Thursday, July 24, 2014

Books About Writing Books

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books devoted to the craft of writing. As you might imagine, many have been helpful (to me), while others haven’t, but even in those less worthwhile volumes, I think I’ve always been able to find at least a nugget or two of valuable writing wisdom.

As with most things in life, you need to be careful about what advice to follow (but it doesn’t hurt to listen and read widely).

On Monday, Meredith mentioned two of my favorite books:

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing 

And Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott (although I would classify this as being more of an inspirational writing book than a craft book).

bird by bird

Let me add a few (random) others:

For those wanting to pen a best-seller:

How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Koontz writing book

A long (long) time ago, back before I even really wanted to be a writer, I picked up a book by Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors at the time), mapping out how to become a best-seller. For some reason, it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $68.

 

For those wanting to write a “breakout” novel:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

breakout novel

This book also has an accompanying workbook (which I haven’t used).

 

For those who have trouble differentiating writing in summary versus writing in scenes:

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham

Scene and Structure

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know what I was doing. This book helped (a lot!).

 

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APPEARANCE NEWS

Want to see ten crime writers, in person, reading their work, AT A BAR?

D.C. area folks will have that chance, this Sunday night at the inaugural D.C. Noir, 8 p.m. at The Wonderland Ballroom. Meredith, Art, and I, along with seven other great writers (Nik Korpon, Steve Weddle, Ed Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, and Michael R. Underwood), will take turns reading and schmoozing. Come on by—a good time will be had by all.

(This blog entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Give it to me Straight

Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?

If you asked ten writers about their writing process, you’d get fifteen different answers. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, and after having written more than a dozen complete manuscripts myself, I’ve learned that what works for me once, might not work for me again.

Yes, writers can be fickle, finicky creatures with a dependence on coffee and/or bourbon.

However, one thing that remains constant in my writing process is my need for feedback. It’s easy to slop some words down on the page, thinking that I’m saying one thing, when in reality, my work is being interpreted in an entirely different manner (hey, it happens!). I need to understand how my story is coming across to readers so I know if I’m on the right track.

The most beneficial way for me to do this is by participating in a critique group. I give them my words, then sit back to see how they go over (not always so well, I can assure you!). I can find out what works and what doesn’t. Is the plot believable? Are the characters behaving consistently? Is the pacing right for the genre? Do I have ten characters whose names begin with J? Have I dotted all my t’s and crossed my i’s?

Writers can be too close to their work to be able to give it an impartial evaluation. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my work “out there” without first sending it through the gristmill that is my critique group. It’s a very valuable—and crucial—part of my writing process.

Without a critique group, I’d be just another writer pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt. Instead, I’m just another writing pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt, with a critique group to keep me in line.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Wise Words for Writers

What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey?

This is Giving Advice to Writers Week on the Criminal Minds blog, so, first, to recap:

On Monday, Meredith advised writers to:

1) Write a lot.

2) Be patient.

3) Become part of the writing community.

I agree wholeheartedly.

 

On Tuesday, R.J. advised writers to:

1) Never look back when writing (to prevent getting bogged down in re-writing).

2) Throw something unexpected into the story, if you get stuck.

3) Immerse their characters into their surroundings, when describing their settings.

More excellent advice.

 

Yesterday, Tracy advised writers to:

1) Get independent feedback and join a writer’s group.

2) Remember that rejection isn’t personal.

3) Keep writing, no matter how unmotivated you may be (or how much Pinterest might be tempting you).

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

Now it’s my turn to pontificate, which is difficult because my esteemed blogmates have mentioned some very helpful hints. However, I shall dig deep and give some advice not yet delivered.

So, writers, heed my words:

1) Read a lot. Not only do you have to write a lot, I believe you have to read a lot, too. Don’t stick solely to your preferred or favorite genres, but read in a wide variety of genres and styles. The more you read, the more well-rounded you will become.

2) Take a writing workshop (or two). Learn from someone who’s done it before. Get a look inside the meatgrinder (steel yourself first!) as you critique other workshoppers’ pages. Getting your own work critiqued will help build rhino hide, which so important for writers.

3) Go to conferences and conventions. Talk to other writers to get a glimpse of their writing process. Form a support network. Meet potential critique partners. Learn about how the craft of writing and the business of publishing relate to each other. Develop your drinking abilities in the bar.

Here’s a “bonus” piece of advice: Learn accounting and the principles of financial investing. You’re going to need that knowledge to properly handle the windfall that comes with being a writer! (Well, all my nuggets of advice can’t be winners.)

Now, go forth and write!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ten Feet Under

Do you have a novel in a drawer, a first novel (or a later one) that never saw the light of day?

