Note from Brooke: Today’s post is from Heather Pagano. I’ve been fortunate to hear about this journey in drips throughout this year and hope you find her conclusions as helpful as I do!
“I don’t read books about writing.”
I’ve said these words, or some variation on them, so many times. For years this was my mantra, part of my identity as a writer. I feared getting stuck in the morass of advice books for writers, becoming a wannabe who collected writing books and thumbed through their pages, now and again, like some kind of armchair travel novel. I truly didn’t want to read about writing, I just wanted to write.
My aversion to writing books meant I didn’t have much experience reading them. I’d enjoyed a few behind-the-scenes reads that explained the writing process of an individual author I admired. It was fun learning more about the authors and how they approached their craft. But none of these books helped me understand what I should do when I sit down to write, and my personal writing process remained unchanged.
In fact, I didn’t have much of a writing process. For me writing had always been a strange mix of intuition and tireless effort. I’d be struck with an inspiration, write a draft, revise it, and send it to an editor. I put in years of work, writing dozens of short stories and several novels with little more guidance than knowing what I loved to read. Once in awhile I got lucky and published a story, but I never knew what had made that story work, while another did not. And I grew overwhelmed by serious problems in my novel drafts that I didn’t know how to address.
Then near the end of 2016, my husband, who has always been interested in screenwriting, purchased a video lecture course by Aaron Sorkin. I sat in on a few lectures out of curiosity, and my main takeaway from the series was a burning curiosity to read Sorkin’s highly recommended Poetics by Aristotle. I was all the more intrigued because the teacher in a writing class I’d recently taken had also highly praised Poetics.
Reading Poetics revolutionized my idea of what it means to tell stories. In particular, Aristotle’s discussion of medium, our basic genres (tragedy, comedy, epic), and plot structure not only resonated with me, but gave me some great aha moments that later came in handy while wrestling with my own drafts.
I loved Aristotle’s practical advice and no-nonsense approach. He never shied away from explaining what made a story great and what made a story stink. Unfortunately only fragments of his brilliance survived the ravages of time. Still, I couldn’t believe how valuable his advice was to me as a modern storyteller.
Poetics gave me reason to hope there were other books that could help me improve my writing. I began a quest to search for writing books with potential to teach me how to become a better writer. Together with my husband, we declared 2017 our year of intensive reading about writing.
The first step in organizing our year of writing study was to zero in on the specific aspects of writing we wanted to improve. As a novel and short story writer, I focused on story structure, editing, and writing exercises.
Next we needed to find the best books on these subjects to include in our study. We read reviews and tried to get a feel for which books had most helped other writers. Whenever possible we chose books written by authors whose work we love, and we learned to recognize a great teacher when we started reading one.
We approached our study with a spirit of adventure. We had great discussions about points the authors were making, agreed and disagreed with the authors and with each other, and looked for examples of techniques we were learning both in the fiction books we were reading at the time and in favorite novels we both knew well. When we read something that resonated with us or that explained something in a useful way, I took notes. If a book didn’t resonate with us or turned out not to have value for our goals, we were never afraid to abandon the book mid-read. And we were always open to steering our intended study plan in a more fruitful direction as we learned and put knowledge into practice throughout the year.
Most important to me, at the same time we dove into our reading, I kicked my writing practice into high gear. At the end of every study session I was eager to try out what I’d learned with my current works in progress.
Books on Story Structure
Since we’d read Aristotle’s Poetics I should have been ready for the overlap between drama and story structure. But I was still surprised that the best books we found on story structure came from the fields of screenwriting and playwriting.
If I could only suggest one single book on story structure, it would have to be Story by Robert McKee. McKee is a guru in the screenwriting industry. He breaks down the elements of story design and explains act structure, scene design, and character. McKee makes my job as a writer clear: to move the reader through a series of emotional peaks and valleys and reach a highly charged climax. Better still, Story explains how to construct that experience. McKee’s writing style is designed to help the student learn. He’s engaging and organized, stating a thesis and developing it with further explanation and entertaining examples. By the end of every section, I felt like I owned the information. McKee may have written this book for screenwriters, but Story tops my list of of books to improve storytelling in any medium.
My runner-up favorite story structure book also hails from the film industry: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder hits on many of the same principals that McKee explained so beautifully in Story, but adds step-by-step techniques and processes I found incredibly helpful when plotting. Save the Cat stresses the pitch, or logline of a story. Being able to tell anyone what your story is about in a few words is an invaluable skill. I also loved the way Save the Cat breaks down genres into categories helpful to writers. Don’t expect to see reader-defined genres such as romance or science fiction in Save the Cat. Instead, Blake categorizes story types to teach writers how to fulfill readers’ emotional expectations for each archetype. And, of course, Save the Cat is famous for its Beat Sheets. Beat Sheets brought me to a whole new understanding of pacing and crafting the emotional shape of a story. Save the Cat is tied to a thriving online community where you’ll find examples of Beat Sheets for both film and fiction writers.
Two honorable mentions in story structure books:
1 The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Egri wrote the book in the 1940s and his intention was to instruct playwrights. McKee’s Story covered much of the same material in a more updated and engaging way, but a few of Egri’s insights are gems that made it worth the read.
