I recently published my first novel A Land of Iron and that accomplishment would not have been possible without A LOT of help from A LOT of people — some of whom I never actually met. I’ve spent most of my life reading books about writing (I wore out at least two copies of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because for years it was my favorite bedtime read.)
So in no particular order, I would like to recognize a few of the books that were most useful to me over the last couple of years when I’ve really gotten serious about my writing. Specifically, these are some of the books without which I don’t think A Land of Iron would exist.
I was resistant to the ideas in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering at first — prepared to fight to the death against the assertion that there is one true, effective story structure that all successful fiction adheres to. I’m still not sure I really believe that, but I came to realize it doesn’t matter. My empirical side won out over my idealogue and I tested out Brooks’ ideas for myself. What do you know, they worked.
It wasn’t really anything I hadn’t seen before. His presentation of story structure is drawn heavily from screenwriting — although instead of the typical (and for me, not very useful) three-act structure many books promote, Brooks divides a story’s structure into four quartiles, each with its specific requirements and tent-posts, and characterized by the nature of the protagonist’s journey in that quarter of the story. Despite his tendency to be long-winded and repeat things more often than is really necessary, Brooks managed to present this idea in a very practical, ready to apply manner that changed my writing process completely. I went from being a pantser who scribbled notes to himself as he went along and frequently wrote himself into corners, to a devoted outliner who now finishes almost everything he starts.
In addition to story-structure, Brooks also does a very good job of explaining the difference between a simple idea and a premise that can support a novel (or screenplay). And his take on “three-dimensional” characters and what that means is unique and very useful.
The follow-up book to Story Engineering is called Story Physics. It is more scattershot than the first book, not nearly as focused or useful overall. But I did get from that book a wonderful nine-sentence outline that I still use as the first stage in mapping a project.
Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker is a totally different kind of writing book. Hawker is an indie writer, mostly of historical fiction, (see here) and Pants is geared to that world. This is a book for writers who need to learn how to write well and write fast — which is what the modern Indie publishing scene requires. To write clean, structurally solid first drafts that minimize the time spent on later revisions requires planning and outlining. Hawker’s model, combined with some ideas I got from Chris Fox (see his video series on outlining here) helped me learn to flesh out ideas quickly, making sure all the necessary elements were present.
Speaking of Chris Fox, he has a new book out called Plot Gardening, which I admit I haven’t read yet. But all of his books on writing are valuable and well worth checking out. Especially 5000 Words Per Hour and Write to Market.
Finally (for now) something totally different. Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting is unique. Henkel’s blog on game design, layout, typography and related topics is always fascinating (find it here). A few years ago he published a series of posts on formatting ebooks yourself, using HTML. It’s a more laborious and time-intensive process than exporting your manuscript in ebook format from Scrivener or Word — but it’s also precise, elegant and affords a level of control those other methods can’t touch.
Fair warning, it can be aggravating, frustrating and is likely to induce fits of despair (especially if your HTML/CSS skills are as rusty as mine were) — but if you’re a writer you’re already familiar with those parts of the creative cycle. I used Henkel’s book as my guide and built the book version of Land of Iron from scratch, including visuals and chapter title designs. I’m very proud of the finished product.
That’s only a small sample of the books and articles that have helped me get to where I am today — which is just beginning. In future posts, I hope to share more.