Is your goal for 2016 to start, finish, or revise your novel? Whether you’re writing literary, mainstream, or genre fiction, you might want to check out my top three must-read recommendations for novelists — and writers of shorter fiction as well.
Stealing Hollywood: Story Structure Secrets for Writing Your Best Book
Several writers I’m working with are using this comprehensive workbook on writing fiction by novelist and screenwriter Sokoloff. Her approach takes the classic three-act, eight-scene model
of dramatic structure often used in film storytelling and applies it to fiction.
This is no one-size-fits-all “commercial” template. This structure can be subtle or blatant, creative, or cliché. It can apply to literary fiction or to potboilers. But without structure, your readers (including, down the road, agents and editors) may have little sense of your story’s direction and may not hang in to find out “What’s going to happen next?” — which is always why readers keep on turning pages.
On the other hand, structure without the heart that inspired you in the first place can lead you to write cardboard characters whom you move around in service to your plot rather than ones who are living out a story that develops out of who they are and how they collide with one another.
Sokoloff balances these two aspects of the creative process by showing you how to use your head to create dramatically satisfying structures that will tell the stories you’re called in your heart to write.
Her very helpful and informative website, a useful supplement to her book, offers extensive material from it in outline form as well as dozens of helpful blog posts.
Chicago-based writing coach Cleaver stresses the absolute necessity for conflict in fiction. His mantra is: “If the characters are having fun, the reader isn’t.” I often use his exercises, especially with writers who need a clearer focus on the basic story they want to tell and who pull their punches when it comes to dramatic conflict.
This book is much less structured than Sokoloff’s but covers some of the same territory in terms of attuning you to how important it is to be “merciless to your characters,” as one of my writing teachers used to insist.
Although Cleaver focuses on the basic story elements of want, obstacle, action, and resolution, he also emphasizes emotion, which allows your readers to connect and identify with your characters, and showing your story in scenes and dialogue (rather than telling).
Cleaver’s site offers an illuminating sample exercise in how to intensity dramatic conflict for your characters by forcing them to face greater and greater difficulties.
Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
By Ursula K. Le Guin
In this collection of self-guided lessons, also a great resource for writers’ groups, the noted fantasy and science-fiction author offers comments, strategies, and exercises that focus you on the art and craft of storytelling.
I often refer writers to her chapter on voice and point of view, which includes one scene using different POVs and a series of different POV scenes from Charles Dickens and J.R.R. Tolkien. Le Guin’s voice is witty, accessible, humane, and supportive.
If you do decide to explore any of these books, or if you have other writing resources that you find especially helpful, I’d love to hear from you.
(By the way, if fear is keeping you from getting started, you may want to check out Big Magic, the new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love. An inspiring 26-minute interview with her about the book is available online.)
Happy New Novel-Writing Year!