Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Reading List

This riffs a little on Rowena's post yesterday. Like most writers, I'm a scribbler completely surrounded by books.

My family has so many books -- on bookshelves, on tables, on counters, on top of the microwaves, on piles on dressers, and recently on stacks on the floor -- that if a concussion bomb exploded in the neighborhood, we'd not only be unimpressed -- we'd never notice.

The shock would be absorbed by all those piles of books, and we'd be left untouched -- and probably reading.

My Mother in Law, before I had kids, told me once this happened my reading would stop. I will agree I became more discriminating (if nothing else, because it's near impossible concentrating on a so-so book while toddler shoe is kicking against ankle.) OTOH the reading continued. It's an addiction, you see? I read while walking. I read while cooking. I read while cleaning (cleaners on books, may all divinities of the printed word forgive me!) I read while ironing (yes, this is incredibly entertaining.)

If I could find a way to read while writing and while sleeping, my life would be complete. I hear in heaven you get an extra pair of eyes so you can read while doing everything else. Okay, I made that up. But it's my heaven, so keep your nose out of it.

This post will concentrate mostly on one sort of books -- books on writing. Opinions on these varies. Most writers buy every one on the market, even when they don't read them. It's like they expect, by osmosis, for the magical qualities of the books to rubb off on them. Hasn't happened yet. (Sigh.) Other writers are terribly afraid it will destroy that mystical/magical quality called style or voice. Or whatever the heck it is they're calling it these days.

First let me dispose of the latter. My husband and older son and I all read the same how-to books. Mostly because I drop books on their desks and glare at them till they read them. Yeah, I know. Horrible, horrible woman. Anyway, if you read any book which has all of us (Strip Mauled by Esther Friesner, say) you'll see we're all completely different. Heck, I couldn't do their styles if I tried.

Refusing to read How-to books to preserve your style is roughly the equivalent of refusing to read even one cake recipe so as not to spoil the natural taste of your cooking. Once you figure out the rules (Oh! Cakes take eggs! [or as my older son said, after the first time he tried to make a cake, and we weren't home: No one told me you had to break the egg and put only the inside in!] or Oh, proportion of sugar and flour is this!) then you can improvise, add chocolate chips, figs or syrup of ipecac. But you have to know the basics FIRST. And better men and women than you -- or I -- have distilled those into writing precepts so you don't need to go out with your little pan and find gold in the mud. Use the dang books. Would you program without ever having learned how to? Yeah, writing is art but it is craft too. Learn the craft first.

Of course the market is flooded with how-to write books. And possibly how to write how to write books. And most of them are -- like most of everything -- worthless.

Now, your experiences will vary. Mine have. All I can do is tell you the books that have helped me. They've helped my husband and my son as well. Doesn't mean they'll help you, but they might be worth a try.

Basic Writing:

Dwight Swain. Start with Techniques of the Selling Writer. If your characters are shaky, read his book on characters, too. If you can afford recordings of his lectures, buy them. Just do it. If you're not published, do it. Yes, you'll probably know most of what he has to say, but do it, anyway. What you don't know might well be what gets you over the final hump into publication.

To improve your chances of surviving the slush pile, try The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
Not only do readers only read five pages of most books, you'll be lucky of they read that far. And by this I don't mean ONLY the readers of slush -- if such still exist -- at publishers' or agents' offices. I mean the reader, in the bookstore or at Amazon, or reading your free chapter on line, or the sample at their kindle, will probably only read the first five pages before he makes a decision. If you've lost him by the end of the first page, you lost the sale.

For revising and fixing, try Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King (they improved my STYLE more than anyone else.)

Now for me, with my busy lifestyle (teenagers no longer kick my ankles, but they do ask questions, whine and want to have Meaningful Conversations at the worst possible times) the main determinant of whether I stay with a book is how immediate the fiction is. You want my attention, be louder than the screeching teen problem. Grab me. Pull me into your world. Make sure I can see, smell and taste. Do that and I'll read to the end. At least if anything happens. :) If all your character does is sit there covering her ears against teen rage, then thank you. I already have that at home.

For this issue I have two -- one strange -- suggestions.

The first I read recently. It's called Immediate Fiction. I read half of it. Why half you ask? Well, he was making lots of sense until he kick dropped me by stopping and sneering that if you write genre fiction of course you don't need any of this, since that's just schlock. If you have a stronger stomach than I, though, you might find it useful.

The second one -- because it has EXAMPLES -- I'm not recommending to anyone who is going to run screaming into the night and I'm DEFINITELY not recommending if you're a minor. I found it useful however. ALL of its specific information is outdated, but on the sheer level of teaching you how to write so the reader feels the story through the senses, this is the best. (As for why I read it -- broke. New baby. No insurance. Still couldn't write it. Not a prude. Sex is just not a spectator sport for me.) How to write Erotica, by Valerie Kelly. (And you probably can skim the examples!)

Now, if you're writing genre, you should read hat genre, you know that. But what you read might be the exceptions -- i.e. the quirky stuff -- or you might be like me and not easily glean the rules from what you read. So, if that's the case you should read SOME books that will level-set you as to what editors expect today.

