Monday, February 10, 2020

A Tale of Two Writing Books

I don’t read many writing craft books, but vacation days between Christmas and the new year are a good time to break with my usual routine and read one or two. At the end of 2018, I read On Writing by Stephen King, and it inspired me to try something different with my second novel, which I’m now editing.

This year, I read two craft books: Adam Lane Smith’s book Write Like a Beast and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Write Like a Beast

Disclosure: Adam is a friend of mine, but I bought his book myself, and I’ll try to make my review as unbiased as possible.

This book is a quick read; it gets to the point and never changes focus. It’s no surprise that a non-fiction book by an author of pulp fiction that doesn’t waste your time is written in a similarly direct way.

In an early chapter on plot, Adam gives an excellent overview of three-act structure with clear examples. I could see this being especially helpful for a new writer who’s excited to write something but hasn’t internalized three-act structure (or any other plot patterns) yet.

The main reason I wanted to read Write Like a Beast was that I wanted to learn about a step in Adam’s writing process he calls “choreographing”. I won’t go into much detail here—you should read the book yourself—but basically, by choreographing, Adam means writing an extremely detailed outline to be constantly referenced during drafting. I often make small outlines before a writing session (this has been useful when writing by dictation) but nothing as detailed as he describes. Choreographing is something that I look forward to trying in future writing projects.

I was also able to ask Adam on Twitter how much time he spends choreographing compared to writing:



If you’re interested in this book, one important thing to note about it is that it is written from the perspective of someone who measures success in writing in New Pub terms: success is writing good books quickly to make money.

This definition bothers me a little. Whenever I’m told how to do something and the prescription makes me uncomfortable, I like to think about assumptions behind what is being prescribed, and I think it’s important to do that here. (I’m not arguing that these New Pub definitions of success are bad. I often think of Chris Fox’s videos where he challenges the assumption that writing a book faster means that it is worse.)

I have different goals and a different measure of success. I want to get to the point where I’m better at focusing and be able to make efficient use of my time, but I don’t want to spend a solid ten hour chunk once a week in addition to writing here and there and put out a book every two weeks to a month. My natural writing pace, even as I’ve improved, is much slower than Adam’s. And I’m not in a position where I’m trying to make a living with writing. Writing is a serious hobby, but still just a side project for me.

But it’s good to be challenged to evaluate perspectives and assumptions that underlie goals. This book provided helpful food for thought as I wrapped up one year and planned goals for the next.

Steering the Craft

I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile. While I haven’t read much of Le Guin, her story The Dowry of the Angyar is a favorite of mine. But first impressions were not good. I nearly put it down near the beginning, due to abstract early chapters about “beautiful writing” and some mean-spirited jabs at pro-life people and pulp writers.

However, I’m glad I stuck with it. Some later chapters about voice and point of view offered many insights, and got me thinking about adding projects in different POVs to my backlog.

The book also provided new ideas via its overarching theme about the definition of story. Le Guin defines story simply as narrative that moves in a direction. So story should not be equated with plot, which is about action or conflict. Instead, it could be any kind of motion in the narrative, even in a single character’s internal thoughts or observations.

This new definition of story provides a useful contextualization for writing advice (perhaps contrary to PulpRev wisdom but interesting nonetheless.) For example, a common command is “avoid expository lumps.” But maybe the story is more than just characters acting. Maybe the story is narrative about the world and how it works. In this case, large pieces of exposition can indeed serve the story.

A lot of my writing is about characters discovering a previously unknown side of the world, so I should keep this function of exposition in mind and look for opportunities to make it work for the story, instead of assuming that it has to be eliminated because it doesn’t serve the plot.

Conclusion

I recommend both of these books. Both have the potential to help writers at any stage of their journey. Check them out here:

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