Seven books on writing

I’ve just finished reading Will Storr’s book The Science of Storytelling, the latest in a long line of books that will be snatched up by storytellers like myself in the hope that they will finally find in these pages the secrets to writing a bestselling masterpiece that will be admired until the heat death of the universe.

Here’s the thing: I’ve read enough of these books to realise that there are no secrets, there are no absolutes and there’s no right or wrong way of doing this (unless you’re eating crayon and vomiting it onto your laptop, that’s probably not as productive as it sounded when you thought of it in the shower), but some books are better than others and here are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Poetics, Aristotle

This the grandaddy of “How to Write” books, written no doubt because he was fed up of hearing clichéd Homer rip-offs at his local writers’ group in Macedonia. In here you will find ground zero of Western storytelling, with clear observations on plot and character that have stood the test of time. It’s only about 150 pages long and you can find great translations for free on Project Gutenberg.

Story, Robert McKee

After Aristotle, no one had anything interesting to say about story until Robert McKee arrived (at least, that’s what he would have you believe). There’s been something of a McKee backlash since I first picked up my copy in the late ‘90s, but this was the book that first fired my imagination and even though he’s basically taking Aristotle’s ideas and illustrating them with examples from Chinatown, Casablanca and The Godfather, he is a great teacher and he makes the craft of storytelling accessible in a way that few others have managed.

On Writing, Stephen King

This came along at a great time for me, and a bad time for Mr. King. He was hit by a van while out walking in an accident that very nearly took his life and this was what he wrote while in recovery. Here, finally, was a book on the craft of writing by someone who had actually written and sold one or two novels. He talks about the craft, the language, characters and he keeps it concise and — more importantly — he treats it as a job. This is his work. Up till this point, writing had always seemed mysterious to me, on a par with alchemy and necromancy. The advice that still lingers from reading this book nearly twenty years on? Shut the door and write. And y’know what? It works!

On Film-Making, Alexander Mackendrick

Okay, so the content of this book existed before McKee but it was only in 2004 that Paul Cronin and Faber brought together the teachings of the mighty Alexander Mackendrick for the world. Mackendrick was the director of some of my favourite Ealing comedies including The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. But, crucially, he’s a director, not a writer. This book gave me the clearest understanding of the craft of film production and how to effectively tell stories in a cinematic way. Mackendrick spent twenty-five years teaching film-making and storytelling at the California Institute of the Arts in LA, and it’s all distilled in these pages. (I can also recommend Conversations with Wilder, by Cameron Crowe who patiently ekes out nuggets of gold from Billy Wilder, director and sometimes writers on classics such as Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard).

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

The only book here where its title has become part of screenwriting jargon, “Where’s the Save the Cat moment?” Snyder had worked in the Hollywood mire for some time and had pitched and sold more screenplays that most of us can ever dream of. This is a largely practical book, with exercises designed to not only build your story but to also sell it. It’s unashamedly commercial and bullshit-free, inspiring and huge fun. (I can also recommend Writing Movies For Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon which is fantastic on the harsh realities of writing for film, though you can tell it’s written by overexcited screenwriters by all the EXCLAMATIONS IN CAPITALS!).

Into The Woods, John Yorke

The likes of McKee and Vogler will instruct us on how stories work, but it was only when I read Yorke’s sublime book that I began to discover why we react to stories the way that we do. A veteran of British television, Yorke writes in a clear and no-nonsense style and digs much deeper into the beats of story and character than anyone before. Full disclosure, I’ve interviewed him for the podcast and I’ve been on his screenwriting course and if I could I would have him on speed-dial twenty-four hours a day.

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

What is there new to say on the craft of storytelling? I must confess that I was sceptical when I first picked this up (Science?! How reductive! This is an art, don’tcha know!) and the first few chapters made it clear that I would have really pay attention as there is some proper science going down in these pages. Storr starts by looking at how our brain perceives the world, giving me genuine chills by reminding me that my brain is stuck in a dark bone box and relies rather heavily on eyes and ears that have received much abuse from me over the years. He explores the role that story has played in our evolution and why it is so important and gives examples as to how we can use this knowledge to improve our own writing. And he makes comparisons between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Mr. Nosey (both lessons in humility), which makes the book both highfaluting and accessible. All I can attest is there were severable times I had to put the book down and made notes on my current work-in-progress and for me there is no higher recommendation.

Notable omissions

And that’s that. My favourite books on the craft writing… But wait, you cry! What of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s Writer’s Journey? Surely these are the the sacred texts of storytelling? Well, if I had written this blog ten years ago I’m pretty sure they would have been at the top of my list, but when I look back I think that ne plus ultra perception of them probably did me more harm than good. Campbell and Vogler are great on structure and myth, but less so on character and this led to me writing scripts and novels that had perfect structure but characters that were bland, passive and dragged along by the plot. And yes, that’s my fault, but the accepted wisdom of these books as the be-all and end-all of storytelling blinded me to that, and if I had a time machine I would go back and slap the younger me and tell him to focus on character first. That’s what it’s all about. Humans trying to make sense of the world with stories. Right… back to work!

What?! No books by women?? Uh, yeah, about that…

If you need any help or advice with your writing, I provide writer services too. Drop me a line here for a free consultation.

Eastercon Update

EasterCon – I’ll be at EasterCon on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st April…

Saturday 20th, 7-8pm: I’ll be reading from The End of Magic with some amazing authors in the Earhart Room. More here.

Sunday 21st, 10:15am: I’ll be on the The Current State of Podcasting panel in the Johnson room. More info here. 

Last time I was Eastercon, I was reading from Robot Overlords and had an excellent time! Hope to see you there.