You bet I do. Except it’s not in a drawer. It’s in an asbestos-lined Kevlar sleeve, in a six-inch-thick solid steel vault, buried ten feet underground in my backyard, where it’s no threat to the welfare of society.safe

Okay, I’m exaggerating. The walls of the steel vault are only five inches thick. 

It’s the first novel I ever wrote, back when I didn’t know a dangling participle from a Flying Wallenda. I knew nothing about esoteric things like characterization and setting and plot and structure and dialogue. I did know a little bit about punctuation, but for some reason, I felt a very strong urge to use a preponderance of semi-colons (and I have a feeling I overused the word “preponderance” too).

I revised it a bit and truthfully, I liked the general story and (many of) the characters. But man, was that prose stilted and formal and phony. And some of the plot twists? Oh my! My, my, my. More than a few coincidences and, shall we say, a preponderance of character actions with questionable motivations.

You might be wondering: Why didn’t I stick with this first novel and keep revising it until it sang?

Not even the best voice teacher in the world could get that turnip to sing.

Wisely, I moved on to my next manuscript, which was clearly better written from the get-go (I guess I learned a lot from my practice manuscript). I know I’m a lot better writer now, but I don’t think I’ll be digging that first attempt up anytime soon to try to resuscitate it. And believe it or not, in some kind of weird time-warped irony, the working title of that first novel was…Unburied Secrets.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bad, Bad Ending!

Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer?

[Note: In this blog post, no book/author names will be used to protect the not-so-innocent.]

About ten years ago, I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).

Fast forward five years. I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).

Yes—I. Read. The. Same. Stupid. Book. TWICE. Without realizing it. Trash_Can

To prevent me from torturing myself a third time, I actually threw the book in the trash (the only time I’ve ever done that, with the exception of a college text,  Elements of Vibration Analysis, which is another story altogether).

I suppose it goes without saying that I would definitely change the ending of this book. Along with the beginning. And the middle. (The title was fine.)

[By the way, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up the book on Amazon. Judging from some of the reader reviews, I was not alone in my opinion! One representative review header sums it up: “Man, this is a BAAAAD book.”]

As you can tell, my memory about books I’ve read can be spotty (to say the least), so I really can’t remember any other specific books in which I’d change the ending.

But I’m sure they’re out there!

Does anyone else have trouble remembering books they’ve read?

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Beam My Books Up, Scotty!

colored spiral When you have a book published, maybe several, what are your thoughts, for the future? Is the book something you hope will be found and read, in 50 years? Or do you know, going in, that you may become out of print, a thing of history...or forgotten? What is your hope?

Do I hope my book will be found and read in 50 years? Heck, I hope my books will be found and read next week! I’m a writer and, to me, it doesn’t really matter when someone discovers my work (as long as they discover it eventually!).

Honestly, I don’t think about where my books will fit in the future. I’ve got bookshelves full of books fifty years old, so I assume my books will be collecting dust someplace fifty years from now. But will they be more than placeholders on a shelf and actually be read? If I’m lucky. After all, that’s why I wrote them—to be read (and hopefully enjoyed) by other people.

I certainly don’t expect that I’ll have a thriving readership decades from now (although I suppose it’s possible). But I can’t let my future dreaming affect how I feel about my writing today. I’ll just keep trying to churn out the best work I possibly can and leave my bookwise “legacy” to those who care about such things.

Of course, as my previous blogmates have noted, “books” may never really go out of “print” any longer. In fact, digital copies of my book might just be around for the colonists on Alpha Centauri to read. I’d have to admit, that would be pretty cool.

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Going to Malice Domestic (which starts tomorrow)? I'll be moderating a panel, "Putting the Fun in Funerals: Balancing Humor and Murder," on Saturday at 2:00. Join me and my fantastically funny panelists Donna Andrews, Brad Parks, Helen Smith, and Nancy G. West for an entertaining time!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Come By and Say Hi!

Over the next month, I’ll be leaving my cave to make a few appearances. If you’re in the area, come by and say hi!

April 27, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Mystery Writers of America Booth
International Day of the Book
Howard Avenue
Kensington, MD 20895

 

May 2 - 4
[On Saturday, May 3, 2:00 pm, I'll be moderating the panel: Putting the "Fun" in Funerals (Panelists: Donna Andrews, Brad Parks, Helen Smith, Nancy G. West)]
Malice Domestic Mystery Convention
Hyatt Regency Hotel
Bethesda, MD 20814

 

May 17, 1:00 pm – Free Presentation: "How to Write a Mystery" 
Gaithersburg Book Festival
31 South Summit Avenue
Gaithersburg, MD 20877


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