Monday, March 5, 2012

Four writing manuals I actually use

Every couple of months, I find myself talking to someone who sighs dramatically and says that they’d love to finally write that screenplay, novel, etc., but they just don’t know where to start. About half the time, this is somebody who knows I’m a freelance editor in my dayjob and is trying to finagle free professional help, but the rest of the time the person is genuinely interested and just looking for a couple of tips. And more often than not, those tips begin with books.

Writers should read all the time, of course, but some books are more helpful than others. And if you’re the sort of writer (or aspiring writer) who wants a little formal instruction—or at least advice from professionals—you will probably find yourself hunting for a good writing manual at some point. There are hundreds if not thousands of them on the market, and I’ve probably received half of them as gifts, but I only use four, more or less. And by “use”, I mean I’ll pull them off the shelf and thumb through them at least once while writing a large project, if not pin them open with a paperweight while I lay out plots or revise drafts. (I have a blobby ceramic turtle and a rock painted to look like an owl that are particularly helpful for this purpose, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Here, then, are the four writing manuals I actually use.

1. Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein. These two books—which I count as one because I use them interchangeably, like two volumes of a single work—are perhaps the best books I’ve ever read on how to write anything beautifully. Although they’re intended for literary writers—the sort of people who write high-toned realistic fiction that sells 5,000 copies in a good first run and then gets assigned in college lit courses for the rest of time—they’re full of excellent advice for anyone who wants to write anything that people actually read. There are tremendously helpful chapters on plotting, on dialogue, on characterization, on tone, on revision (I do like the chapter title “The Triage Method of Liposuctioning Flab”) and many other topics. The chapter on how to write beginnings—first sentences and first paragraphs, especially—is so good I’ve practically memorized its examples, most of which are taken from well-known and successful books.
Best of all, Stein’s advice is written in such a way that it makes you want to put the book down and go write something because you’ve suddenly seen a solution to a problem, or you’ve suddenly got a story idea that won’t let go of your brain. That’s the real test of a writing manual, in my opinion, and it’s the reason Sol Stein occupies the first place on this list. Stein on Writing is a general manual that covers most of the elements of prose writing (fiction or nonfiction) while How to Grow A Novel is focused specifically on novelists and their work. Both come highly recommended.

2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. By now, almost everyone who tries to write popular fiction in the United States—whether novels, screenplays, or anything else—has heard of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist whose book The Hero With A Thousand Faces has inspired generations of storytellers (most notably George Lucas, whose original Star Wars trilogy was a note-for-note retelling of Campbell’s saga). Campbell’s thesis was that the major myth cycles of cultures around the world all essentially tell the same story: a hero leaves the place of his birth and goes out into the wider world on a quest, meeting friends and enemies along the way and finally returning with his prize to make his world a better place. Unfortunately, Campbell wrote like a mid-20th-century academic, which he was, and his original book is a bit dry. Vogler, a screenwriter and story consultant for Disney among others, helpfully breaks down Campbell’s ideas into readable steps, using examples from well-known movies. He also devotes entire chapters to mythic archetypes like the hero and mentor and how they can be applied to a wide variety of modern stories. His book is probably the most entertaining and reader-friendly volume on this list.

I tend to use Vogler mostly as a structural tool. While I don’t plot my stories precisely along his heroic-journey map, I tend to pull out The Writer’s Journey after I’ve laid out the events in my story to see if I’m missing anything. It’s an excellent diagnostic, because I find that if I’ve skipped over a big piece of the hero’s journey, I’m usually also about to run headlong into a plot hole. I also use the archetype chapters to help me fix problems with characters.

3. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I know, I know—what is a novelist doing with two screenwriting manuals on her shelf? Well, actually I own three or four, but Save the Cat! is one of the two I actually use. This is a pure screenwriting book, designed to help aspiring pros get their stories into shape for the screen. There’s a lot of industry jargon and plenty of movie-biz war stories to be found here, but what makes Save the Cat! useful to non-screenwriters is its insight on how most modern entertainment is put together. Let’s face it; most postindustrial people spend a lot more time watching TV and movies than they do reading books, and that shapes their expectations about how stories tend to go. If you understand those expectations, you can either play to them or frustrate them as you choose. You can also avoid that dreaded moment when a reader puts down your story because it plunged into one of those meandering asides common in, say, 19th-century novels but completely unreadable today. Finally, Save the Cat! is an invaluable resource in developing what is regrettably known as a book pitch—the one- or two-sentence blurb you give to agents and editors to explain your story before their attention spans run out. It’s not something that comes naturally to novelists, so it’s good to have the help.

The part of Save the Cat! I use most is a plotting device called the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, or BS2. It helpfully lays out the essential plot points, or “beats,” of a good movie and roughly when they should happen—right down to the screenplay page numbers. Again, I don’t plot with the BS2 laid out beside me, but it’s a helpful tool when I’m checking the pace of my story (after I’ve plotted it) because I know my readers mostly think in movie terms. Like a lot of screenwriters, for example, I like to stick a plot reversal right around the middle of my story—think of the moment in the first volume of Masks where Rae and Trevor find out each other’s secrets and have that big confrontation in the storm drain. Up until then, the story was a happy little teen romance with a little mystery-solving thrown in, and things were slowly getting better and better for our heroes until bam! A reversal came along and Rae and Trevor couldn’t trust each other anymore. The BS2 helped me decide where to place that key scene, and where I needed to add or subtract elements of the story in order to get the reversal to fall around the midpoint.

The BS2 also reminded me that many readers would be expecting a reversal right around that point (they watch movies, remember), which enabled me to create a false sense of security by having Rae and Trevor argue. Readers who were deeply drawn into their argument, feeling like that was the midpoint reversal and the rest of the book would be about rebuilding the relationship, were surprised when Cobalt suddenly appeared and kidnapped Trevor, even though I’d laid the groundwork for that with the abductions of Golem and Moon and with Rae entering Trevor’s fingerprints into the alpha-track databases. Again, the BS2 is a better diagnostic than it is a formula—I don’t use it in the initial plotting, but I’ve found that any plot of mine that can roughly conform to both Vogler and Snyder is usually tough and versatile enough to survive being written.

4. The Associated Press Stylebook. All right, I confess this is only in here because I had to memorize huge chunks of it in journalism school, learning the difference between comprise and compose and constitute and how to spell the name of every airline on the face of the earth. But if you’re serious about writing, you do need a reference for basic grammar and punctuation (even if you’re naturally good at them) and you need to decide some basic questions about your writing style. Take Oxford commas, for example—do you use them or not? Your English will be correct either way, but you need to be consistent or you’ll distract the living hell out of your reader. Whether it’s Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or something else, you need a reference book to act as your referee when you’re arguing with yourself over comma splices and abbreviations. You may not need a paper dictionary or encyclopedia anymore, but the English language is too complex for anyone to have produced a reliable online style guide yet, so you still need an actual book. Long story short: get yourself a reliable style guide, read it from cover to cover (yes, really, even though it’s boring), and use it. You won’t be sorry.

And there you have it—four of the most-thumbed books on my shelf. I hope you’ll find them as useful as I have. Until next time, happy writing!


  1. I have 2 out of 4 of those books. What do you think of Strunk & Whites The Elements of Style? I've heard some negative criticisms about it (ex: outdated, doesn't thoroghly explain passive voice...) which do you think is better?

  2. I think it's mostly a matter of personal preference and consistency. I've never heard any working writer seriously disparage Strunk & White; I go with AP style because I trained in it, and it's convenient. What really matters is a foundation in good grammar and mechanics, and consistently using whatever you choose. If Strunk & White works better for you, use it. If it doesn't, find something that does.