The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part Two

This week I’ll talk about a book I heard about in a discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s website, the late Algis Budrys’s, Writing to the Point.  I’d always had a tremendous difficulty in putting together good plots, especially endings, until I read Writing to the Point.  Budrys lays out the basics of plotting, with incredibly clear examples, and does it in all of 64 pages.  Seriously, this is the author’s Book of Five Rings.

It sounds ridiculous, a writer who isn’t good at plotting, like a drummer who can’t keep rhythm or a skater with poor balance.  But I was there, and I think a lot of new writers spend time in that dark valley: you’re bursting with ideas, characters, and themes, but without a plot, you don’t have a story.  Without an internalized plot that you understand, you don’t have direction, and your writing goes in circles, wandering in the wilderness for forty revisions (well, yours might not, but mine did).  King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  Well, without a vision, my writing perished.

Combined with my buying into the myth of endless rewriting, this sucked me into an endless series of rewrites and revisions, and every time I finished one pass, I realized I had even more work to do on the next pass.  No matter how hard I pressed the gas, I always got further from my destination.  It seems like that would be an obvious sign that I’m going in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?

Writing to the Point was road map, GPS, and a passenger-seat navigator all rolled into one.  Within the first couple of chapters, Algis Budrys laid bare everything I’d been doing wrong, and showed me how to start doing it right.

I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble if I give the basic seven-point story structure Budrys describes.  I’ve even heard online that it predates him, but you know how (un)reliable blogs and forums are. J

1) A character (or characters).

2) In a setting or context

3) With a problem (or a goal)

4) Basic attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal (calling the police, or realizing the police aren’t equipped to deal with a zombiepocalypse, for example.  This is mostly there so the readers know the characters aren’t carrying the idiot ball).  Clearly, this can’t work, or you don’t have much of a story.

5) Two or three escalating attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal.  Of course, these have to fail to resolve the problem, but they don’t have to be ‘failures’ in the sense of nothing getting accomplished or the protagonists being defeated.

6) The climax of the story.  Budrys calls this “Victory or Death,” and it’s the time when the main characters either stand or fall.

7) The denouement.  Budry calls this “Affirmation.”  Essentially, the reader needs to be assured that the conflict is over.  The goal has been achieved, the problem has been solved, or the character has failed utterly.  It’s done.

I’ve found this outline useful for writing everything from short stories to novels.  I’ve not yet written a novel with a single 7-step structures, but both Blood for Blood and Blood Guilt are composed of several of these story-structures with an overarching theme and timeline.

Part of being a writer is actually writing successfully, and plotting is absolutely foundational.  I can hardly express how helpful Writing to the Point has been for me on this point.  I think every writer, especially new and beginning writers, should read this book.

PS – On a related note, Writing to the Point is allegedly out of print, and people are trying to sell it on Amazon.com for $45, which is better than the $200 they were charging a year ago.  Even though the advice is well worth the price, don’t pay $200, or even $45 for a used copy: Action Publishing has new editions for $10.50.

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part One

I thought I’d take a moment to sit down and talk about my writing process a little, namely, three books that transformed the way I write.  In the interest of keeping the blog entries short and to the point, I’m going to talk about one per week.

The first book is Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, which sprung from ongoing discussions on his website (in fact, those discussions are still available on the website, so you can sample it for free).

Smith and his wife. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are both extremely prolific writers who have made an excellent living doing what they love without ever becoming household names.  This is important because it means they have the credibility of having made it without relying on luck.

There’s an element of luck involved if you write a single series and become a super-wealthy household name: even if the books are good, you have one product (one series) to sell to editors, meaning it can take a very long time to break through.  And if you get a low-end deal with no publicity, you’re not likely to make J.K. Rowling money, even if you’re as good as she is.

On the  other hand, Smith and Rusch, have made a career-long living (and not a ramen-noodles/efficiency apartment living, either) writing without having an explosive breakout.  They do things that can be replicated by the great luckless masses, through intelligent planning, hard work, business savvy, and honest self-evaluation.

What does J.K. Rowling have to teach us about writing?  If you did everything exactly like she did, if you managed to write as well as she did, would your book series make you a billionaire?  Unlikely.  Lighting doesn’t strike twice, and the Harry Potter series has already been written.

On the other hand, you can get consistent electricity if you wire your house correctly and pay your power bill.  If you wire the house just right, and install wind turbines and solar panels, you can even get electricity without having to pay the power company.  Lighting doesn’t have to strike, even once.

