Not every great writer writes a great book. That’s a given. Even Agatha Christie had a couple of truly awful mysteries. (“Elephants Can Remember” stands out as boring, repetitive, definitely an un-Christie-like story.)
But still, it’s always a surprise to hit one of those disappointments, much more so when the disappointments are multiple. Three of the last four bestsellers I’ve read have fit into this category.
A second was fine until the book was nearly finished and the author suddenly began preaching about a political subject that happened to be antithetical to my own beliefs. I could have tolerated a mention or two; that often happens. But this ran to pages and pages of rant. I stopped reading and never did learn all the nice, juicy hows and whys of the plot at the end. What a letdown.
The third book was okay – as long as I skipped the lengthy sections where the main character is writing a book about her terrible life experience. Being in her head that much was a real overdo and not only wasn’t necessary to the story, it bogged the whole thing down. Yuck.
Usually, when I hit a string of bad novels, I head on over to the non-fiction shelf and immerse myself in a book about war or the Black Plague or another subject that’s hard to screw up. This time, though, something told me to give fictionalized murder and mayhem one more chance.
I picked up another popular thriller writer and – drum roll — so far I’m enthralled. This is important because I’m rewriting my current manuscript and need a break from the constant criticism that I’m subjecting myself to. To slip into critique mode with a book I’m reading for entertainment robs the experience of pleasure. Luckily, this new novel has gripped me from the beginning and I haven’t wanted to wave a blue pencil over it a single time.
First is a site, along with its author, that is so good it makes me feel like an idiot for not having read it before. (You, and the rest of the writing world may already know about this. If so, feel free to skip ahead to the next source.) The site is http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com and its author is Randy Ingermanson. Randy is best known for having invented the Snowflake method of writing, something I had investigated some time ago and decided wasn’t really a fit for me. But what I had missed is Randy’s incredible online magazine, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/ezine/, completely free and loaded every month with tips, insights and techniques for analyzing an existing manuscript or beginning the creative process. You can also download his archived volumes, which stretch back to 2005!
The magazine has many different sections. The one on Craft is what primarily caught my attention, although he also has buckets of information on marketing and promotion, productivity, conferences, important new books for writers, and much more. By the time I was finished downloading, I had 300+ pages that covered everything from “Treating Your Storyworld Like a Character” to the dynamics of MRUs – motivation/reaction units, the building blocks of scenes — to plot analysis of such diverse books as the “Merchant of Venice” and “Hunger Games.”
I’m so enamored of Randy’s site that I have his wonderful quote “Dialogue is War,” pinned up in the center of my bulletin board, along with a few other choice items, such as:
“Analysis is destruction. You must take it apart and put it back together again.”
“You cannot afford charity for a single sentence that is not pulling its weight.”
“If a fight is worth having in your story, it’s worth showing, punch by punch, snarl by snarl, bite by bite.”
If you want even more, Randy teaches a number of courses and attends plenty of conferences. But what he offers for free is staggering, both in scope and volume.
As if that weren’t enough, I’ve stumbled on a couple of other valuable spots for writing help.
http://www.editorialdepartment.com/ is a site created by Renni Browne, who’s probably known to most readers of this blog as the co-author of a wonderful book, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, considered the editing bible by some. I went through that book like Sherman through Georgia (what an awful — hackneyed — metaphor, especially considering that I’m a Savannah girl. But then again, Savannah was spared and “given” to Lincoln by Sherman as a Christmas present.) If you haven’t read Renni’s book, you can get it here: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Yourself/dp/0060545690?ie=UTF8&qid=1321020839&sr=8-1&_encoding=UTF8&tag=smartacom07-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325
Anyway, the site offers numerous commercial services but the blog is free and it’s very good. Almost a year ago, J. S. Anderson, author of “Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios”, wrote a piece in which he discussed the adage that you should write what you know. That presented a problem for Mr. Anderson as he was a health care professional specializing in the elderly. This he considered a big yawn. I beg to differ with him; I can see lots of murderous plot potential here, but back to HIS story, not mine.
Mr. Anderson wrote:
“‘Write what you know.’ For years I struggled with this common little sliver of advice.
“What did I know? I was not a detective or former prosecutor. I was not a physician or politician or Olympian or scholar of history….
“I’ve recently published a novel, one which has been well received by those who’ve read it. It’s about history and mystery and monks, with nary a word about health care administration. But it wasn’t until the writing was done that I had my answer.
“What do I know? I ‘know’ an enormous amalgam of information learned through every experience of my lifetime. I ‘know’ how to get even more information, and how to target it to match my needs. Today, much of that information is available at my fingertips (though all too often not tempered or refined by the considerable virtue of personal experience).”
And then he had this gem of personal insight:
“But even more important, I understand how I see the world.”
Wow. How many of us can make that statement so confidently? Isn’t this what we strive for every day as fiction writers – the ability to understand what truly grounds us, what motivates us, what satisfies us deep down beneath all the superficial layers?
Mr. Anderson says: “I have come to know how I respond to the world—visually, viscerally, intellectually and emotionally. That is what I know, and it provides me an endless universe for writing.”
The rest, well, I’m hoping.
Okay, a couple of other sources I’ve been busy gobbling up:
First, “50 Free Resources that Will Improve Your Writing Skills:” http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/06/28/50-free-resources-that-will-improve-your-writing-skills/
Like most writers, I don’t often need grammatical help, but when I do, I really need it. The grammar sites linked here are almost overwhelming in number. Take your pick; they’re all good, though geared to different levels. One site I like — not really grammar, more word analysis — is the Advanced Text Analyzer at http://www.usingenglish.com. You have to register (for free) to use this particular tool. It’s pretty interesting; I avail myself of it periodically.
Another site I use occasionally is http://www.poynteronline.org. I would probably visit it more except that I find it hard to navigate and this is important as much of it is geared primarily toward journalists. But the Writer’s Toolbox is more or less author oriented and there are plenty of nuggets to be found here for the fiction writer. One is a compelling discussion about using verbs in their strongest form, citing both Ian Fleming and George Orwell as good examples. Here’s the link: http://web.archive.org/web/20060705003445/http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=62588
There’s a good collection of archives at this site. Right now, I’m up to “Writing Tool #10.” There are 51 “Tools” so that looks to keep me busy for a while.
All in all, if my current manuscript isn’t well done, it certainly won’t be the fault of the Worldwide Web. What a universe of wisdom, just waiting to be explored.
Do you have favorite writing sites to contribute? Have you used some of the ones mentioned above? Perhaps you have experiences to share? If so, we’d love to hear about them.
Til next time, thanks for reading.