I have come to a point in my writing career at which I must admit my addiction. Oh, sure, there are worse vices, compulsions, and irrational behavioral problems than what I face. And to be honest, I really have no intention of changing.
However, it is time to get organized.
I have read a lot of books on the craft of writing. Today, I place them in a rough syllabus for further study. All of these titles contain valuable lessons and bits of inspiration. They are like family to me; often arguing and bickering to the point of ridiculousness. Sometimes, as I watch the debate, I see what many of the authors don’t seem to recognize--they agree more often than they think. In many cases it is a matter of semantics and syntax as much as true disagreement. There are complementary layers of greatness in these books on how to write fiction.
My goal has always been to learn what I need to write well from the combined tenets of all the best writing coaches I can find. So here is the list in the order I am currently studying them (with no attempt to reveal which is my favorite; it is merely where I am starting today):
Story Trumps Structure (by Steven James)
I had the chance to listen to this author speak at OWFI and later started reading The Bower Files. If you have a chance to hear him talk, do it.
Story Fix (by Larry Brooks)
I just picked this one up because I really learned a lot from Story Engineering and Story Physics--which are on my list for further study.
Story Engineering (by Larry Books)
Although I wasn’t an outliner at the time, and still struggle with pre-planning stories, the observations in this book blew me away. I remember watching World War Z afterward and exclaiming “Right there! That’s the First Plot Point! Exactly like in Story Engineering!
Story Physics (by Larry Brooks)
This one goes deeper and expands on the ideas in Story Engineering.
Blueprint Your Bestseller (by Stuart Horwitz)
This book explains, in detail, how to break your book down into scenes and then put it back together in narrative order. The concepts are novel and powerful; it takes work to grasp everything but it is worth it.
Book Architecture (by Stuart Horwitz)
I wrote a blog article on this one here.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers (by Rennie Browne and Dave King)
It has been awhile since I read this one, so I won’t butcher it by attempting a summary here. However, it is a must read. One of the take-aways deals with “small scale telling” and is something I use everyday.
Writing the Blockbuster Novel (by Albert Zuckerman)
Where can you find a step-by-step breakdown of how Ken Follet writes a bestseller? In this book, that’s where.
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method (by Randy Ingermanson)
This is a step-by-step method that I have tried several times with mixed results. Some of the products of this method are awesome enough to convince me I need another look at it.
There are many other books on my to-read (and to-re-read) list, but this should do for now.
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Stephen King has a way of drilling a phrase or detail into your head. The last time I wrote a blog post, it was “Travlin Jack.” I discussed how the use of this phrase and others could be analyzed through the lens of Book Architecture (a new literary technique by Stuart Horwitz). As The Talisman progresses and Jack Sawyer heads west with his werewolf buddy, each Series (as Horwitz calls certain repeating story details) varies in usage, meaning, and intensity. As Wolf might say, “It’s happening right here and now, wolf!”
The “Travlin Jack” and “My Mother is Dying” series/mini-themes continue to find their way into Jack’s internal dialogue, but less frequently. Somewhere around chapter fourteen, Jack begins to struggle with a recurring memory (..Jack was six, Jack was six, when everyone lived in California and no one lived anywhere else…who plays those changes...) of his father and Morgan Sloat discussing Jerry Bledsoe, a maintenance man they employ. In the memory of a six year old, part of the conversation about a jazz album mingles with a growing understanding of what happened to Jerry Bledsoe.
“Who plays those Jerry Bledsoe changes?”
The fate of the maintenance man becomes a metaphor for unintended consequences. Jack sees every catastrophe as something he caused by his actions in the Territories. This mini-theme, or Series, dominates the “plot” for several chapters. Mr. King likes taking the scenic route, which is probably why I enjoy his novels!
(Also, Jerry Bledsoe in the real world, the right here and now, God pound it, not in the Territories, is an American author and journalist according to Wikipedia. This could mean nothing, but I find it terribly interesting.)
Today I am deep into chapter twenty-one of The Talisman, enjoying every audiobook minute, and not for the first time. The “Travlin Jack, My Mother is Dying, and Jerry Bledsoe” Series remain powerful and vivid, but Wolf has taken center stage with the changing of the moon.
“You’re the herd now, Jack. A wolf who harms his herd is damned…”
The interesting thing about the link between Book Architecture and Stephen King’s work, is that Mr. King is the champion of organic writers (seat of the pants, story excavators, and so forth). If you Read Blueprint Your Best Seller and Book Architecture, both books provide useful tools to coming to grips with a long, winding first draft. What do writers say? First get it written, then get it right?
For several years I have struggled to understand and wield story structure more intentionally. I love the concepts in Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. What I am coming to discover, is that the entire process is faster and smoother for me if I write like King advocates and then revise and structure later. Thirty-three years of serious writing brings me to the method I currently use. In essence, it is all about story--some entertain, others do not.
