Thursday, 31 October 2013

Thursday Thoughts: Mini-Recommendations (NaNoWriMo Special)

With less than six hours to go (in the UK, at least) until National Novel Writing Month kicks off, I thought it was a good time to share some of my favourite books about writing. (The first isn't really a 'mini' recommendation, being one of the longest reviews I can remember writing, but the others fit the definition rather better.)

If I was going to write a list of authors I admire - well, I wouldn't begin it now. There are so many that I'd still be doing it at the end of November. But if I did take it upon myself to write a list, Lawrence Block would probably be on top of it. Hugely prolific and vastly varied when it comes to thrillers and crime stories, he's someone who seems able to turn his hand to so many different types of novel or short story with excellent results every time. I mentioned in a piece I wrote on Sunday that he'd created my two favourite crime-solvers, alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the contrast between the grittiness of the former series and the cosiness of the latter would place him high on my list of favourites even without his other work. Throw in the comic capers of Evan Tanner, whose sleep-centre was destroyed by shrapnel and now works for a mysterious department going across the world and stirring up trouble, and stamp-collecting assassin Keller, and you've got four excellent series of novels. Then there's the short stories, which feature all of these characters and many others, often rivalling Roald Dahl for darkness and clever plot twists.

I was about to say I don't know how he does it, but the whole point of this review is that I now have some idea. Block shared some of his secrets in a series of entertaining and informative columns, and Telling Lies For Fun and Profit is a collection of them, taking the aspiring writer through everything from how to choose the best place to start a novel to when surprise endings work, via creative plagiarism, sharing your work with other people, and the pros and cons of pen names. There are 47 chapters here, along with an introduction from another prolific crime writer, Sue Grafton, and there's not a bad one amongst them. My personal favourites are the chapter on dialogue, and the one on verbs.

To be fair, I've probably read similar advice to that given in those chapters, and some of the others, several times before. It's not so much that Block is dispensing hitherto-unknown wisdom - more the sheer amount of excellent advice given, and the way in which he puts it across. His writing style - similar here to his first-person narration in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series - is so entertaining that it's possibly worth reading even if you have no plans to write anything yourself. (Is there anyone out there in that boat, the day before Nano, though?) There are a huge amount of wonderful quotes here - complaining about people congratulating him on self-discipline rather than talent, suggesting that this implies "that a persistent chimpanzee could match me book for book if he could just sit still long enough and work the space bar with his non-opposable thumb," or talking about procrastination. "Procrastination's had a bad name ever since 1742, when Edward Young called it the thief of time. (He'd have written that line back in 1739, but kept putting it off.)"

He also gives a generous amount of examples to illustrate his points, often from his own work but also quoting authors as varied as PG Wodehouse and Robert Ludlum. It's fascinating to see his analysis of what works and what doesn't - he's unsparing in his criticism of some of his own work, particularly his earlier writing. This is perhaps even more interesting to long-term fans who've read the stories he's talking about, but I think it can be enjoyed even by people

The column format makes it easy to dip into and out of as well, always a plus if you think you'll be too busy writing this month to read an entire guide. Highly recommended.

Speaking about books to read if you don't have much time and want something to get you going quickly, don't miss Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. Her introduction does recommend reading it twice - one to get the overview and then again to do the assignments given - but it's so concise that you could do this in significantly less time than it would take you to read many books on writing. Despite its brevity, Yardley has created a wonderful book here which gives clear, constructive advice on how to create memorable characters and how to write an outline for your novel. It's perhaps not the best book to read for a beginning writer - her introduction states "The key to this particular book is taking the 'tools' of other well-known writing references, and showing you a hands-on, workable technique to use those tools" - but for anyone who has a vague idea of what they want their novel to be about and would feel much happier with an outline in place, this is pretty close to indispensable, and at the ridiculously low price it's available at, is an incredibly good investment. I came up with an idea yesterday (after discarding the four I'd been working at previously) and working from this created a very rough scene by scene outline which I'm pretty pleased with in a couple of hours. Things will no doubt change, there, as Yardley herself says, but as a way to get started, it was exceptionally helpful. (I should point out there that I rather skimmed parts of the assignments, so I'd set aside significantly longer than those couple of hours if you want to do it 'properly'.)

Finally, not a book giving writing advice as such, but perhaps the one book I've referred to most when writing is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I bought it over a year ago and have had it open on my Kindle app pretty much every time I've sat down to write for any significant time over the past twelve months. The authors have taken 75 common emotions, from adoration to fear, from anticipation to terror, and from rage to love, and created a list of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses and cues of acute/long-term and suppressed expressions of that emotion for each one. For anyone who struggles, as I did, with "show don't tell" this is an absolute goldmine. I've now gone from writing something along the lines of "I felt really sad when I got the news about Rick's death" to being able to actually describing my narrator's reaction. (I've spent half an hour looking for an example that I'm comfortable sharing with the world, but as good as the ET is, it doesn't work miracles, so I'm keeping my fiction to myself for a while longer!)

The main body of the book is these 75 entries, but it's also got a few useful sections at the start on how to get the best use out of it, including avoiding drama, twisting cliches, and looking at related emotions to the one you want to describe (again, a few are suggested in each entry.)

Massively recommended as a really useful book to refer to.

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