I love to study the craft of writing, an art that is complicated, simple, beguiling, illusive, horrible, and joyful in equal measure. Beautiful prose is like poetry, it’s a song that’s sung to the mind with a meaning that is felt in the heart.
I write novels, and there is one major goal for a novel: to deliver emotion. Like nicotine delivered by a cigarette, the stronger that emotion is, the more addicted to your book your reader becomes. If you want to publish your books with a traditional publisher, or find commercial success with your work, then you want to make addicts. You want book junkies to grin in anticipation when they discover you’ve published a new title.
Which is easier said than done. Some writers find success with their beautiful prose, some with plot, and some with a mixture of both. But their success is not determined by their elegant prose, or how many twisty, exciting events occur in their novel, or how expertly they weave the two elements together. Their success is determined by how much emotion they deliver to the heart of their reader.
Studying tradecraft will give you the pieces, but it can’t give you the whole. Only you, the writer, can determine how much of your soul, your imagination, your essential truth, you’re willing to put on the page. Good writing is seductive and frightening, should invoke awe when you study it, and studying writing is an activity I consider a darn good time. You learn to write by writing, by close reading, and by discussing writing and reading with other writers and readers. Like learning to teach in a classroom that changes each year, it’s a process that never ends. There is always something new out there, something waiting to be discovered.
So let’s get down to business. Let’s talk tradecraft a bit. Here are some useful tips I’ve learned along the way, followed by a list of my favorite books about learning to write.
My Favorite Writing Tips
1. People with strong opinions and desires make the best characters. The stronger a character wants or believes something, the stronger your reader will, too.
2. If you have a book populated by characters who all have strong beliefs and desires, you will have strong emotion in your book… and strong emotion in a book is a very good thing.
3. People in real life are often confused about what they want or why they want it, or have competing reasons as to why they want or believe what they do. In fancy writing terms, we call that “a mixed motive.” (Pam Painter) Give your characters mixed motives. This makes them more complex, and is the writer equivalent of turning a tasteless McDonald’s hamburger into a cut of prime rib in a five-star restaurant. You add so much more flavor to your book when you do this. You transform your book for your reader from a momentary distraction into the real (the real truth of life), and that helps you make addicts.
4. Back, looked, just, grabbed, very. Beware of these words, as they are often overused and will make your writing sound lame. I’m not saying don’t use them; I’m saying watch out for them. A little bit of cayenne pepper is a good thing in chili. But dump a whole bottle in the pot and you have some awful chili. Treat certain words like cayenne in your book, and don’t overuse them.
5. A word is a sound that’s fallen in love with ideas. Note the plural: ideas. Words do not mean one thing, but several. So a sentence is a melody full of ideas. You need other people to read your work to understand which ideas are the strongest, because the melody the writer hears and the melody the reader hears are often quite different. Words are musical, and deliver a beautiful sound, but the shade of that delivery is only determined by context. A master pianist uses his fingers to evoke the notes of his music in endless ways, from the most gentle, evocative touch with the lightest, airiest sound, to slamming his hands in a cacophony of noise while sweat pours down his face. But you know what he doesn’t do? He doesn’t strike the B-treble clef key on the piano and hear a D-bass clef instead. His keys don’t play tricks on him. Words do. Words are slippery things that can masquerade as other words making meaning. You might think you are gently touching the keys, when the effect on the reader is to be slamming them. Because words aren’t just sound—they are sound and ideas. So find readers you trust, and listen to the feedback they give you. It’s crucial.
6. Your best reader will be someone who would buy your book in a store, regardless of whether they know you. The better you write for that person, the better your chances of selling will be. So find that person, and write for him or her. This reader will tell you if you’re on the right track, if you’re doing your job and delivering strong emotion. You cannot rely on only one person to give you feedback, but do have this ideal reader in mind, especially as you make your way through your drafts.
7. Speaking of drafts: First drafts are excrement (Hemingway). So don’t beat yourself up over them. Feel good when you finish them, and be grateful that you’ve completed the first step of the process. Maybe you’ve discovered what you need to say in the story by this point, maybe not. The journey of editing awaits you, which means you’ll need more readers with fresh eyes, or people who can read with fresh eyes. You’ll need stamina and perseverance, too.
8. The adverb is not your friend (Stephen King). Beware, beware, beware. Nothing makes a book sound like a fourth-grader wrote it faster than a whole bunch of adverbs. Treat them like the cayenne pepper you don’t want to dump in your chili. A tiny bit of cayenne will go a long way.
9. The rule is “show, don’t tell.” Right. Got it. I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. But they call it storytelling for a reason. What they mean is, you have to earn your tell. So show first, and earn your tell. And, by the way, showing your reader description and action in a story is still telling the story. Writers just associate the emotional broadcast (“He was angry”) with the tell, and the active description (“He clenched his hands in fury”) with the show. The second example is a show with a tell—an active description (“clenched his hands”) with an emotional tell (“in fury”). Simple. Show first, and earn your tell. Sometimes you just need to show. Sometimes you just need to tell. And sometimes, you need to do both. The story you are writing will let you know.
10. “Art is a lie that tells us the truth.” Picasso. What you leave out of a story is as important as what you put in. Art is selective. You have to make hard choices to create it. The more selective you are, the better your chances of transcending the words and the sounds on the page, and giving your reader emotion. Your reader wants the lie, craves the lie, will be addicted to the lie. So lie. Lie to tell the truth. Make art.
11. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Emerson. You are the king of your story. Never lose your faith in yourself. Your voice is your own, your passion is your own. Be unique, take chances, dare to be different. You’re not going to make art by copying someone else. You’re going to make art when you’re brave enough to bare your own soul.
