Almost four years ago, an idea for a crime fiction series wriggled its way into my subconscious. Although I’ve always enjoyed reading Parker, Child, and Crais, I was hankering to write about someone who wasn’t always right, wasn’t indestructible, and had flaws and problems that weren’t of his own making…but had to be solved anyway.
The protagonist I started noodling with became retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer and his first novel, A Reason to Live, is so close to done I can taste it. Final edits are done and only the formatting and launch remain.
I thought this might be a good time to recount where it all started.
I’m far from an expert on the craft of writing, but I do know what’s helped me and what hasn’t. This is a very small group of writing guides, but it’s my “marooned on a desert island” list. It also doesn’t include what I consider the indispensable basics, either, like Elements of Style or Garner’s Usage. These titles are more concerned with the intangibles of writing and its result.
On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King
On Writing is fittingly called “a memoir”, as much of it is made up of autobiographical musings by King. But the narrative style actually works well in putting the reader at ease, standing in stark contrast to other style, grammar, and writing books that can be terse and dry. I found it especially helpful when I began my first novel, as King touches on just about everything you need to get started: approach, commitment, daily word count, the importance of action, when to let yourself off the hook and when to put yourself back on. You won’t find a lot of hard and fast rules about writing or grammar here; as the title says, the book is more about the intangibles of craft. Worth reading in its entirety before you fully commit to a novel-length project. The book ends with a sample chapter of King’s with hand-written proofs and corrections followed by a short list of authors King admires.
Zinsser’s books are primarily intended for those writing non-fiction, but his tips, guides, and anecdotes are a goldmine for any writer. Zinsser uses his own personal experiences to illuminate his career as a journalist, and result is a homey and comfortable approach to writing. Unlike King’s On Writing, however, he also has a lot of the “bolded-header” type of rules and regulations you might find in a manual: when to drop in an exclamation point, using the right word for the job, avoiding the wrong or hackneyed word, paragraph length, the best place for contractions and so on. He uses quoted examples of his own pieces as well as writers he admires so that you see the lessons in action. There aren’t any exercises, per se, as the whole book is meant to be instructional.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print Renni Browne and Dave King
Self-Editing is the kind of book that puts a keen edge on the dull knife of your writing. It’s a more business-oriented version of the traditional help manual, pointing out the common errors, trite phrases, and basic mistakes that drive agents and editors crazy–and result in your manuscript being rejected. Browne and King aren’t just mercenaries with a red pen, however; they’re obviously concerned with good writing, just good writing that gets published, too. There are dozens of examples of bad and good attempts–made-up excerpts as well as famous ones–and each chapter has particular exercises meant to strengthen your writing in important areas: point of view, dialogue, tempo, sophistication, voice.
Hall’s Art & Craft is structured almost like a manual, with sections for dialogue, point of view, plotting, etc., but has always felt a little nebulous to me, with a suggestion here and a guideline there, and no real structure to sink my teeth into. Despite that, it’s the book I return to when I feel “rules” aren’t working anymore and I want to get back in touch with what makes writing, as the title implies, an art. There are many demonstrative examples of good, nuanced writing and many of the chapters are annotated. The book ends with a detailed examination of the entire first chapter of The Columbus Tree by Peter Feibleman, an example of a synopsis of one of Oakley’s own novels, then a lengthy reading list of other authors, focusing on the writing process and craft.
This book and it’s less genre-centric big sister, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, should be within arm’s length of all novelists of mid-level experience and onward…that is, those of us that know just enough to be dangerous (mostly to ourselves). Roerden addresses a host of writing mistakes that even veterans are known to perpetrate, from subtly bad POV to poor exposition to bad word choice. This is the book that will buff your writing to a high gloss.