Runaway success is not something you can control.  You can hope for it, but you can’t control it.  Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch talk about things you can control as a writer.

So while my literary hero is still C.S. Lewis, my publishing heroes are Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  And R. A. Heinlein manages to score an honorable mention in both categories.

In addition to his own excellent advice, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

From Heinlein (1947) “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.”

Supposedly, Heinlein added that he was happy to give away his rules, even though they allowed new writers to reach a point where they could compete with him, because he knew that hardly anyone would ever follow them.  That may be apocryphal, but it certainly is true.

Even before I read it in Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to the idea that an author does not need to rewrite, and, in fact, rewriting can be a trap.  New writers are struggling just to be good writers, so what makes them think they just automatically have the skill to be good editors, too?  Rewriting can polish all the personality out of your writing.  Fix all the typos and misspellings and send it off/e-publish it.  Don’t send it off with typos and misspellings – proofreading is NOT rewriting, and NOBODY is saying not to proofread.

Now, maybe this isn’t right for everyone, but it was tremendously liberating to me.  I had basically given up on writing, after spending YEARS spinning around the black hole of a novel I could never get “right.”  When I read Dean Wesley Smith’s chapter on rewriting, I ended up abandoning ship on that novel, letting the vortex have it (as long as it didn’t suck me down with it), breaking free, and starting to write the Blood Oath (Benedict) series.

Rewriting is a tempting trap, especially for new writers, because it’s something that “everyone does,” and of course all those “how to write and publish a novel” books written by agents and editors recommend extensive rewriting [That reminds me of Dedeaux’s One Rule for Books About Writing and Publishing:  If the person who wrote it isn’t making a living writing fiction, leave it on the shelf.]  But Dean Wesley Smith taught me that rewriting is NOT the same as writing.  You’re not making progress, you’re just chewing your literary cud.

Now, I’m being extreme for the sake of being extreme, but I was SO trapped in the purgatory of rewriting, doing only harm to the already shoddy books I’d written, that I consider Dean Wesley Smith’s explanation of Heinlein’s rejection of rewriting to be nothing short of life-changing.

Now, Smith doesn’t suggest that you just let your first draft first book be where it all ends.  The goal is to keep writing, constantly identifying areas that need improvement, and trying to do them better in each new thing you write.  The idea is that like any other skill, you can train yourself to become a better writer (he has several articles about how to do that).

Rewriting won’t help you become a better writer – at best, it will allow you to make a given work look like it was written by a better writer.  Only writing will make you a better writer, and then only if you focus on fixing your weak spots.  For example, I began with plot (see next week’s post on Algis Budrys’s Writing to the Point, and the following week’s post on Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), and now that I have built up those writing muscles, I’m working on sensory details, trying to write them in as I write.

It may be that I’ll never get the sensory details at 100% first-run.  When I write a conversation, I tend to write the words as they flow, often leaving out any indication of who’s talking (I know who’s talking).  When the conversation ends, I go back and write the rest of the scene.  Is this rewriting?  I don’t think so because I know the scene isn’t finished, and I rarely change the dialogue after it’s written.  It’s a personal quirk – all writers have them – but I find that dialogue feels more natural if I write it at conversational pace, with my fingers flying across the keyboard, thinking of nothing but what’s being said.

So maybe I’m a hypocrite.  I prefer to think that every author is different, and we all have to forge our own paths at least a little.  I’m mostly following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Smith, and Rusch, with regard to writing style, but ultimately, I am I, and no one else.

Internet on Strike

Nothing fancy, just a reminder that the Stop Internet Piracy Act threatens to chill free expression across the Internet AND drive Internet companies out of  the US (yay, outsourcing!) all in the name of protecting the MPAA and RIAA.

Go to http://americancensorship.org/ to help stop this fetid, stinking piece of corporate welfare from ruining the Internet as we know it.

That is all.

Intimations of Immortality

I’ve come into a love of vampire fiction honestly.  I read Dracula when I was twelve years old (the same year I read Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – I had a thing for 19th century literature back then), and even though (or perhaps because) I had not yet been allowed to see a horror movie, I was profoundly affected.

