Which Type of Writing Guide Is Right for You, Right Now?

Posted by June 10th, 2014

Which type of writing guide is right for you right now

Many writers begin a story on a whim, and before long they’re taking an imaginary joy ride. Writing a novel is fun: the words flow . . . and then they don’t. Like Consumer Reports testing a car for safety, your writermobile slams into a wall. Now what?

Writing guides abound to address everything that stymies us. Search among the six types of resources to find a match for your problem or need.

Inspiration and Contemplation

These books prime the pump of imagination, help you generate ideas, and nudge you out of an unproductive rut. One of the best guides is The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Her 12-week study that addresses and overcomes all manner of “blocks” can open the floodgates of productivity and confidence. Cameron’s “morning pages” and “artist’s dates” have sustained millions of writers.

The Writer’s Life and Writing

We all want to know what famous writers think, how they write, and how they “made it.” The King, Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, tells vivid stories about his life including drug addiction, alcoholism, and being hit by a car. He kept writing novels through nearly all of the difficulties, often mining them for his stories. King’s book includes reading lists, excellent craft advice, examples to model, and writing assignments.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, is seductive. Her honesty in laying bare her messy life, with humor, beckons the reader to do the same. By example and by the techniques she shares, Lamott urges readers to expect and move past “the shitty first draft.”

How to Write a Novel

Almost all novels have similar whole-book structure. If you’ve written your story “organically,” you may be out on a limb and need to return to the trunk. Three books will straighten you out. How to Write a Story: The Secrets of Writing a Captivating Tale, was written by Peter Rubie, agent and former book doctor for New York publishers, and Gary Provost, a master teacher and author of over 20 novels. This how-to-write book is straight-forward, clear, practical, specific, and almost foolproof for any writer who follows its directions.

Another big-picture book that rocked the writing world when first published in 1998 is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. The author learned about the idea of the “hero’s journey” from mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Vogler discusses the “steps” in this archetype of storytelling that is universal in almost all cultures, and explains how they work in movies and novels.

I highly recommend a 21st century how-to book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron. What do readers expect from characters and a story, and why? With evidence supplied by neuroscience, Cron charts a clear path to writing character-driven, meaningful stories. Each of these three books is worth keeping and rereading.

Writing Help for One Area of Craft

To build on your strengths and shore up your weaknesses, choose a book that covers one area of craft in depth. A few of my favorites are these: Character & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card; Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress; 20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias; Description, by Monica Wood; A Story is a Promise (on premise and theme), by Bill Johnson. My own booklet, Writing Subtext, discusses techniques for weaving in hidden motives, undercurrents, and foreshadowing. A friend with a dozen novels out told me she still didn’t understand subtext and asked me to write about it in more depth than in my books. So I did!

How to Write for a Genre

To fine-tune your story for your intended reader, review the expectations of the genre: Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks (literary agent); Writing and Selling Your Mystery, by Hallie Ephron (author of suspense and reviewer of mysteries); On Writing Romance, by Leigh Michaels (author of over 70 romances), How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card, winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards.

How to Revise

Manuscript makeoverWhether you have written your novel in one month or one decade, you’ll face the daunting task of revision. Where should you begin? What comes next? I am very proud that a reviewer for my book, MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, described it as ‘perhaps the most comprehensive book on how to revise fiction’ (The Writer magazine). In most novels, the least developed and often least interesting character is the protagonist. This problem dogs nearly all writers, from beginners to pros, perhaps because the author identifies most strongly with the hero. Revision techniques involve developing backstory and psychological motivation, strengthening character-drive scenes, and adding narration. Most writers have learned “show don’t tell,” but in revision it’s important to tell enough and to “tell well.” I organized MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER so that the enormous and often overwhelming task of revision can be approached in small, doable tasks.How to overcome the mistakes made by my students and editing clients over the last twenty years informs every page of this guide.

We write the best we can. Sooner or later, virtually every writer runs out of gas and stalls out. Reading the right book at the right time puts air in your tires and fills up your tank. You’re good to go.

Elizabeth_Lyon_HrAbout Elizabeth Lyon

Elizabeth Lyon, a freelance book editor since 1988, is the author of six writing books, including MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER and WRITING SUBTEXT.  Connect with her on Facebook and her extensive website.

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3 thoughts on “Which Type of Writing Guide Is Right for You, Right Now?

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Lyon – Which Type of Writing Guide Is Right for You, Right Now? | Literary Liaisons

  2. JeremyB

    Two books are outstanding for me – Stephen King’s On Writing and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr, which King recommends. Both of these books take you back to fundamentals, in different ways. King talks about matters of composition, covering prose style, dialogue, and editing; The Elements of Style discusses the nuts and bolts of syntax, providing a safety net for anyone lost in the tendrils of their own language.

    Writing guides continue to try and formulate in precise terms what is done on the mostly instinctive level, and achieve this with varying levels of success. Whether it’s romance, sci-fi, erotic shorts, horror or crime, it holds true that composition is a thing of sensing rather than of measuring. We write more with meditation crystals than with a slide rule or a yardstick. Still, a good style guide – and I will put in another word for the two books I’ve mentioned – provide, as do creative writing courses, a means of appraising the craft which in itself is useful to the writer. Sometimes you can get so lost in your work that it’s hard to be objective, and looking at fundamentals can give the writer some useful time out of the intense involvement of composition. And, in the case of Strunk’s Elements of Style, one feels positively chastened into becoming a better writer by the authoritative tone in which it is delivered.


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