12 Writing Books: 6 Books Librarians Recommend and 6 of My Favorites

Whenever I come across a list of must read writing books, I skim through it to see what I might discover.  So it’s not surprise I clicked through to read the list Terri Frank composed for a DIY MFA blog post.

When asked a variety of questions, the librarians queried each recommended a book.  Here is their 6 item list along with some commentary from yours truly.

Writer’s Market 2018 was recommended as a get started writing book. I have to admit that surprised me.  I would definitely recommend it to the writer who has several manuscripts under their belt and is ready to seek out an agent or editor, but a newbie?  I’m not so sure about that.  I do have my copy so don’t think I’m dissing it.  I’d just need to know what the newbie wanted to write before I made a recommendation.

No Plot? No Problem! Revised and Expanded Edition: A Low Stress,High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty was recommended for a writer who is prepping for NaNoWriMo.

Literary Market Place was the suggestion for a writer with a technical manual to sell.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker was recommended for the author who failed to connect with their plot.  I don’t know this book but I’m wondering how similar it is to Plot by Ansen Dibell which I have on my shelf.

Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart was recommended for someone who plans to write a memoire.  I have to admit that I’m not madly in love with memoire but I’ve yet to find a nonfiction how-to that I love so I’ve requested this from my library.  I keep them very busy.

The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Mike Figgis is the book the librarian will be reading.  Wish my library had this one but they don’t so I may have to ILL it.  Like I said, I believe in providing job security for the local library staff.

So what 6 books would I recommend?

The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children.  This SCBWI book is a compilation of their market guides and other handy references tools.  Honestly, I use this more than I use Writer’s Market because it specializes in children’s markets.

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul is the go-to book for anyone who wants to write picture books.  She analyzes the form, provides tons of information on the language and so much more.  Honestly, I try to find time to look through this every time I start a picture book project.

Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison.  This book is all about rewriting your novel.  It is a workshop in book form and if you follow it you will come out with a much better manuscript.  I mean it.  This is one every children’s novelist should own.

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  This is an essential book for someone who wants to have their anxious character do more than chew on his lip or wring her hands.  A great reference tool for emotions across the board and all types of characters.


Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang  is a how to that gives information on how the illustrations in a picture book convey emotion, lead the reader through the story, and more.  Read this one for a better understanding of how illustrations function.

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson.  This is a great book for studying plot structure – the ups, the downs and how they all come together for a satisfying story.  A great tool for troubleshooting pacing and figuring out what isn’t quite working on your novel.

Hopefully between the DIY MFA list and my list, you’ll find something new to inspire your writing.  After all, we all need a little nudge every now and again.


Theme: Take some time to play

theme-clustersAsk me what the theme of a book is and I’m going to stare blankly for a moment.  It doesn’t matter if it is something I am reading or something I am writing, I am a do-er.  Generally the first thing that I identify is plot.  Or character.  Theme may come into play only after a full draft has been completed.

But The Plot Whisperer plays with theme in Chapter 4.  Heck, I don’t even have a plot outline.  It all feels a little odd.  Ah, well.  What could it hurt to give it a try.

Alderson instructs Plot Whisperer readers to get out a big piece of paper and draw an oval in the center.  Do you know the theme of your book?  She doesn’t mean Family or Honor.  She wants your well-developed, well-thought-out sentence.  Don’t have it yet?  No worries.  Just start writing thematic words and phrases that have to do with your book.

As you do this, says Alderson, you are going to identify groupings of ideas.  Can you use these to develop your specific theme?

Okay, I can do this.  Not that I can bring myself to write it on paper.  My common ideas wouldn’t be grouped together.  It would be . . . gasp . . . messy.  Anyone who has ever seen my desk is probably rolling on the floor.  But in my defense, I put myself through college creating graphics for archaeological reports.  Messy graphics, even brain storming, will distract me from actually brainstorming.  I have to know an easy clean up is in sight.  So I did it in Adobe Illustrator because I could just scoot things around as needed.  And boy oh boy did I need to clean up the graphic (see the final at right).

My OCD tendencies aside, I did discover something about my theme.  My theme is the idea that Family is more than people and estate/shared belongings.  It isn’t history although it is shaped by history. It is shared values and can change over time.  What I found playing with this is that there are both Positive and Negative aspects to this theme.  Moving my character from negative to positive will not only bring about a thematic arc in my story, it will also fuel the character’s emotional arc.  Woo-hoo!   Definitely a worthwhile exercise.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see what Alderson wants me to do next.



Plotting a Novel with Depth

Plot WhispererAs I get ready to make a second attempt at plotting out my novel, I’m rereading The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook.  I’m not even past chapter 2 and I’ve already found a problem with my earlier attempts at plotting which felt confused and haphazard.  The best books are plotted at three levels — the action, the emotional arc and the theme.  I had all three — sort of.

And, that’s good, sort of.  If an editor tells you that your story feels slight, you probably have all action and no character growth.  Or your theme isn’t well developed.

