Saturday, February 15, 2014

3 Books that Changed How I Write

While subbing for a language arts class, a student came up to me and asked if I would recommend some writing books for her.   A pretty basic question—yet I hesitated.  In the last 15 years, I've read at least two dozen books on writing, along with countless magazine and blog articles.  After a while, they all start to blur together.  How can I choose the best when I barely remember the titles?

But there were some books I remembered, books I kept coming back to, books whose advice I applied and found my story all the stronger for it.  I cannot guarantee they will transform your writing.  All I know is that they transformed mine.

1. Elements of Fiction Writing: Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

At some point in his life, my dad wanted to write stories with his sister; subsequently, he gathered a huge collection of writing books.  The dream never panned out for him, but the books lay on the shelf, ripe for the picking.  The most prominent of the collection was the Elements of Fiction Writing series, several white-spined books that each broke down the fundamentals of plot, setting, scene, etc.  In high school, when I became serious about my writing, I devoured the books.

When I came to the Character and Viewpoint book, I was startled to find it was written by Orson Scott Card.  I'd only just finished reading Ender's Game, one of my all-time favorite books.  Needless to say, I read with rapt attention. 

At the time I was just starting what was to become an epic pokemon fanfiction, and I realized to my dismay that some of my secondary characters (Karen and Kris) bore all the hallmarks of a flat character.  I remedied this immediately.  The character became infinitely more complex and interesting.  They ended up being my favorites.

I recommend this book to a beginner writer who wants to add depth to characters and understand the subtle, but powerful way point of view influences the story.  You do not have to take all his suggestions.  (At one point he says an audience could not relate to an intellectual herofrom a man whos best-selling book revolves around geniuses!)  But it gives good insight into what makes a character tick.

2. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

I was in Japan mid-deep into The Changelings, the epic fantasy I'd started four years ago in college, but I was getting frustrated because my writing just wasn't good.  That is, the story was okay, but the actual words did not conveying my ideas in the smooth and elegant way I'd seen in published novels.  Sometimes, if I wrote and re-wrote the chapter a dozen times, Id get close.  But I had no idea what I was doing. 

This book broke down the craft of turning story into prose bit by bit, using lots of examples and a few obscure comics.  I started practicing it on my Ramna 1/2 fanfiction (yes, I wrote a lot of fanfiction) and was amazed how much emotion I was able to evoke.  Not only that, I understood why it worked and how, through a lot of sweat, to replicate the result.

I recommend this book to intermediate to advanced writer, who knows the basics of storytelling but wants their prose to read in a clear, professional manner.

3. Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Boy, I wish I had this book in college, back when I was flailing about to turn the sprawling plot of my novel into something comprehensible.  If I'd known how to outline then, I'd have saved myself a lot of trouble.

When I started The Changelings back in January ’04, I thought I’d write it like I had my pokemon fanfiction—one chapter at a time, no planning ahead.  But this story was infinitely more complex, and I spent three years of college spinning my wheels.  4 years after that, I finally had a complete draft.  Now, as I revised The Changelings, I knew I had to start thinking about the sequel, The Originals.  But I did not want to spend another 7 years in developmental hell.  I wanted a short cut.

Scanning the shelves at Barnes and Noble, the bright orange cover caught my eye.  A sticker announced 30% off sticker and I thought, Why Not?  Roughly 5 weeks later, I banged out 100 pages of The Originals.  While not even close to being a whole novel, I did in fact locate the core plot, while teaching myself a valuable lesson about how to plot out the novel in advance and then write it down and see where it would lead.   

I recommend this book to beginner writers who are ready to jump into their novel or to intermediate writers who are stuck in the middle of the plot and want practical advice for getting back on track.  Though the cover says, Book in a Month, I personally recommend giving yourself two: the first month to read the book and do the exercises, the second month to actually write it all down.


  1. Love this post and intend to use it as a resource. Although my writing books fill a shelf (and more), I don't have these three.

  2. I have "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" but not the other two. I've wanted to read "Characters and Viewpoint" for a long time. You've reminded me to get a copy! Good post! d:)