Back in the 1980s I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know any writers or have access to any writers, so I turned to how-to books to learn how it was done. Over the years I amassed quite a collection. Most of them either angered me or depressed me. Angered me because all too often I would run across a passage that said, essentially, “Do NOT write trash like romance or science fiction or mysteries. If you do, you are defiling the Artistry of the Sacred Calling of Authorship, and that makes you a sell-out.” (This to a hardcore genre fiction junkie, shees.) Or else they depressed me because they declared: “Do it THIS WAY and you will be a success.” Only I never could seem to do it THIS WAY, which meant I must be a horrendous failure or more likely those jokers were lying to me and I was a sucker who’d shelled out money for their crap. A couple of books inspired me. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Wild Minds, by Natalie Goldberg; Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. A couple helped me with craft: Story, by Robert McKee; The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel. Only one book both inspired AND helped me with craft: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block.
What made Writing the Novel different from so many other writing books–both inspirational and for craft–was LB himself. A serious writer who didn’t take himself seriously. A working writer who had a handle on the business of publishing–the good, the bad and the ugly sides–and who made a career out of writing fiction. (That’s a rare thing, actually, and his career is still going strong to this day.) I read that book to tatters, referring back to it time and again whenever I got discouraged or stuck. I often recommended it to other writers. I don’t know how many copies I purchased and gave as gifts over the years. (I made the mistake of loaning it to someone–breaking my own rule about never loaning a book I wanted to keep–and now I can’t remember to whom I loaned it, so if you’re reading this, please give it back.) What makes it stand out is that LB teaches you how to think as a writer. How to read as a writer. He doesn’t tell you what to write or spout cookie-cutter steps, but he’ll help you figure out what might work for you. For instance, from his chapter on outlining, one of my favorites:
“An outline is a tool which a writer uses to simplify the task of writing a novel and to improve the ultimate quality of that novel by giving himself more of a grasp on its overall structure.
“And that’s about as specifically as one can define an outline, beyond adding that it’s almost invariably shorter than the book will turn out to be. What length it will run, what form it will take, how detailed it will be, and what sort of novel components it will or will not include, is and ought to be a wholly individual matter. Because the outline is prepared solely for the benefit of the writer himself, it quite properly varies from one author to another and from one novel to another. Some writers never use an outline. Others would be uncomfortable writing anything more ambitious than a shopping list without outlining it first. Some outlines, deemed very useful by their authors, run a scant page. Others, considered equally indispensable by their authors, run a hundred pages or more and include a detailed description of every scene that is going to take place in every chapter of the book. Neither of these extremes, nor any of the infinite gradations between the two poles, represents the right way to prepare an outline. There is no right way to do this—or, more correctly, there is no wrong way. Whatever works best for the particular writer on the particular book is demonstrably the right way.”
Now LB has updated the book and expanded it. He even expanded the title to Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel. He’s brought it out in both ebook and print. The original material is still as valid today as it was when first published in 1978; the new material is geared toward today’s publishing climate, taking into account how traditional publishing has changed and with new chapters on self-publishing.
It’s still a book I recommend. It’s posted now in the sidebar of this blog. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.
These past couple of years have been hell on writers. Trad pubbed writers are suffering because the industry is in flux; indie writers are running themselves ragged learning to be publishers during a time of rapid changes. The biggest frustration I keep hearing expressed is that the writing itself is suffering because of the business side of publishing. Time to remember what’s important, folks. Storytelling. The writing itself. Business goes through the crazies–that’s one aspect that never changes–but the core of who we are–storytellers–that remains true whether we’re chiseling our tales into stone tablets or tapping them out on an iPhone. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel can help you remember what’s important: telling a good story.
Like LB says:
“…while there are far too many books in this world, there are far too few good ones.
“And I don’t ever want to run out of things to read.”