year-old boy, I instead wrote the novel in a similar mindset that I wrote my literary MFA thesis novel in 2017. The language throughout the new book was just too adult, especially noticeable when written in first person.

And so right now I’m back at square one. I still adore this novel. I love my main character and the journey he takes. It’s been a hard process thus far, and it’s never going to be easy, even going into the fourth draft or fifth, but I’ve decided to make my new middle grade book third person limited.

I’m currently revising chapter eight, and what I’ve learned from this arduous process is that changing your book’s POV is not a matter of simply changing words here and there. You can’t just change every I to he and every my to his and be done with it. You have to think deeper about your language than that, you have to think about what you can see now in the third person what maybe you couldn’t have seen in first person.

When I realized the best way to move forward was to change my novel’s POV, I had a couple of days where I thought about just abandoning the project. Push it aside. Start something new.

But I’ve said it before on here, and I’ll say it again: don’t give up on something you believe in just because it’s hard. I’ve been wanting to write a creepy middle grade ghost story novel for more than two years, and so much is working in this story that to just give up because there’s the annoying need to switch from first to third?

Not happening.

Keep in mind you might have to do a POV switch at one or more times in your writing career. Or you might never have to, if you’re lucky.

But whatever happens, sometimes you’ll be met with huge challenges. Challenges you won’t be sure you can face.

Well, you know what? You can face them. Embrace the challenge. Do what you need to do to make your story the best it can be. If that means having to do ten drafts, so be it. If that means having to spend a year or longer on one novel, that’s fine.

Take pride in your work always. And never give up.

Posted in Books, Writing

Why People Love to Read about Work

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.

What is it that’s so fascinating in reading about someone’s job in a novel? I don’t know about you, but when the protagonist has a profession that plays a large role in the story, I get excited.

I’m curious about what he or she does for a living.

And I want to see that profession developed on the page, not just tossed aside like a quick description.

We’re all interested in what people do to make money. In what people do for 40 hours or more a week to earn a living and put food on the table.

But, for the most part, we never get an inside look into what other people do for jobs. We hear stories from friends, we see news reports on TV, we visit the doctor and the dentist of course, but rarely do we get up close and personal with someone’s occupation.

That’s what’s so great about fiction. Whether the book is written in first person or third, if the author takes an interest in the lead character’s profession and doesn’t push it aside in order to get to the plot, then the reader often gets an intimate look at the person’s job, and all those details, at least to me, are fascinating.

I’ve written nineteen novels to date, but sadly, I haven’t written about work very often because, well, I write mostly middle grade and young adult novels. The jobs for my characters are pretty much school, sports, extracurricular activities, homework, you know… things twelve-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds do. Many of my characters have ambitions for what to do later in life for work, like Max in my recent middle grade novel who wants to be a horror movie director.

The parents in my stories always have jobs, yes, but I often don’t give a glimpse into their occupations because the focus of the narrative is always on their son or daughter, and what’s going on in his or her life. I’ve had scenes at the parents’ work before, like in my novel Happy Birthday to Me, in which the protagonist’s father is a slightly demented plastic surgeon. And in another novel I wrote, the unpublished Magic Hour, the main character’s father is a world-famous magician, and we actually get a glimpse at one of his shows in the final act.

But showing people’s work is something I can do more of in the future, because I do love writing that stuff so much, and I certainly love reading it.

When an author puts a lot of effort into research, and then develops not just a flawed, three-dimensional, super interesting character but also that character’s work life, a job that one might not know anything about, I’m delighted in the details, in the scenes that show what he or she is passionate in doing on a daily basis. You get to be told a great story but also learn something new you didn’t know before, get insight into a profession you might have thought one way about but now feel totally differently toward.

Again, this is why fiction is so amazing. Non-fiction too, of course. And so many films and television shows. To get a glimpse into someone’s occupation, how it works, why it’s important, what it means to that character, is a truly special part of storytelling.

And when that job comes alive on the page in a way that’s authentic and true, there’s no telling how many compelling directions the author might take you.

Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

What are 5 ways to make your screenplay suck?

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I have written three screenplays in the last eighteen months, and I’m in the early stages of outlining a fourth. I did a lot of good work in these scripts, especially when it came to pacing, character development, and third act twists.

But I also made a ton of mistakes. One of the three scripts I definitely screwed up on big time. And the other two have their share of flaws, no doubt about it.

It’s easy to read books and articles about how to make your screenplays great… but here’s a piece that discusses the five sure-fire ways to screw your screenplay up.

There are basic ways to mess up your screenplay. Wrongly formatted cover page. Amateur scene headers. Misspellings. Typos everywhere. Things like that.

But on a more macro level, here are five easy ways to make your screenplay suck!

1. Too much description.

Description is a great addition to novel writing, short story writing. Description opens up the world of your story and offers the reader countless images of how to picture every scene.

When it comes to screenwriting, however, description, for the most part, is unnecessary.