12. “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you: build, therefore, your own world.” Emerson. Writers build houses and heavens because everyone must build houses and heavens. All humans are storytellers. We all have to make meaning to understand the events around us, and learn how we should act within those events. We can only make meaning through story. Our world is therefore created and defined by the stories we tell. Making meaning is a primal urge. Like eating. Like sex. It’s what we are built to do. You can tell yourself, “I’m a horrible person,” or you can tell yourself, “I’m a beautiful child of God.” Both of those sentences tell a story, and both can be changed in an instant. The internal stories we tell will shape the outward stories we tell. So build your own house, your own world, your own heaven, with care, with awareness, with confidence. Be primal. Be brave. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
13. When making a beautiful sentence, it is better if the last word in that sentence has only one or two syllables (Pam Painter). Three- and four-syllable words (or greater) are best left in the middle.
14. When writing dialogue, “said” or “says” is king. (This is also true for “asked” or “asks” which offer the query-form of “said” or “says.”) Shouted, yelled, murmured, muttered, whispered, cried, called, sighed, laughed, giggled all have a place, too. Sprinkle them in as needed. (The key word here being sprinkle. Remember: “said” and “asked” are king. And you can vary dialogue tags by cuing the reader in other ways, by offering up character actions and/or thoughts to indicate who is speaking before a line of dialogue begins. This is an excellent way to make your prose engaging to read.) Be warned that if you are using adverbs in your dialogue tags, you are on a slippery slope to hell. For example: “Stop it!” he yelled loudly. Talk about beating your reader over the head. Yelling is loud, obviously. So using the word “loudly” in that sentence is telling your reader only one thing: that you think she’s a moron. Do you want to be insulting your reader? Do you think that will endear her to you? You’ve just done something she will either choose to forgive you for, or not. But why force her to make the choice? Why not just write clean prose and keep her enchanted and happy? Please do that.
15. The word “felt” is your buddy. Make sure your characters feel emotions, and feel them strongly. If you want a really strong book, give your characters conflicting emotions and watch how fast your readers whip through your pages. Fast. There is nothing so compelling as the heart at war with itself.
My Favorite Books about Writing
Here is my Top 10 List of my favorite books about writing.
1. On Writing, by Stephen King (This book is also on my Top 20 List, I love it so much. Part memoir, part tradecraft, it’s a really great read.)
2. Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, by Roger Rosenblatt (This is a beautiful, inspiring read. I can’t praise it enough.)
3. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, by Donald Maass (Donald Maass is a literary agent, and this book is awesome. It’s definitely a book I have read more than once.)
4. What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter (If you want to learn some amazing things about craft, and really expand what you think you know about writing, this is the book for you.)
5. How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them, by Sol Stein (This professional editor and author shares brilliant advice. Read him. If you read no other book about wordcraft on my list, you should read Sol Stein.)
6. Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, by Sol Stein (I can’t say this enough: read Sol Stein. Devour his books. They’re that good.)
7. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass (The second book by Maass on my list. More proof of how awesome he is.)
8. The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay: How to Write Great Screenplays for Movies and Television, by Cynthia Whitcomb (Yes, this book is about writing screenplays, rather than novels, but you know what? It’s still great advice. This is a spectacular read. I highly recommend it for fiction as well as nonfiction.)
9. The Screenplay Workbook: The Writing before the Writing, by Jeremy Robinson and Tom Mungovan (Another screenwriting book with tremendous benefit to fiction and nonfiction writers. The “Steps to a Character Arc” description is especially useful.)
10. Your First Novel: A Published Author and a Top Agent Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream, by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb (I’ve written more than one novel now, and I still re-read parts of this book, because knowledge grows as we grow, as we expand our capacity to understand different concepts, and I will never stop growing as a writer. This book will always have something to teach me, as will any of the books on my list.)
If you have your own Top 10 List of great books about writing, I hope you will share them with me on My Readers page. Thank you!
My Favorite Websites for Books and Self-Publishing
Here are my favorite websites to visit.
Catherine, Caffeinated This writer is adorable, funny and smart. I love reading her posts about self-publishing and her writing career.
The New York Times Book Review How I stay plugged in with the writing and publishing world. (I also love reading the Movies page.)
MeReader A really delightful blog full of insightful book reviews. It’s always a pleasure to read one of Mary Jo’s posts.
Adriana Arbogast: Ink Slinger A fun author site run by my friend Adriana, good to visit for book reviews, funny blog posts, and interesting news from the writing world.
The Creative Penn An amazing site full of information about writing and self-publishing. Joanna Penn’s website is an incredible resource.
How to Sell More Books A useful post from The Creative Penn, so useful that it deserved its own line.
The Book Designer If you’re self-publishing, you need to see this site. It’s full of fantastic information, and will teach you the basics about book covers that rock, and book covers that… uh, don’t rock. So please. Visit. Learn. Laugh. This site is brilliant. One of my very favorite places for growing new brain cells.
Workshop for Writers This helpful webpage is put together in part by my author friend Greg Picard. Another good resource for those new to writing, or simply looking for advice or inspiration.
You can find a really extensive list of excellent book and writing websites here, on the Staff Recommendation page of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Scroll down the page a bit, the websites are listed on the lower right side.)
Elizabeth Gilbert shares some great thoughts about writing on her website, which you can read here.
Writer Unboxed. A fantastic resource full of tips and information. New posts added daily by a wide range of authors.
And if you are just getting started, and working on your first book, the website How to Write a Novel… One Word at a Time is a great place to visit.
This list by Derek Murphy of The 21 books about writing you must read to improve your craft includes some great titles I haven’t read yet (like The Emotion Thesaurus — that title sounds super helpful!).
The internet is full of so many resources. Type in a question in Google and someone has probably written a post with the answer.If you have some websites about writing and books you especially love, I hope that you’ll share them with me on My Readers page. Thanks!