The Copy Edits Are Done…

After two rounds, the copy edits on my fantasy novel The End of Magic are done. I was so happy to get Lisa Rogers as the copy editor. Lisa worked on Robot Overlords and I loved her attention to detail, her forensic knowledge of the English language and all its wonderful nuances, but most of all I loved how she saved me from looking like a complete and utter numpty on countless occasions.

A copy editor (sometimes known as a line editor) will check and format your punctuation and grammar, but will also highlight continuity problems, factual errors, inconsistencies and timeline issues. For this book, the timeline was the real bugger. I had characters having breakfast when they should’ve been having supper, I had a character sneaking into a camp to look through a telescope at the stars… in the middle of the day… and, in a first for me, I had a character wander around with their genitals hanging out for all to see after having a pee…

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Next comes the proof read, where a new set of eyes will find even more errors. Writing a novel is essentially a process whereby you fail a little less each time, until you reach something that’s not quite perfection, but at least won’t be a tedious collection of typos.

Another exciting development was the cover questionnaire that arrived this week. Unbound’s art department asked me for details about the book, the characters, the settings etc. They also wanted a list of comparable books in the same genre, and a mood board of images. Luckily for me, I’ve been keeping a private Pinterest board for this book since I started writing it and I blogged about book covers a while ago, so I was able to ping these back fairly quickly. It’ll be fascinating to see what they come up with… don’t believe any of that “Don’t judge a book by its cover” nonsense. It will be crucial to get this right.

The good news is we’re still on schedule for a February release. Pre-order now and tell your friends!

 

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Scrivener Features: Auto-Complete

Very handy tip for any screenwriters using Scriv…

Kay Hudson

I stumbled across the Auto-Complete function the other day when I was doing a menu-crawl around Scrivener’s nooks and crannies.  It’s not the same as Auto-Correct, which I’ve had to turn off.  Either Auto-Correct is too imaginative or I am: when I had the feature turned on, Scrivener kept changing my characters’ names and “correcting” other words that I didn’t notice until I reread my pages.  Or worse, until I read them to my critique group.

Auto-Complete, on the other hand, only does what you’ve told it to do, offering up long or difficult-to-type words or phrases when you type the first letter.  For novelists, I imagine this would most often be character or place names.  In my collection of unpublished novels, I have a parallel worlds tale set partially along a Texas Coast dominated by the Aztec Empire.  Tenochtitlán popped up from time to time, and I was glad…

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Brandon Sanderson signed Legion book giveaway

I’m giving away a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s novella LEGION, and it’s been signed by the man himself. To be in with a chance of getting a copy click here before midnight UK time on 7th May 2018.

Good luck!

Lara Dearman on the Bestseller Experiment

We had the brilliant and all round lovely author Lara Dearman on the podcast this week. Lara is a debut novelist who has gone from community college courses to a major publishing deal with her book The Devil’s Claw. It’s an inspirational listen and I know Lara will go on to great things. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW

Also have a listen to this week’s Deep Dive, where Mr. D and I discuss the topics brought up by our chat with Lara, and I reveal my true feelings about Enid Blyton. CLICK HERE for a wee snippet.

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If you liked that episode and want some more, we’ve started having post-podcast deep dive discussions for our Patreon supporters. You can support us and get the extra content here.

And if you’re looking for something new to read in 2018, then grab a copy of our novel Back to Reality on Kindle now!

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Book Review: Back To Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver

This just made my day…

Rhoda Baxter

Back to Reality: The feel-good novel of the year!Back to Reality: The feel-good novel of the year! by Mark Stay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve listened to the Marks’ podcast (The Bestseller Experiment) for a year and I was keen to read the book to see if it was any good. And it was!
It’s a fast and funny time slip type story. 42 year old Jo (with her unhappy life) suddenly finds that she’s swapped bodies with 24 year old Yohanna who is really Jo from an alternate reality. They have to get back into each other’s bodies before their time runs out and one of them dies.

Having listened to the podcast I felt weirdly affectionate towards this book even before I started it, like I’d watched this story grow up, and there are certain bits (like the character names) that popped out as Easter eggs. This added an extra dimension to…

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The best shortbread cookies you’ll ever taste!! Honestly!!

I heartily endorse this message…

Clairesallotment's Blog

When the weather outside is very cold, frosty, and wet, playing in the garden isn’t an option. So you can either do a massive pile of ironing (nah!), or those other boring household chores that you try and put off for as long as possible (do I have to?). Instead, you can get out your cookery books, look through the recipe books, and bake some of the most wonderful shortbread cookies ever. You can add whatever flavourings you like, just keep the basic shortbread the same.

So why not make the house smell wonderful, and once you’ve made your cookies, sit down with a couple of them and a nice cup of tea. The ironing can wait for another day…..

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GollanczFest 2017 part 6

Batjutsu

This continues on from my first post about the Gollancz Festival 2017.

After the morning panels were finished I got another chance to talk with Mark Stay (Orion Publishing, Author & The Bestseller Experiment). It was an informal chat with Mr Stay, as he was on hand for any customer or author enquiries. We had a chance to discuss The Bestseller Experiment, and briefly touch on some of the other projects he had mentioned in some of the bonus video chats the two Marks had done, and of course at the time the big query regarding the future of The Bestseller Experiment. I managed to avoid pitching my current projects, and when Mark asked about my work I give a concise overview; I think I did well considering how much I’d have liked to have said 😉

Mark Stay Mark Stay guardian of the Author-Portal for #GollanczFest 2017

Mr Stay’s welcoming…

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5 Tips for exporting your manuscript from Scrivener to Word