28 June 2013

How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction, A Review

As far as craft books go, How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction edited by J.N. Williamson is a bit outside the normal variety.  This book actually houses a series of essays on writing "Speculative Fiction" as a whole genre.  Whether we as Fantasy or Science Fiction writers think about it, the fact is we need what the Horror writers have: the ability to make readers worry.  The bulk of these essays will tell you just how to do that, using the fears you already have locked inside your own mind.  If that sounds scary, then you're off to a good start.  If you feel the fear in the scene, while you're writing it, then you have good odds of a reader (who is NOT in control of the story) feeling that same level of fear.

"Redream the Fictive Dream" as we learned in Gardner's The Art of Fiction.  This is a key harped on again and again by the masterful writers in these essays.  There's also a really handy list of publications for SF&Fantasy magazines (some of which are out of print now, but that's what libraries are for).  In short this book is chock full of useful bits of information beyond just craft.  These writers knew the business in 1987, and much of their advice still holds.  The biggest piece is: write the absolutely best story you can.

If you're looking for a craft book that you can nibble in convenient pieces, then this is a solid choice.  The essays by Koontz and Bradbury are always a joy to read, and some authors you might not even know have pieces that easily compete with these two masters.

Not all of us can have a mentor in writing, but thanks to books like How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction we can have something like a mentor (or a dozen mentors).

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to writing.

21 June 2013

Writing the Breakout Novel, A Review

Why does your character deserve to win?  Why does s/he deserve to even live?  These are the questions that Donald Maass will ask you point-blank either in person at a conference or in his fabulous book How to Write the Breakout Novel. Then he'll give you the answer: because s/he is human.  Human life is valuable - as humans we all innately believe that, but how easy it is for us authors to forget that as we craft these characters that we love!

If one were to take nothing else from this book - that lesson of the innate humanity of one's characters ought to be enough to revitalize one's craft.  Maass doesn't stop there, however.  He goes on to explain how to drive that humanity into the hearts of one's readers, how to show the pain and revelations of one's innately human character.  This is why people read - they read to worry, and Maass, as a super agent for over 100 authors, many of whom are bestsellers, knows how to use that reason to a writer's advantage.

Beyond this, Maass discusses the trends in publishing up through the beginning of the 21st Century and how readership is changing (for more information, read his Writing 21st Century Fiction, which covers emerging genres and mash-up genres that are turning mainstream, as well as discussing the actual impact of e-readers/e-publishing).  At the end of Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass gives some how-to's on selling the manuscript that you've polished to the best of your ability (and of course you only query the very best novel you can write at this moment, right?).  Pitch tips, how to live if one does breakout (hint: a Porsche should not be the first purchase one makes after getting published), etc.

For the mid-list author, emerging professional, or the nearly-ready novelist, this is an incredibly handy tool for seeing into the at-times murky business of publishing and querying.  I wouldn't make it a must-read for a creative writing class, but one would be wise to read this book alongside normal curriculum if one aims to make it to more mainstream bookshelves.

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to that project.

The Key, A Review

James N. Frey's The Key is a wonderful resources that takes Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, and shows one how to use it as a writing tool.  For anyone interested in using archetypes in their writing, this is a must-have.

Obviously, as a Fantasy writer, this book especially appeals to me, but Frey demonstrates starting with the introduction, why Mythical writing is in fact present in almost every story from Madame Bovary to Crime and Punishment, and why this book will help you (yes, you specifically) become a better writer.

As you'll recall from The Art of Dramatic Writing, good stories require excellent orchestration of characters - not just protagonists, but antagonists as well.  A real mythological/epic-proportioned hero(ine) requires a villain that is at least the hero(ine)'s equal, and in fact the villain ought to be better and more resourceful in some areas.  Frey delivers some tools to evaluate these two pillars of writing a mythological story and tips on how to make that story really pop into life.

The one caveat with this method of story-telling is getting too wrapped up in the checklists and losing focus on the story and characters themselves.  However, Frey equips his readers with how to really familiarize themselves with their own characters while going through the checklists - and he even mentions that not every mythological story has all of the elements listed.  In fact, if one were to use all the elements, one would come up with a rather busy story.  He advises to pick a few and work with them.  Only use what you need.

I'd rate this book as a good read - not quite as necessary to read as How to Write a damn good Novel or its counterpart, but it's a valuable resource, especially for analyzing one's own work.

If you're inclined to watch the Edgar Winter/Simon Pegg movie Hot Fuzz, I'd recommend reading this book, then watching the movie again.  You'll see that it is ripe with mythological elements.

Write on, dear readers.

07 June 2013

The Art of War for Writers, A Review

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell stands alone in this series of reviews thus far.  Bell has developed a book that is so straightforward and filled with such useful yet broad advice, that it's hard to classify it.

The Art of War for Writers makes writing feel more epic, which is something that all of us need now and then.  Seamus Heaney isn't exactly sitting over our shoulders, churning out verses of our heroic entanglements with the Grendels of our own doubts, you know?  Now, if in fact Seamus Heaney does do that for you, we should maybe hang out sometime, if you're not too busy.  (Please?)

Seriously however, James Scott Bell delivers advice drawn from his own experiences as a prolific writer as well as other greats as John D. MacDonald (mystery writer extraordinaire) and Stephen King.  The main thrust of this book isn't actually how to make one better at writing, but how to make one self a better writer in the professional sense.  Bell offers strategies and tactics on how to develop the discipline and will necessary to become a real writer - in the published sense.  The fact of the matter, he argues, boils down to one thing: professionalism.  Basically, agents and editors don't invest in books - they invest in careers, so while you're out querying that new masterpiece that is absolutely the best book that you can produce right now, you ought to be also working on your next project.

James Scott Bell's advice also focuses on strategies for expanding one's craft, from utilizing pseudo-cut-up techniques (William S. Burroughs style) to closing one's eyes to squelch the inner-critic.  You won't be disappointed by this seemingly strange advice, if for no other reason than it forces you to reexamine your work in a new way.

This would be an excellent text for graduate and upper-level undergraduate writing classes, not because of the advice on developing craft (although The Art of War for Writers offers some excellent tidbits on that as well), but because it will instill the necessity for looking at writing as a career - that means one is in it for the long haul.

"The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer" (Harlan Ellison, excerpted from The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell, 12).

Thanks for reading, now get to writing!