For mystery, read Writing The Modern Mystery by Barbara Norville. Actually read it anyway, it helps with clues, etc for SF/F as well.

In the same vein, and to help with pacing if you have issues with that, read Writing The Thriller, by Trish MacDonald Skillman. It helped my pacing greatly.

If you write science fiction and fantasy, I'm sure this is greatly outdated, but it will keep you from calling a rabbit a schmerp -- How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. (A similar book by Damon Knight might be valuable, but it blocked me for years. You have been warned.)

And then, when your editor asks for a big book, she's not asking you for a dictionary-sized tome. To figure out what she's looking for, read Al Zuckerman's Writing A Blockbuster Novel. Read it twice. Three times. Every two months. It helps you keep in mind what the gatekeepers want.

Additional: If writing anything historical, do a search now and then for "Daily life" amid used booksellers. I MUCH prefer the Greenwood press books, but the Writers' Digest ones are also useful to tell you what the general public thinks they know about the time period. You need to either play into it or dispell it, but you need to know what it is first. Your research, needless to say, shouldn't stop there.

For mystery start with idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation. Then read anything you can on the subject. Go to lectures. Yes, people will look at you funny if you have a folder named "Murder research" on your computer. It's survivable. Writing without having a clue what's going on isn't.

For plotting -- ah, my bette noir -- I use Story Craft software. To be honest, this is most useful for a very vague sort of preliminary outline, after which the story takes over and does whatever. However, it is useful -- TO ME -- as an armature to build upon. Take it with a grain of salt. It doesn't, for instance, have an option for multiple POVs. Also, keep in mind you're talking to someone SO plot impaired that she just recently figured out how to use plot to underline a theme. It might have happened subconsciously before, but it has just recently hit me between the eyes.

So, what books helped or hindered you? Is there a single-best-method, as far as you're concerned? Are there a lot of things I've forgotten? Perhaps a problem I didn't address? Sound off.


C Kelsey said...

I bought "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" on Sarah's advice. Haven't read it, yet. On the topic of using plot to underline a theme... My first thought was, "I'm sure I've read stuff like that. I probably understand it!" then I realized that I have no idea what you're talking about Sarah. Can you clue me in?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

If your theme were love of puppies -- indulge me, say you're writing a kid's book -- your percipitating incident might be the villain trying to kill a litter, while your reluctant villain saves them and while various other incidents finally bring him to love the puppies. This works best for secondary themes or things you're shoving behind the main story. Stay Noah's boy (Yes, I know I'm a tease) the overarching theme is as always the shifters integrating in "normal" society. However, the focus theme for this book is control -- law and self, and why law is needed and the limits of law. Hence there are plot incidents involving loss of control and loss of self-control and shifter changing, which move the rest of the plot forward of course.

C Kelsey said...

Ah, I see. Of course, now I want Noah's Boy. But it's not like that's a change for normal. :) Thanks!

Brendan said...

...syrup of ipecac. Luckily I never was a cake person.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Well, Brendan, tell me you've never read books like that!

WangZheng259 said...

I came across an E.W. Hildick book on writing for children which was pretty good. Other than that, I haven't done enough specific reading on the subject. I've retained a lot of what I've come accross on internet trawls elsewhere, but my level of ability isn't where putting a novel or short story together is my major concern. I'm interested in the stories, but I am really concerned about my technical writing, and quick, precise, informative and elegant written communication in general.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Clearly technical writing is not my expertise. And if you mean that you can't quite muster a short story, do read Swain. Your library probably has Techniques.
If what you mean is you prefer to work on your word sense alone,look up William Safire's books on language. Though this is perhaps akin to learning the old masters techniques so you can paint your bathroom...

Dianna said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, and I'm definitely putting some of those books on my reading list. I'm glad I found this post and this blog.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You're most welcome. I wish someone had told me way back when.

WangZheng259 said...


I am not sure what you mean by word sense.

To be as clear as possible, oral and written communication are among my weakest abilities. I have trouble writing or saying things clearly and in a timely manner.

Instead of what I did, I should have said that learning more about putting a story together correctly is not my priority at this time.

The areas I most urgently need practice to improve in are rather more basic than storytelling.

Being able to say a thing fast and well is the building block of all writing.

At least as sick as I am right now, I doubt my basics are good enough to build much on without a good deal more practice.

These texts have already gone on my mental reading list*, but at a lower priority than practice.

*(Except maybe for the erotica one.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Okay. I thought you wanted to do technical writing, as in, computer manuals and the like and was puzzled as to why you wanted to improve your word-sense for that.

Look, the best way to improve your reading... and writing... is to read a lot.

As for sick, I'm sorry, and I hope you'll be better soon.

Chris McMahon said...

Congratulations on an excellent and truly epic post. Some great suggestions there.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I've been reading books on screen writing. They distill the bones of story, pacing and character because films contain no more plot than a short story.

You have to set up, make an interesting middle and resolve it all.

Mike said...

Browsing through my bookshelf on writing this weekend, and thought I would mention:

Science Fiction Workshop 1 by Barry Longyear
Scene and Structure by Bickham
The Writer's Journey by Vogler
The Hero with a 1000 Faces by Campbell

Late is better than never, right?

日月神教-向左使 said...