Monday, February 27, 2023

Writing and life Advice


Terry Shames here, not in my usual spot, but filling in for fellow 7 Criminal Minds author Susan Shea. Susan’s newest book, Murder Visits a French Village, launches next week on my usual day to post. I’ve surrendered that day to Susan so she can tell you about her book. 

This week’s topic: Besides manuals, which books do you think make good masterclass material for crime writers? There are many good books on writing. I don’t n think they have to be focused on crime writing to be useful to crime writers. Also, the books don’t have to be a “masterclass.” They can be dipped into for advice when a writer is stuck on an element of craft. 

Here are a few of the books that I’ve consulted again and again for inspiration: How to Write A Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. There is no mystery to why this book has been popular for years. The subtitle is: A step-by-step no nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling. When we moved 18 months ago, I had to weed out my books on writing, and Jim Frey’s was one of the first ones in the “keep” pile. I took Frey’s course on writing many years ago and still remember some of his writing advice.
A couple of examples: “Your main character must always perform to the maximum of his or her ability.” Or this, “There are contradictions to be found in everyone. Readers delight in seeing them in your characters.” 

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. If you haven’t read this, you’re missing out not only on writing wisdom, but life wisdom. The title of the work comes from an incident in the author’s family in which her brother had only one day to write a report on birds that had been assigned months ago. He was in tears at the impossibility of the task. Lamott’s father’s advice: “Just take it bird by bird.”
One tidbit from the book: “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.” 

Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody, Based on the books by Blake Snyder. Probably not the last book you’ll ever need, but it’s got a lot to recommend it. The book include such chapters as Creating the Story-Worthy Hero, a chapter on plotting, a chapter called Whydunnit: Detectives, Deception, and the Dark Side, Victory of the Underdog, etc.
Here are a few sentences I underlined to remind myself: “Your hero’s problems should be affecting their entire world: their work, their home life, and their relationships.” And another: “Original is not an achievable goal in novel-writing…What is achievable is fresh.” I’ve just put down a novel that bristles with the same old tropes, deciding not to continue reading it. Why? Not because it felt tired, but because the writing felt tired. I picked up another with many of the same tropes…but it was fresh. ”Save the Cat” addresses how to do that. 

Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. The cover declares: “A master Editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies.” In his preface Stein endeared himself to me immediately by stating: “If there are writers in America who do not have several hundred pages of a would-be novel in a drawer or at least in mind, I have not met them.”
One of my favorite chapters in the book is entitled: Thwarting Desire: The Basics of Plotting. Plotting is my biggest challenge. Stein says, “The more urgent the want (of your character), the greater the reader’s interest.” He states, that the essence of plotting is, “putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict.” And, “The want and the opposition to the want must be important, necessary, and urgent.” 

One more, this one narrower in focus, but just as valuable: The Art of Character, by David Corbett. Bestselling author Sheldon Siegel says, “(the book) should be on every serious writer’s shelf next to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing.
One of my favorite lines: “There is perhaps no more crucial discipline in writing than acquiring the intuitive sense of what’s necessary and what’s not.” Note the word “discipline.” Corbett expands on this by warning, “For all but a lucky few, writing requires more than taking dictation from imagine beings.” I loved that line. His point is that writers have to work at the job of writing. It isn’t some casual occupation to be done in spare time; but a discipline that requires working and reworking. 

These are books intended for writers, but I would suggest that even readers who never took up the pen might enjoy them. If you’ve ever wondered why a particular book grabbed your interest, while others seemed ho-hum, it’s instructive to discover how writers accomplish the best writing—for your reading enjoyment. 

P.S. I highly recommend Murder Visits a French Village. I love Shea’s new protagonist Ariel Shepard, who tackles renovation of a rundown French chateau. But only read it if you aren’t hungry, because along with a compelling mystery, and wonderful depictions of French culture, Shea includes mouth-watering descriptions of French food.


Karen A Phillips said...

Thank you for this post, Terry. A couple of these books I had not heard of. I'll be sure to check them out! A writer can't have too many books on the craft, right?

Susan C Shea said...

Terry, first, thanks for letting me steal your March 7 post date! And, then, thanks for this good list. Almost all are on my work shelf and I strongly second your advice to dip in now and then, not set out to read a whole book straight through. The advice sticks best in small, digestible doses.

Marilyn Schoon said...

I don't remember who borrowed and didn't return my copy of Bird by Bird, but I'll never forgive them.