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Like any good author in his mid-forties, I have read The Talisman. Being me, I've also listened to it. Two things drive me to write about this book, one of King's best in my opinion. The first is that I am listening to the audio book again. Frank Muller is the narrator; his incredible performance may be responsible for my ever-increasing love of the audiobook medium, but I digress.
At the same time, I have been reading an ARC of Book Architecture by Stuart Horwitz. He also wrote Blueprint Your Bestseller, so I knew I was going to learn a lot of good technique in his most recent work.
So here it is, the laydown, the straight dirt. The Talisman contains so many powerful Series that listening to it while studying Book Architecture seems like proof of divine intervention, or at least some kind of fate. (If I can pull from one of my recent blog articles--The Pale Horseman--"Destiney is everything.") There is a reason King rose to the top of popular fiction. He can make multiple timelines and back story dance, two things that few writers do well. The secret, whether Mr. King and Mr. Straub know it or not, is in their mastery of Series.
According to Horwitz, a Series is something that repeats and varies in a way that develops the theme or a character arc. It something like a "through-line" but for some reason I am able to get my head around the concept of Series easier (at least the way he explains it). When a writer does a good job of foreshadowing, he is using Series.
I am not really doing Book Architecture justice at this point, but will try to review this very interesting writing tool. The examples that Mr. Horwitz uses really show how an emotionally powerful story uses Series, whether intentionally or not.
I can't help but think my writing life would have been a lot easier had I known the concept years ago. (Now I know it, but must fully understand and master it--can anyone say practice, practice, practice?)
My favorite Series in The Talisman is what I call the Travlin Jack Series. If you have read the novel, then you must be familiar with this often repeated phrase. Speedy Parker, Jack's mentor, says it all the time. There are many Itertations of this Series (repetitions and foreshadows). The Travlin Jack Series is an easy example, because it obviously means more than hello.
Jack is going to travel between worlds and across the United States during his adventure. The catchy phrase runs like a lifeline through all of Jack and Speedy's scenes.
"Why I got me some company. Good ole Travilin Jack. Little Travlin man he is. Speedy done some travlin his-self, he has..." (This is an approximate quote from memory; no offense to Mr. King or Mr. Straub if I got it wrong. I figure there is no harm done, since I am praising their story craft from here to there. And, I’d like to do some travlin myself, I sure would, see the Territories that’s true.)
Another Series is the My Mother is Dying Series. This has an obvious cause and effect on the plot. There are several other Series that I have began to hear clearly as I listen. Currently I am on chapter four and The Talisman Series has just been identified.
This series will end, you guessed it, when Jack finds the Talisman, learns what it is for, and uses it. A lot of really bad Stephen King stuff will happen to Traviln Jack along the way.
Stephen King is a self-admitted, non-planner. His book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is still one of my favorites, even though writing by the seat of my pants had gotten me in a mess of trouble from time to time.
Perhaps Book Architecture will allow me to write freely again and still make sense of the imaginary places and the people I find when I hop-scotch across my own version of the Territories.
Please leave a comment on what you think of The Talisman. What is your favorite character, scene, phrase, item or place? If you have questions about Book Architecture I would be happy to share my experience (though I do recommend reading the book yourself as well). Or, if neither The Talisman nor Book Architecture interests you (gasp!) please say hello. I'd love to hear from you.
Last but not least, I just learned that in 2014, King and Straub announced that they are working on a third book in the Talisman trilogy. This, dear readers, is good news!
Some weeks are harder than others--full of bad news and unexpected expenses; you know, dropping your smart phone in a puddle during a rainstorm, learning that the vehicle you just paid off has a cracked radiator, power steering leak, and main oil leak. You work long hours and get nowhere.
But as we all know, life is full of ups and downs. The older I get, the easier it is to recognize that better times are just around the corner.
I have been struggling with several major writing projects and revisions. Thus, I was totally jazzed when an advanced reading copy of Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline without Using a Formula, by Stuart Horwitz, arrived in my in box.
You’ve got mail!
Yes. Yes I do.
As you might remember from Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, also by Stuart Horwitz, there are three foundational concepts used in book architecture: scene, series, and theme. I remember reading Blueprint and then watching World War Z. The plot points were perfect and I suddenly had a better understanding of why I loved the movie so much.
I knew about scenes, and thought I knew about theme. Horwitz explained both in a way that opened my eyes to new things. And I got to learn about the series concept, which was the first new thing in books about writing that I have seen for a while.
I haven’t decided if Blueprint made writing easier, but I know it helped me grow and improve. I’ve never shied away from working hard, as long as I’m working smart. Blueprint definitely gave me a lot more bang for my buck, as in, the time I invest in every novel.
I can barely wait to read Book Architecture and apply it to my current project(s).
Life is an adventure. I read to expand my horizons and write because I must.
- The Craft of Writing: 7 Magnificent Books
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