By Shelley Widhalm
Reading fiction is like having a sweet chocolatey snack, but reading and writing books is the main course, the wine and dessert combined. And if you haven’t heard it by now, reading all of the books is one of the foundational ways of improving your writing mind.
If reading fiction is the chocolate soufflé of this dining metaphor. Craft books serve as the main course. I dig the main course. I am constantly working on the craft. Nothing like a prime filet mignon or a solid cauliflower steak to fuel the body. A skillful wine pairing brings out the best of the meal. You can relish the nuances of flavor and spice in both the food and the glass. I am inspired by these little nuggets whenever I experience burnout or the doldrums. And the dessert because . . . well, because.
Writing is my profession—I’m a professional writer and editor. Some people consider it a hobby because I am working on getting traditionally published. I’ve been writing for 20-plus years, meaning I’ve read dozens of writing books to learn and improve my craft, collecting a few favorites along the way.
Most of the books I purchased and can’t give up, but some I checked out from the library, feeling sad they can’t have a place on my bookshelf.
Everything in moderation, apparently.
The most satisfying five offer a little bit of everything: solid main dish, perfect wine pairings, and of course, dessert.
The Book for Plotters And Pantsers
Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron.
Main Dish: I love the concept of the third rail, so essential for hooking readers and developing successful novels. The third rail is about the viewpoint character’s internal struggle. Everything in the story must point to this struggle—the plot, the action, and the details. The conflict is what the character must learn, overcome, and deal with internally to solve the problem presented by the external plot. The external and internal layers of the story must be woven with the plot, beginning to end.
Wine: I love workbooks, and this book helps you identify the character’s internal struggle, then blueprint your novel’s opening, the ending, the characters, the why (what your character cares about), and the unexplored world of the WHAT (the point you want to make and that will tell you what internal problem the story is about).
Dessert: I am working through the exercises to help me as I write my next novel. It’s about a sex-crazed, insecure journalist whose world is sent into an uproar by the arrival of an IT professional on break from responsibility.
The Book to Address The Basics
Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction, The Editors of Writer’s Digest.
Main Course: Written in essay format, the book covers the basics of the writing craft with sections on character, plot and conflict, point of view, setting and backstory, dialog, description, and word choice—the idea is to help writers identify what’s working and what isn’t working for them.
Between sections, there are tips for the writing life, such as how to get started and feed your creativity. There are comparisons between long-form and short-form writing or novels, short stories, flash fiction, and novellas. For instance, the short form foregoes the middle of books and has just a beginning and end, and the number of characters and scenes is limited.
Wine: Writer’s block makes me want to drink, but I just keep to coffee and one or two glasses of my fav. Elizabeth Sims writes about writer’s block in her essay, “Start Me Up,” “When your writing feels heavy and effortful, chances are your imagination is tired. Adding some nastiness can work wonders.”
Sims suggests upping the antics by doing some free writing and applying what you dig up in the story, such as greater character depth or more exciting action. When I think of nastiness, I think of making things super hard for the character and then letting her squirm.
Dessert: Here, it’s found in Appendix A, “Fiction Genre Descriptions.” I learned about Roman A Clefs, novels that incorporate real people and events under the guise of fiction, and all the different mystery and romance sub-genres. My fav is Glitz (not just because I like to dress up and be all sparkly), but also because I want to learn about “wealthy characters with high-powered positions in careers that are considered glamorous … and are set in exciting or exotic locales.”
I want to go to an exciting locale like the bar … where there’s . . . um, wine.
The Critical Book
Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell
Main Dish: The book is divided into two parts, the first about conflict and the second about suspense—no surprises there, given the title! What’s excellent is Bell’s advice about brainstorming for conflict and understanding conflict from the foundations to the structure and how it interweaves all the elements of a story.
Suspense involves much the same, and Bell advises stretching the tension. The key to tension is waiting, and the longer, the better. Tension is created by providing the viewpoint character a scene goal. Something keeps the protagonist from resolving the conflict, and the character suffers a setback. Throw in the ticking clock, such as attaching a time limit.
Add obstacles to prevent character relief, releasing that tension at the last moment (not just in the climax, but in more minor time pressures along the way).
Dessert: For each scene, set up the Objective, Obstacle, and Outcome and strive for something surprising, such as in the dialog, a character action, or an event. The great thing about dessert is the surprise that you still have room for it. This sentence toward the end of the book is a spoiler.
Still, it sums up why a full meal is essential to a pleasant gastronomic experience(or read). “If your story is paced with confrontation and tension and complications and surprises and twists and cliff-hangers and emotions, you may have a shot at a writing career.”
The Wildly Strong Reactions Book
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
Main Dish: This is the meal that everyone loves or loves to hate. You know, like “Hawaiian Pizza”. Though written in a random musing sort of way, this book offers a lot of great writing tips. I like how Lamott describes the process of the writer needing to get out of her own way and that if you keep writing, the words will arrive. She recommends starting small with short assignments and writing as much as possible through a small picture frame.
Wine: This is the best part of the meal. Like the best part of writing, the wine is the shitty first draft, where you get to let it all out. Later drafts are where the good writing comes in, like wine that ferments with time.
Lamott says, “Writing is not rapturous,” but instead takes the process to figure out what’s happening in the story, such as the direction and the beautiful sentences that take removing to get to the core. It takes letting the unconscious do its work, and if monitored too tightly, it will say, “Shut up and go away.”
Dessert: Perfectionism is okay for sweet gooey caramel and chocolate, but in writing, it can block playfulness and inventiveness, taking away the fun. That’s not good for me because I place pleasure high on my Hierarchy of Needs. Lamott is all about the mini-sized Milky Way bar, perfect in a pinch without the need for a lengthy preparation.
The Vegetable Book: Not Always Delicious, But Necessary for A Balanced Diet
Have You Eaten Grandma? Or, the Live-Saving Importance of Correct Punctuation, Grammar, and Good English, Gyles Brandreth
Main Course: This writer and chancellor of the University of Chester add humor to his informal grammar and punctuation rules guide. While also gives some fun comparisons between American and British English, including how unusual words are spelled and different word usages. Calling himself the “punctuation perfectionist,” Brandreth uses a storytelling format to explain the rules. He provides compelling examples of punctuation, dashes, apostrophes, prefixes, and plurals (really, check it out!).
Wine: Brandreth says, “Punctuation is essential to clear communication. Without punctuation, no one knows what’s going on.” You might not know what’s going on if you drink too much wine. That’s why I like to stop at a glass. Period. The period is the most fundamental of all punctuation marks, by the way.
Dessert: I like the “Extra Rules” and “The Rules: Guidance for Good Communication.” He says, “You can start a sentence with a conjunction now and then.” (And that makes me so happy!) I like his five A’s: Be accurate, ambitious, adventurous, accepting, and aware. To be adventurous in grammar, “Dare to be different in the words you use and how you use them.”
I have other favorite writing books, but I can’t find them. I put them in boxes, and I lost the boxes somewhere in my storage unit. I’m sad about that, but I’ll move on since there are other books in the sea (or was that fish?). In fact, I’m happy when I think about eating, drinking, and being merry with my wine and my dessert, and when I’m writing, reading books about writing, or writing about writing.