2 Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell. This is a deep dive into story and plot structure from the perspective of character. I expected this book to be all about antagonists, but it covers antiheroes and dark heroes, as well. BB&B reads more like a collection of essays than a through-composed instructional book, but if you’ve already gleaned the basics from McKee or Save the Cat, then your characterization skills could definitely get a boost from this read.
Books on the Editing Process
Once a writer has structured and written that well-honed first draft, what’s next? Time for editing.
Editing is a tough skill to teach, but Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King takes on the task and succeeds. Browne and King discuss the role of narrative summary and characterization, proportion and POV, paragraphing and unintended repetition. I found the chapters on dialog mechanics, dialog editing, and interior monologue particularly useful. Browne and King’s advice plays in my head every single time I sit down to write or revise. I loved that the authors weren’t afraid to call out editorial style in this book, and were upfront giving opinions on how to edit so writers look and sound current, fresh, and modern.
I reveled in Browne and King’s nitty gritty details of what to do when I’m editing. But if all this sounds way too technical and you’re looking for a shorter overview of the editing process, I’d also recommend The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Bell offers great advice (my favorite: read your work aloud to yourself). The Artful Edit was especially enjoyable to read because its examples chronicle exchanges between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor while they collaborated on The Great Gatsby.
Books on Writing Exercises, Inspiration, and Idea Generation
Keeping a fresh crop of new story ideas flowing is important for writers. Writing exercises can help with this, while improving overall writing chops. I found a few fantastic books that made writing exercises fun, educational, and inspirational.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft was one of my favorite 2017 reads. I consider Steering the Craft to be a book of writing exercises. Le Guin certainly offers pithy advice and great insights in the text, but her expertise prompting students to learn by writing makes this book shine. Her exercises gave me a far deeper understanding of POV than I ever had before and really got me thinking about person and tense. I also cultivated a stronger appreciation for the sound of the words I choose. Since I’m a fantasy writer and long-time fan of Le Guin’s fantasy novels, I expected to come away from her writing exercises with a boatload of fantasy story ideas, but that’s not what happened! Instead I ended up with many intriguing characters, settings, and conflicts that are great fodder for mainstream fiction or as stories in a number of genres. In fact, by turning some of those exercises into actual stories, I also learned invaluable lessons about what it takes to develop an idea or a character into structured plot.
If, like me, you find joy and value in writing exercises, here’s one other book that was tremendous fun: The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, a comedian who is absolutely passionate about poetry. I chose to include a book on poetry in our year of writing study both because I wanted to better appreciate the poetry I read, and because Ursula K. Le Guin and Susan Bell taught me to pay attention to how my writing sounds. Poetry is fantastic training in the sound of words! I also learned how to evaluate the rhythmic structure of the English language, and I experienced the power of alliteration and rhyme. As we read The Ode Less Travelled, I developed a spreadsheet full of wonderful terms such as dithyramb, trochee, and pyrrhic substitution. Pretty geeky, I know, but such a delight for the word connoisseur. The Ode Less Travelled is brimming with creative poetry exercises that let me shake off the stiffness I often feel when confronted with a rhyme scheme or syllable count. The book makes writing poetry fun and approachable. Writing a poem is now something I look forward to between drafting and editing projects.
Our 2017 year of writing study has been a fantastic experience. It helped me create a personalized, step-by-step process that takes me from that first flash of inspiration to a finished draft ready to send to an editor or share with my critique group. Having the resources to develop my own personal writing process has worked so much better for me than using the process of another writer or a set of techniques recommended from a writing class.
What’s more, for the first time in my writing life, I can answer the question: “how is your story going?” or “what progress did you make on your writing project today?” I know and feel good about what I’ve accomplished and have a realistic understanding of what work remains.
Our year of study has also given me the context I needed to understand and take action on suggestions made by editors and critique partners. And I feel much more confident when giving feedback to other writers.
I’m so glad I softened my attitude on reading books about writing. But the good experience wasn’t all about attitude. Targeting specific topics for our study helped make it worthwhile. Having a study buddy to keep me motivated and have great discussions with was invaluable. And thanks to my careful note taking, we can spend December reviewing, summarizing, and synthesizing the most important points we learned.
But, the coolest part? I never once used my year of reading about writing as an excuse to avoid sitting down to write, and all the hard work that entails. In fact, I ramped up my writing time while we were studying this year. That meant what we were studying was never theoretical, but of crucial importance to how I was going to approach my current works in progress later that day.
Whatever your goals are for the coming year in continuing to hone your craft, I wish you fantastic resource books, intriguing study, and lots of writing.
Links to the Books
Poetics by Aristotle
Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne, Dave King
The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry
About Heather Pagano
Heather is excited about building a career as a fantasy and magical realism writer and has found Inked Voices a fantastic place for resources and support. Language, philosophy, and music have a big influence on her writing, as do the many places she’s lived. After growing up in small town Iowa, Heather studied classical trombone in Upstate New York. She’s since lived in Italy and New York City. Heather now lives in Silicon Valley, California, a creative type happily adrift in a sea of technologists.