Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Getting Help

I am addicted to books, I'm saying that right up front. For years, I spent hundreds of dollars on technical books about operating systems and programming for my day job. I finally stopped doing that about three years ago when I realized that I had reached a plateau where the books were simply not advanced enough to help me. The other determining factor, however, was even more interesting to me: I actually prefer documentation available on the computer. If I have it in electronic form, the computer can perform a search instead of me laboriously pulling down book after book, looking for one small description of a reghack I need to do. I never thought I would prefer electronic information to an actual, paper book.

My. How times change.

However, I raise these issues because from a writing perspective, reference material interests me.

First, in the complete antithesis of my day job, I found when I first started out writing, books on writing were interesting but not particularly valuable. What was valuable was actually…writing. And activities such as entering writing contests and doing/receiving critiques. Forming a partnership with another writer to perform critiques was particularly helpful. Over time, you may find critique partners are less valuable (e.g. you've learned where to put your commas) or don't have the time to do critiques in return. Writing contests are no longer useful.

You reach a mid-level plateau. You may even have sold by this time, but you're not burning with success. This is when I've found books on writing to become less of an intellectual exercise and more specifically helpful.

Actually, there's only one writing book that I've found to be helpful enough to recommend: The Techniques of the $elling Writer by Dwight Swain. Get it and read it. You can actually improve your writing if you pay attention. He covers things like:

  • Choosing the correct word
  • Building a character's motivations, reactions, and feelings to create the story's movement
  • Techniques like how to incorporate a flashback effectively

Stuff like that. I'm deliberately staying away from mentioning his "scene and sequel" information that everyone else babbles about because it's always provoked a "well, duh" reaction in me. This book is useful, however, but it is more useful to someone who has already done some writing and is looking for ways to go beyond the basics.

I really recommend this book. I actually didn't buy it for several years because I had bought other books on writing that ended up serving as dust collectors and not much else. So I didn't think that one more book on writing would really help me.

I have a shelf of books that I bought because other writers recommended them. Turns out that the brief descriptions given about the books were all I needed. I didn't need the book itself. It just took 250 pages for the author to describe what others encapsulated in the 250 word concept and description. A lot of books on "how to plot" are like that. Read the blurb on the back, glance through the charts, and you're done. Get the concept and get out.

There is one exception to this which I do go back to occasionally and that is the book on Creating Character Emotion. You don't have to read the whole thing, but reading a few of the examples really does help you understand how to show emotions like anger without just telling the reader that the character was angry. I do refer back to this book to refresh myself on ways to portray emotion, but again, if the book was half the length it is, it would be enough. The author really didn't need to have a chapter on each emotion. Can we say…redundant?

If I had written the book (easy to say, right?) I would not have made chapters on each emotion. I would have made chapters on the various techniques used to portray emotion and then included the example of the emotions that used the technique. That's why I never read the entire book. It started to repeat techniques in the guise of showing how to portray different emotions.

Entirely unnecessary. Which emotion is being portrayed is entirely unimportant. The crux of the matter is how to portray any emotion.

So after a few chapters, I marked which "emotions" were really examples of a specific way to portray an emotion—any emotion—so that I could refer back to the techniques.

The fact that I bothered to go back and mark the techniques, however, shows you that there was some very valuable and interesting information in that book. It is definitely worthwhile reference material.

However, I still have one complaint which circles back to my first paragraph: I've reached a point where I actually prefer my reference material to be online. I wish I could have gotten Swain's book as an e-book. I also wish the character emotion book was available as an e-book.

As far as other reference material: I heartily recommend the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It is invaluable although exceptionally expensive. (I got it free for joining a book club in the distant past—otherwise I wouldn't have it, either.) I wish I had it online. It is so much easier to look things up on the computer than to stop and drag out some book. When I get rich and famous, the first thing I'm going to buy is the OED on CD (right after I get the D.R. Field & Brush Mower).

I am always using words that aren't in the standard online dictionaries. I also find most Thesauri to be pathetic. (What the heck is the plural of Thesaurus? Thesauruses? If it follows the Latin, one would think the plural would be Thesauri—and my speller doesn't barf at it so maybe that's right, although it doesn't barf at Thesauruses, either.)

Anyway, I don't use particularly obscure or complex words—just different words. Most are easy, most are words everyone has heard and used before. It's just that these lazy, limited, popular dictionaries and thesauri don't contain them. Although the Microsoft versions seem better than other e-dictionaries I've bought like Websters… Who would have thunk it?

So—that's it. Get Swain. It's about the most help I can offer other writers.

1 comment:

Jessica Dotta said...

Great blog! I just discovered it in a google search for sympathetic characters.

Love the advice you gave.