Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five more books about writing

1. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction
edited by J. N. Williamson

This is a collection of over 20 essays by different writers. Ray Bradbury, writing in his unique, evocative style, tells how he used lists of nouns to spark his imagination and come up with stories like “A Sound of Thunder”. William Nolan provides examples of opening lines which don’t just hook the reader – they reel him in to be scaled and filleted. The historical model for Conan the Barbarian, how to make suspense as tense as action, the background of a fantasy series inspired by the ancient Middle East… they’re all here.

The only difficulty with obtaining this book is that it was published in 1987 and is out of print, but I found it at two local libraries.

2. How to Write Best Selling Fiction
by Dean Koontz

This book was published in 1981, when Dean Koontz was still writing taut, good horror like Midnight and Whispers. I’d recommend it to new writers because there’s a lot of basic advice, but it’s also got excellent examples of some of the techniques and tactics Koontz used at that time to build suspense and flesh out backgrounds. There’s also the story of how he produced a set of intriguing titles from the single word dragon. I never get tired of reading that one.

I also like the simple, entertaining description of the business of selling books, even though this is a short section towards the end. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize that stores could return unsold books to publishers for full refunds.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print. Another caveat is that Koontz tries – with the best of intentions – to stress the importance and potential of mainstream fiction over genre fiction. If you’re a genre writer, you might not agree with this, and given the popularity of some genres these days, it may not apply.

3. The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

I thought this book would be about how to polish the first five pages of a manuscript, but Lukeman knows that there’s not much point in a manuscript that starts like a rocket and ends like a squib. As a result, this book covers hooks but also deals with mistakes in dialogue, pacing, focus and so on. I especially like the section at the start about the different sounds produced by alliteration, resonance and even punctuation marks. The tiniest, unnoticed details can make quite a difference.

The only thing that didn’t work for me is that some of the examples seem… basic, for lack of a better word. Most writers can tell that when John says hello, Mary and Mary says hello, John and John says how are you, Mary? and Mary says very well, thank you, John, and yourself?, this is poor dialogue. I’d have liked to see more subtle mistakes.

4. The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference
from the editors of Writer’s Digest books

This is a collection of information (mostly anthropological and historical) which will probably be helpful to new writers of fantasy. I like the diagram of a medieval castle and all the different types of weapons, though this is by no means an exhaustive list and I’ve learned almost as much from Wikipedia. The section on magic is extremely detailed, and lists about thirty different ways to predict the future. The usual fantasy races get basic descriptions, but this does not go into biological or cultural depth.

As a reference book, this deals mostly with worldbuilding, and specifically with the normal, historically accurate type of worldbuilding that’s likely to be found in traditional, heroic and epic fantasy. Then again, the scope of fantasy is almost unlimited these days.

5. The Art of Fiction
by Ayn Rand

While I enjoyed most of this book, it’s not for everyone. I would recommend it to writers who like Ayn Rand’s novels and who are experienced enough to recognize which parts of the book won’t work for them.

The best section for me was the one where Rand rewrites a pivotal scene in The Fountainhead with slightly altered dialogue for a character – dialogue that says the same thing in principle but has a completely different tone and which made the character different as well. I like it when writers illustrate their points like this. There is also advice on plot and character that I found helpful.

Where the book falters is in its discussions of style, especially Rand’s advice to writers never to use four-letter words or brand names (two words: Stephen King). That’s one reason I wouldn’t recommend it to new writers.


Becky Mushko said...

I love Noah Lukeman's book. Granted, some of his basics are, well, basic.

However, since I sometimes do workshops for high school or middle school students, the basics work fine. I often recommend his book to high schoolers as well as any others who want to write for publication.

Plus, it's a good reminder of the basics for more experienced writers, too.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Becky,

Good point - the examples would work well for students. I forgot about that. A book cannot be All Things to All Writers. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian,

I enjoyed your book reviews. Too bad Koontz's is out of date. I loved his older novels. House of Thunder, Midnight, Lightning....

Marian Perera said...

The Door to December, The Voice of the Night, The Bad Place... ah, good times. I remember the days his books were auto-buys for me.