Although it seems clichéd to us, as adults who’ve been fed a near infinite number of Dracula references, parodies, and pastiches, I approached it innocent of all preconceptions.  And wow: Bram Stoker really knocked it out of the park.  It’s no wonder that his vampire, Dracula, and not Varney, Carmilla, or Lord Ruthven, became the 20th century’s archetype.

To be honest, I was never really that “into” horror, and I’m still not.  I like suspense, sure, and I don’t mind the horrific, so long as horror is not the end goal. I never saw Saw, and the only Friday the 13th movie I watched all the way through was Jason X, a self-parody starring two of the actors from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (the first season and a half of Andromeda was some of the best TV I’ve ever watched, but that’s a story for another time).  It was not horror, neither personal or “monsters hiding in the shadows,” that attracted me to vampires.

Although my 16 year old self was quite impressed with Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was not Dracula in any form that made me fall under the shadow of the fang, but a combination my general love of history and two television series: Forever Knight, which was about a vampire who wanted to repay society for his previous sins (several years before Joss Whedon’s Angel, I might add), and Highlander: the Series.

In fact, the seeds of my fascination with immortality were laid the first time I saw part of the original Highlander film on TV one afternoon.  I saw maybe thirty minutes of it, including “the” scene with Connor and Heather, after so many years together (if you haven’t seen the original Highlander film, stop reading this and go watch it, now.  Seriously.  Okay, so now you know what scene I’m talking about).  The sheer emotion of that scene, even without the overarching context, the immortal, watching the world and the ones he loves grow old and die around him, watching his own emotional youth and idealism fade to a gray, hard-edge cynicism…I’m not ashamed to say that Benedict owes a lot to Russell Nash, Connor MacLeod’s late twentieth century persona (other important influences could probably fill a blog entry of their own).

The fascination with living forever was cemented, chiseled into the bedrock of my personality, as I watched Forever Knight and Highlander: the Series, and saw more and more themes of immortality explored.  The idea of captivity, of being made immortal against one’s will, or perhaps simply without full knowledge of the consequences, of what would be required of your new, immortal life, fascinated me.  The strange condition of immortality (which both subverts and illuminates our mortal fear of death), driven together with the dark urges one hates but cannot ever be free of, loneliness that seems undying, fear and hunger for freedom (which turns, almost inevitably, into a hunger for power), and ancient grudges, swirling together, became the central storm within my creative subconscious.

To be sure, there are elements of action horror, of historical fiction, and even of traditional horror (in the very first chapter, something so alien and horrific appears that it horrifies the vampires themselves), but it is the Intimation of Immortality, to use William Wordsworth’s phrase, that fuels my imagination and forms the undying heart of Blood for Blood, Blood Guilt, and the entire Blood Oath series.

 

New Year’s Resolution…

Holy carp, batman (no, that’s not a typo)!  Has it really been FOUR MONTHS since I posted last?

First, let me offer my sincerest apologies for that.  I can’t believe I let things slide that long.  I know that life got in the way, but a big part of my problem was a sort of crisis of conscience over Blood for Blood, and, indeed, the bulk of what I’d written so far.  You can see that in the previous posts, The Distance to Here, Stumble Inn, and No Innocent Use of Violence.

That crisis led me to “trunk” Blood for Blood (if you don’t know, to ‘trunk’ is to put a finished work away and neither publish it nor write sequels to it) indefinitely.

I’m happy to announce that I have un-trunked Blood for Blood, and have begun writing its sequel, Blood Guilt.  Given time and distance, I found that the problems and negative messages Blood for Blood had were only problematic if Blood for Blood was the last word.  As the clear beginning of a trilogy, its seeming nihilism and glorification of violence could be tempered, subverted, even deconstructed by the following books.

The irony is that Blood Guilt is, arguably, even darker than Blood for Blood.  But it serves as the pivotal second book, the turning point.  The third book, as yet untitled, will undoubtedly be the hardest to write.  To write a story of real change, without making it seem saccharine, anvilicious, or otherwise awful, will be challenging, to say the least.

I just hope I’m up to the task.

Well, with that bit of explanation out of the way, let me get to my two writing-related New Year’s Resolutions.

1) Because Consistency is King, I resolve to write at least 250 words every day.  I hope I’ll average a lot more, but I resolve to write at least 250, come hell or high water (as my Dad says).

2) Likewise, I resolve to write at least one blog entry per week here.  I apologize for my long absence to anybody who’s still reading this blog.   I resolve to not let it happen again.

Thanks, and happy 2012!