I wasn’t heading into a slight plot. I was heading into a haphazard plot.  One plot point would be from the action plot.  The next might be from the emotional plot or the thematic plot.  I couldn’t get things moving forward because I had created a tangled mess.

The first step to untangling it is to understand the three plots.

Action plot.  This is the part of the plot that we most often discuss when we say plot.  The character has a goal and these are the steps that are taken to reach it.  If I had plotted the action and neglected everything else, it would have made sense but it would have been slight.  Unfortunately, I created a jumble.

Emotional plot.  I notice this one missing from a lot of adult books.  Your character needs to grow and change.  This might mean that they discover that something they believed at the beginning of the book was a lie.  Or they misunderstood something.  Or they just needed to come to a more mature understanding.  This emotional plot needs to more or less keep pace with the action plot.  I often figure this one out last, right after I figure out the theme.

Thematic plot.  Is your story about family?  Or independence?  Or hope?  Along with the arc that deals with plot and the one that deals with character emotion, you need one for theme as well.

Now that I’m thinking about them as three distinct entities, I can make sure that all three are present in my story.  They will intertwine, but now that I know to keep track of them they (hopefully) won’t again become a tangled mess.


Your Opening Scene

Always say start where action is.  Start where change happens.  We’ve heard that advice time and time again and it’s entirely surprising.  Have you ever read a manuscript where the writers starts way too early, poking and plodding through paragraph after paragraph of yawn inducing back story?  Heck, we’ve all written a few manuscripts like that when we’re being honest with ourselves.

Unfortunately, I tend to err in the other direction.  You want action?  I’ll give you action.  Me?  I tend to plunk the reader down in the middle of something BIG.

That’s what I tried to do with Rat Race and my critique group just shook their heads.  “Too confusing.  We need to know this, but we need to know X first.”

So I’d write a new first chapter, squeezing it in before the original.

Nope.  Still starting too late in the story.

Fortunately, I was able to diagnose by problem when I sat down with Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer Workbook and the original Plot Whisper book.  Check out Saturday’s post at the Muffin to find out how using these two books got the ball rolling.


Where Can I Find the Best Writing Prompts?

Until recently, I would not have had a valid answer to this question.  At least, it wouldn’t have been an answer as much as it would have been an amazing eye-roll.  Writing exercises and I are fairly often incompatible.  In fact, as much as I love writing conferences and workshops, I hate writing exercises of all kinds.  Even prompts.  Give me a prompt or an exercise, and my mind goes blank.

Whoa.  There’s absolutely nothing there.  That blank.

If its all the same to you, I’d rather get something  done on my work-in-progress, thank you.  Can you just give my writing prompt to someone else?  Someone who might appreciate it?

Somehow Martha Alderson knew that’s what I would say, so she wrote The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts.   

Yes, this is a book of prompts but it is a book of prompts designed for the prompt phobic.  The prompts are goof ball exercises designed to draw memories out of some great gobbledy gook.  They are designed to get you writing on your work in progress.

Yes, you heard me.  These prompts have one goal — to get you writing on your current novel.

To find out more about how this worked for me, check out my post today on the Muffin.

What writing prompts work best for you?


What to Do when a Rewrite Turns into a Whole New Book

Just over a week ago, I blogged about my critique with Emma Dryden.  I’ve had some time now to noodle it over.  The more I think about it, the more certain I am that her off the cuff comment is 100% on the mark.  In fact, I blogged about that today over on the Muffin.

This is, of course, going to mean a complete rewrite.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am not as much rewriting as I am crafting a whole new novel.  Of course, this means reworking my characters and their motivations.  The plot is going to completely change.  I may get to keep one or two key scenes . . . maybe.  But for the most part I will be starting from scratch.

To keep from taking short cuts, I’m rewatching the Plot Whisperer videos.  In case you aren’t familiar with Martha Alderson and her work, I’ll paste the first video in below.  It is about your character and character goals.  This I had figured out, but I know she’ll make me think about things that I would have skimmed over without even slowing down.  These are definitely the kinds of tools that I need to get me going.  What do you use to help you consider the various aspects of a new project?


Plotting Your story

A week or so ago, Ann Finkelstein, recommended Martha Alderson’s videos on Youtube.  I didn’t have time to watch them when she gave me the info, but then Jill Corcoran blogged about them.

Obviously, it was time to check these videos out.  Alderson’s nickname is “The Plot Whisperer,” and her 27 videos focus on how to construct your plot.  I’ve always felt like my plots were pretty solid.  Maybe not perfect, but definitely not my weak spot.  (Beginnings, anyone?)

But Ann had commented on how much she has learned about plot from the videos.  When a top notch writer recommends something like this, I tend to listen.

So far I’ve only watched the first video which is on pre-plotting, specifically thinking about who your character is and their goal.  Did I learn anything?  Let’s just say that Alderson has broadened my thinking about character goals and how they work.

I’ve embedded the first video below.  That said, it only seems to be appearing inconsistently so I’ll link to it here.   Now I’m off to watch #2.

Happy Learning!