A little bit of description can go a long way, telling the reader just enough to get across what a character looks like or what a setting looks like.

It’s when you overload your screenplay with description that the suck factor comes in. Do not — I repeat, do not — treat a screenplay like a novel. Don’t fill up an entire page with description! You’re going to lose your readers fast because they’ll recognize you don’t know what you’re doing.

There should be lots and lots of white space in your screenplays, not huge blocks of text.

2. Scenes that go on too long.

The general rule of a scene in a screenplay is two to three pages. You can go a little shorter than two pages, and sometimes a scene simply have to go on to a fourth page, sometimes even a fifth page.

But for the most part, if every scene you’re writing in your script goes on to seven pages, something is wrong. Remember it this way: one page of a screenplay is on average one scene in a movie.

Think about the last movie you watched: were there a ton of seven minute scenes?

Of course not. Most of the scenes were on average two to three minutes in length, and outside of a few exceptions, this is the length you always want to meet.

When you’re Quentin Tarantino, then sure, write a ten-page scene of dialogue. Write a fifteen-page scene!

But if you’re a newbie, try to stick to the golden rule of two to three pages and not ruin your chances of success by writing too long of scenes.

3. Characters without personality or goals.

This is another big one. I feel like some readers will be able to withstand your excessive description or your scenes that go on too long if you’ve written characters with strong personalities and clear goals.

But if your characters, especially your protagonist, are flat on the page, offer nothing unique or interesting, and don’t have strong goals and motivations from the beginning of your screenplay? Forget about it.

You must create wholly original characters, and yes, that includes your supporting characters.

You can’t go all in on your protagonist, making him or her super well defined, with a goal that makes sense, but then offer ten supporting characters that are all one-dimensional caricatures.

Do the work on your characters before you start the first draft. Make sure they’re all extremely well-defined.

4. Not enough conflict.

Yet another biggie. Without conflict, there’s no movie. Without conflict, the reader will put down the screenplay. Without conflict, you might as well not even get started on the screenplay.

Can you think of a movie you recently saw and enjoyed that had little or no conflict? Probably not.

Conflict and raising stakes are what make movies fun to watch.

Whenever conflict begins in a movie is when most of the audiences gets involved and wants to see for the next hour or longer just how that central conflict is going to be resolved.

Go big with your screenplay’s conflict, never go small. If there’s not enough conflict, your screenplay will be dead on arrival.

5. A weak ending.

The last way to truly increase the suck factor of your screenplay is delivering a weak ending. An implausible ending. A rushed ending. A stupid ending.

Any of the above, really. What’s the classic saying of a movie? “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” Another saying that might not be classic but you should still pay attention?

“Disappoint them in the end, and you’ve got a flop.”

It’s so true, sadly enough. A movie can be working great for 90% of the running time, but if the end doesn’t deliver, audience members won’t tell their friends to see it.

And if the end doesn’t deliver in your screenplay, the important readers won’t pass it on to more important readers.

It’s stressful, I know, but put a lot of thought and effort into your ending, and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make it better.

Have some friends look at it. Give it to writers you trust and await their feedback.

You’re competing with thousands of other screenwriters out there. Make sure you do everything you can to write a great script, and avoid the suck factor.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) Craft Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

Earlier this week I took a look at five amazing craft books that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland

This is one of those rare books that writers can turn to time and time again in their lives when they get stuck, when they feel like they’re doing mediocre work, when they’re not happy with their writing. I stress this isn’t a book that shows you how to learn to write better descriptions or characters, or reflects on themes and point of view and how to get an agent. It’s a book of inspiration that writers can breeze through anytime they need a kick in the pants to get better in their writing. And it forces them to always, always, always tell the truth.

2. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is one of the most popular and important authors of the twentieth century, and this, his one and only non-fiction book, is worthy of study by all who are interested in writing, because he offers sound advice on how to better your writing, produce more writing, always write from a place of truth. Ultimately, this book, like Ueland’s, makes you fall in love with writing all over again. Also, I stress that both Ueland and Bradbury have not written how-to writing books, so much as inspirational writing books. They are books you take nuggets from, not study from front to back to learn how to be a better writer. I found Ueland’s book more inspirational and better organized, but Bradbury’s book is still worthy reading for all aspiring writers.

3. Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer

My friend Shaunta Grimes gave me this book as a birthday gift a few years back, and I absolutely delighted in every page of this thing. Wonderbook is unlike any other craft book on the market. It’s fun, but not frivolous. It’s colorful, but not for kids. This is the perfect kind of craft book on writing you need when you are truly down and don’t believe in yourself. Trust me — ten minutes with this book, and your creative juices will be flowing again!

4. Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole

I know not all of you write middle grade and young adult fiction like me, but I feel like the final two books on this list will be super helpful for you even if you don’t write MG or YA. Writing Irresistible Kidlit is a supremely helpful tool for writers. It goes beyond being a simple how-to by infusing the author’s personality and passion into the text, and instead of writing dry prose only meant to educate, Kole’s frankness throughout the book makes her tips even more useful.

5. Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks

This is another book aimed at MG and YA writers I turn to from time to time. Brooks’ main focus in this craft book is to discuss the key elements of novel writing, like character and setting and theme. And, like with Writing Irresistible Kidlit, someone writing an adult novel could still get a lot out of this craft book — author Brooks touches on aspects of storytelling in a general sense in every single chapter. I’d highly recommend you check it out!

Posted in Books, Writing

You Need to Remember to Write Books that Entertain

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

All sorts of books are written and published every year, and there are all sorts of book-buyers who are looking for different kinds of things. Some people love to read romances, and some people love to read mysteries, and some people love to read young adult novels, and some people, yes, are looking for literary novels.

I’m one of the latter. I write books for the middle grade and young adult market, and I have a particular passion for genre books like thrillers and horror novels, but what I actually love to read the most, the kind of book you’d spot me curled up on a couch actually reading, are literary novels, the bigger the better. I love literary novels about family especially. I finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere three weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Two of my recent favorites are The Nix and The Goldfinch, two massive books I loved every minute of.

So, yes, some people like myself seek out novels with a high degree of literary merit.

But you know what the truth of the matter is? King is exactly right: most people want to be entertained. Most people want a book that will keep them glued to the page from beginning to end because of a fascinating story, and three-dimensional characters, and surprising plot twists.

Most people aren’t going to pick up a novel, buy a novel, read a novel, because of its literary merits. They want page-turners, whatever genre that may be. A page-turner can of course be any kind of book. A page-turner can be a literary novel! Little Fires Everywhere is an example of a novel with a high degree of literary merit and yet it totally reads like a genre thriller, one that keeps you guessing until the end.

And this is what takes me to the perfect kind of novel, at least in my eyes. It’s what author Benjamin Percy describes in his fantastic craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, saying,

Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’

Ultimately when something is JUST a literary novel or JUST a genre novel, we’re approaching iffy territory. Because only a select few are going to get a lot out of a literary novel that has no attention paid to genre conventions or expectations, where the story just languishes on the page and nothing ever happens to excite the reader to continue on.

On the other hand, when a book is a cheap and poorly-written genre novel that’s book 47 in a series and that has no real literary merit of any kind, that author is doing a disservice to the reader as well. Some readers adore series, where they know the characters, are familiar with the plots, and these kinds of books are used to pass the time and not much else. That’s fine, I guess.

But when literary fiction and genre fiction are merged, something extraordinary happens. Now you have page-turners that don’t make you feel like you’ve been stuffing cotton candy down your throat for the past two hours. Now you have fast-paced, thrilling novels that leave you feeling smart when you finish them, not dumb. That leave you feeling good about yourself.

So when it comes to the writing that you do, try to merge the literary with the genre. This process makes for the best books, and on the same token, you’ll still be pleasing the book-buying public while at the same time you’re offering something that’s just a little bit more.

At the end of the day, you want people to read your book. And you want them to read the next one, too. Make your work so compelling, in both your storytelling and in the way it’s written, that once they’ve picked up just one of your books, they’ll be hooked to read everything else you put down on paper.

Give your book at least some literary merit, I beg you.

But don’t forget to entertain the hell out of your reader at the same time.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Craft Books You Need to Read if You Want to Be a Writer

There are a lot of craft books about writing out there, but these are the five that have helped me develop as a writer considerably…

1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

This one might be an obvious choice, since I’ve been writing posts about this book going all the way back to last summer, but I really do think this is the one essential craft book read for any aspiring writer. Stephen King breaks down all the major elements of what it takes to be a novelist in very clear, engaging ways to the point where I like to read through this text at least once a year.

2. Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level, by Donald Maass.

This is a great book to read for those of you who are writing well but who could be writing even better. Maass used to be a literary agent, so he’s read a ton of manuscripts, and he takes you through, step by step, what it takes to write a novel that breaks out from the pack. Really helpful advice from beginning to end.

3. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, by Benjamin Percy

This is the newest craft book on this list, published just in 2017, and let me tell you, it will blow you away. What Percy explores is the relationship between literary fiction and genre fiction and how the best of authors blend the two together to make for truly superior fiction. Percy’s imagination and wit are all over the book, and his many chapters on the craft of writing will inspire you for months to come.

4. Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

This craft book is for those of you, like myself, who struggle in the self editing stage of writing a novel. I have no trouble any longer writing the first draft of a book, but what I continue to have difficulty with is revising and editing my work with a critical eye. This book shows you what you need to look for when you revise, and all the ways you can make your book monumentally better before you query it to a literary agent.

5. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The oldest book on this list, and still a goodie. It’s super short, with no fluff or long passages worth skipping. Everything in this craft book is essential information, and what’s so great about it is that you can read through the whole thing in an hour or two! It’s one of those texts you should have at the corner of your desk so that you can flip through it from time to time. The Elements of Style is well worth a look if you’ve never picked it up before!