Thursday, February 14, 2013

Basics for Beginners: How To Books I Found the Most Useful

Thanks everyone for your suggestions on things to include in my course.  It's a lot, so I decided to divide my course into two parts:
  • The Macro Level of Writing: All the stuff that goes into creating a compelling plot
  • The Micro Level of Writing: All the stuff that goes into creating a compelling scene.  (I did several blogs on this back in 2011, by the way, if you want to check my archives.)
One of the things I gave my students was a handout on the books on writing that I've found most useful.  Here's my list for the Macro Level of writing.  Starred * books are the ones I recommend the most.

Most of these books can be purchased through

You’ll notice a number of these books are about film writing. That’s because novelists have become aware that films can teach us a lot about how to write a successful novel. The structure is exactly the same.

*Bob Mayer. The Novel Writer’s Toolkit. A wealth of information on how to develop your characters and use them to drive your plot.

*Alexandra Sokoloff. Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. Can be purchased on The best explanation of the 3-Act, 8-Sequence structure I’ve found. Countains lots of information on what goes into each part of your novel. A real deal at $2.99, downloaded into your e-reader.

**Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction. While Maass’s intention was to help you write a book that’s a keeper, I found it full of awesome tricks to help you brainstorm your novel.

Donald Maass. The Breakthrough Novel and The Breakthrough Novel Workbook. Once you’ve got your first draft, use this book to revise your book. Maas gives all sorts of suggests to recognize and fix problems with your novel and make is more sellable.

Blake Snyder. Save the Cat! The late Blake Snyder was considered the guru of film writing. His techniques are just as pertinent to writing a great novel and he gave many workshops for novel writers.

Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey. An alternative way to plot your book. Vogler uses James Campell’s research on mythical structure to explain how to structure a story. He also explains how to tie it into the standard 3-Act, 8-Sequence structure I describe at the end of this course.

**Martha Alderson. The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook. I just discovered her. She’s got great hints for how to plot your novel.  She has the clearest explanation I've found for how to connect the character's inner transformation with the external plot.

Karen Weisner. First Draft in 30 Days. I wouldn’t recommend this if it were the only book on writing you were going to purchase, as it is very superficial and doesn’t explain some of the real essentials. But, it’s great on showing how one scene leads to another. And if you’re someone who thrives on worksheets, it contains a huge collection of useful worksheets that can help you keep track of everything.

**And my latest find:  Les Edgerton’s Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs The Reader at Page One and Never Lets Go.  This is the best book I've found on writing the beginning section of your novel.  While Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages is considered the classic in beginnings, I'd say that Edgerton's book is even clearer on what has to go into an effective beginning and how to achieve it.  Plus he looks at how it plays out in the various genres and when you can get away with the exception the rule.

You'll notice I didn't add Deb Dixon's book Goal, Motivation and Conflict.  Not because I don't think it's important, but rather becuase it's so out of print that I've never been able to find an affordable version of it.  Dixon's ideas are the core of every novel.  Fortunately, if you attend any writing course, you'll find her quoted (and probably misquoted) left and right.

So what are your "must be in my bookshelf" books on writing?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Basics for Beginner Writers

I've got a new challenge. I'm teaching a course "Getting Started Writing Your Novel" for stark beginners.  My class is full of folks who have never written a novel before -- not even the adolescent attempts I was famous for as a teen (I wrote six "books" back then, all so bad that they're not even gathering dust under the bed.) 

This got me thinking: what does a beginning writer need to know?  It's one thing for an experienced writer to talk about GMC or layering a scene.  But for a stark beginner, it's easy to get the forest confused with the trees.

In the next few posts I'm going to be sharing what I think beginners need to know to get started writing a book.  (Welcome, beginners!)

In the meantime, you more experienced writers, what is it that you wish you had known when starting out?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Joys of Critiquing: Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour

One of the great things about being a member of a critique group is you get a sneak preview of books before they come out. In my case, it was Anita Seymour’s Royalist Rebel. This historical novel, due to be released on the 17th of January is based on the early life of Elizabeth Murray, a fascinating woman who managed to walk the line between being one of King Charles’s most loyal supporters and maintaining a friendship with Charles’ enemy, Oliver Cromwell.

Here’s Anita’s cover blurb:

Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour

Intelligent, witty and beautiful, Elizabeth Murray wasn’t born noble; her family’s fortunes came from her Scottish father’s boyhood friendship with King Charles. As the heir to Ham House, their mansion on the Thames near Richmond, Elizabeth was always destined for greater things.

Royalist Rebel is the story of Elizabeth’s youth during the English Civil War, of a determined and passionate young woman dedicated to Ham House, the Royalist cause and the three men in her life; her father William Murray, son of a minister who rose to become King Charles’ friend and confidant, the rich baronet Lionel Tollemache, her husband of twenty years who adored her and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Charles II’s favourite.

With William Murray at King Charles’ exiled court in Oxford, the five Murray women have to cope alone. Crippled by fines for their Royalist sympathies, and besieged by the Surrey Sequestration Committee, Elizabeth must find a wealthy, non-political husband to save herself, her sisters, and their inheritance.
The trouble with blurbs is that, although they give you a glimpse into the challenges the characters face, they fall short when it comes to revealing the author’s style. And in Anita’s case, the style is positively delightful. She has a gift for finding the prĂ©cised world-building detail that brings you right back into the seventeenth century and at the same time adds a layer of meaning. While giving you a chuckle or two along the way. Her characters are multi-layered. The conflict within Elizabeth’s family is as compelling as the struggle between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Anita’s research is thorough and deep, and she’s put a lot of thought into making sense of Elizabeth’s motives and actions. By the time you’ve finished reading Royalist Rebel, you can see why Elizabeth had the love and admiration of the men in her life, including the leader of the cause sworn to undermine everything she stood for.

The good news is the Royalist Rebel is only the start. Anita’s already at work on a sequel and I can’t wait to see what comes next!

By the way, in putting this blog together, Anita and I had a discussion about the critiquing and editing process.  Here's what she wrote:
Jen Black read the finished copy and she said it was so different from reading individual unpublished chapters spread over a long period. She thought the finished book was well edited and flowed much better than it did when she read it the first time.

That's good to hear as it underwent some major changes between the crit group and the submitted manuscript, and then again when we got down to edits - so it seems the system works - I just hope other readers feel the same.
Royalist Rebel by Claymore Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword, is released on 17th January 2013

For a little background on the novel, see Anita’s Book Blog

The National Trust Website of Elizabeth Murray’s former home, Ham House, at Petersham near Richmond, Surrey

Anita’s Blog