Today my friend Kristin McFarland’s agent (SQUEE! This is new news!) Eric Ruben responded to me on Twitter with something that made me ponder. I had asked my writer and agent followers (more of the former than the latter, heh!) for craft book recommendations. I have a whole stack of them that I’ve read, from Stephen King’s brilliant, wipe-tears-away-hilarious On Writing to the book that changed the way I write first drafts, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I’ve read most of the Normal Fare. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.
I was looking for something new to go along with a book I’ve been meaning to purchase for a year (The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, if you’re wondering). Eric responded by saying that he prefers reading great writers to craft books, and it made me think. Because I agree with him. So why do I read craft books?
I’ve been an avid reader my entire life. I’m probably one of the few kids who ever got yelled at for reading too much. Growing up, you could find my nose sandwiched between pages and tucked against the spine of a book at any given moment. I read and read and read and read.
I’ve read heaps of classics — some 80 percent of the books on various top 100 great works You Must Read Or You Fail sorts of lists. I’ve read non-fiction and literary fiction and genre fiction in equal parts and have a whole two shelves devoted to the literary greats I just had to bring home with me.
And I’ve been writing for just about as long as I could read.
There were things that I learned from reading probably over a million pages in my childhood that translated directly to the page when I was writing. If I go back and read the first novel I started to write in earnest, there’s actually a lot I did right.
That said, there’s a lot I did wrong.
Granted, I was seventeen. It wasn’t total crap, but it also was derivative and decidedly un-genius. At the time I wasn’t really thinking about publishing. I just wrote because I wanted to.
While I learned a lot about character development and the story met a lot of appreciation from my AP English teacher, there were things that I was missing. Things that I needed to realize on a conscious scale in order to master.
Stephen King wrote hundreds of stories. It took him years to sell a book. He did what I did for a long time: trial and error.
He learned through that lengthy process how to structure a story. How to keep readers turning pages. How to horrify and suck readers in.
I did the trial and error thing for a long time. But it was a craft book — and a very specific one at that — that I credit with the jump in my writing ability.
My first completed novel (the first in a planned trilogy) had certain aspects correct. It followed the epic style of structure of the fantasy I grew up with, from David Eddings to Star Wars. Hero has tragedy (or another inciting incident), meets mentor, gathers band of supporters, learns new skills, discovers threat is much bigger than anticipated, fights, fails, and eventually triumphs.
But all that is a little vague, and there was something lacking.
I read Story Engineering just before I started work on SHRIKE. Six weeks later, I had a new book in my hot little hands. And it was a thousand times stronger than my first (or second) completed novels. I dug hard into editing, carefully scrutinized points I’d only ever pondered nebulously before, and less than two months after completing my manuscript, the full thing was in the hands of two agents. My first book had gotten no requests. And now the whole thing is with five different people, three agents and two editors of small presses. I’ve gotten hugely positive responses from my betas and from agents — even ones who rejected it.
So how is it possible that enough clicked in the two months between putting aside a foundering trilogy that needed a page one rewrite and starting SHRIKE ?For me to go from kindly worded rejections on that first ever manuscript to excited and personal responses and requests for revisions on the third?
The picture that started this post is of my TBR pile. Some of those are ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) I won in a contest, others were gifts. It’s a large pile. A veritable mountain of words. I’m all for reading great fiction. It’s imperative that writers do it. And it got me through the years where my face was more pimple than skin and I had shock absorbers installed on my molars. But to write great fiction, sometimes it takes a little more.
A few months ago I picked up several genre novels from my shelves that were similar lengths as SHRIKE. And I flipped to page 40. Within three pages on either side, every single one of them had their inciting incident exactly there. It might sound formulaic, but learning structure as it applies to fiction was the single most important lesson I’ve learned as a wanna-be-published writer.
Reading hundreds of novels throughout my life instilled the foundation for it, but seeing it articulated gave it a framework you’ll see in almost every single great book on the shelves. Structure executed poorly is one of the biggest reasons novels fail. They don’t start in the right place or they run around squawking without getting anywhere. You can learn it by trial and error, but craft books can accelerate the process.
Is SHRIKE the best thing I’ll ever write? Oh, gods, I hope not. One of the ways to get better is to read great writers and do so critically. Supplementing that with craft books (that you read just as critically, because no one gets everything right) can help you identify areas that need strengthening and understand specifically why certain things don’t work.
My plan is to learn all I can from every source possible. Reading fiction is a must for all who want to write it. If you can analyze well and apply it to your own writing, more power to you. But everyone has their blind spots, and sometimes we need someone to poke at them for us. Plenty of writers have done the trial and error thing. I’ve made my own heap of mistakes, and I’ll definitely make more. Craft books can be that beam of light into your blind spot. As the proverb says, “A smart person learns from her own mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of others.”
I guarantee almost all the lessons writers put into those craft books come from experience — when the writers learned what didn’t work the less-than-easy way. Let’s take a page from the proverb and learn from them.
Now to start whittling away at that mountain.
What defining moments do you remember in your career? Have you ever had to hear something from someone else in order to apply it deliberately in your own work?
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