Four New(ish) Books on Craft and Why You Might Need Them

Confession: I have started, but not finished, these books. They’re scattered around the house (had to round them up for this post) but now that I’m not in the middle of a book for my Best YA Challenge from readingisdelicious or my book club or critiques or betas, I’m going to choose one and read it. Whole thing. And do the exercises! (I’m ambitious; it’s a blessing and a curse.)

1. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron – This book takes us through twelve cognitive secrets, describing each one and its application to writing fiction. Some of the lessons aren’t exactly “new,” but they are shown in a new and memorable way. For example, Chapter 2’s Cognitive Secret is: When the brain focuses its full attention on something, it filters out all unnecessary information, and the Story Secret is: To hold the brain’s attention, everything inĀ a story must be there on a need-to-know basis. I think most writers know this story secret, but seeing why it works and how that relates to the brain, is pretty darn cool. This is great for the beginning writer, and an interesting and fresh take for the intermediate/advanced writer.

2. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, by Mary Kole – I followed Mary Kole’s Kitlit blog for a long time, and still check in occasionally. What I like about her advice and instruction is that she often goes deeper into technique and explanation than other books and blogs tackling similar issues. For example, she talks about Telling versus Showing, and discusses when Telling is good, like with Interiority. Another great point in this book’s favor is her discussion of the differences between middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as the psychological/developmental differences of the tween and the teen.

3. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maass – I own two of Maass’s other books (The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook) and I would’ve thought with all the information and seriously amazingly helpful exercises in those, that he wouldn’t have much more to add. That kind of thinking is completely wrong, because with this book, he goes even further into excavating emotions in plot, character, premise (and possibly more – I’m not through with it yet!) to make them even more compelling. My brain explodes on a regular basis when I read this, because I’m thinking of two different WIPs, two sets of characters, and I want to do the exercises immediately for both. Simultaneously. Anyway, amazing book. This is the one I’m going to devote myself to for the next month. I think everyone can work with this book, but it helps to have finished a draft to work with.

4. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This is less a book on craft and more a resource, but just as useful the other books featured here. Ackerman and Puglisi have compiled 75 different emotions (alphabetized!), defining each one, listing the physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of having that emotion long-term, and cues of suppressing that emotion. Each entry lists related emotions, so the writer can cross-reference signals and responses. I think this is the niftiest thesaurus ever, great for writers at any point in their journey.

Writing Tip: Break on Through

The last couple of weeks have been tough as far as writing. The book I’m working on has this awesome character and awesome set-up (I think so anyway, and every first draft is for ME). But for two weeks I’ve been struggling with the ending. The idea I had in mind, when I actually got closer and closer to it, seemed suckier and suckier.

Until finally I couldn’t write the story at all.

Instead I whined in my diary for approximately three hours every morning. “What am I doing, this ending is horrible. Maybe I should go herd goats in a cold remote country….”

Oh yeah, writing tip. Not long meandering whiny story.

Steps I took:

1. I read the YA Muses posts this week on endings (how timely!). Especially helpful was the guest post by Elle Cosimano, but really, all week, their blog has been like my own personal support group.

2. I listed 20 other ideas of steps my main character could take for achieving her ultimate goal. TWENTY. Don’t short yourself, because the best ideas are usually found in the last five. (I think I got this tip from a talk Bruce Coville gave at an SCBWI conference last April.)

3. I did some exercises from Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. I was saving this bad boy for after I’d finished the draft, but, seeing that nothing else was working, I did the exercises on Theme (specifically, “Alternate Endings,” (pp 200-201), “The Larger Problem” (pp 202-203), and “Same Problem, Other Characters” (pp 204-205)).

4. I made a list of what I thought made for a fantastic climactic ending in one of my favorite contemporary YA novels, The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen. My list looked like this:

  • huge storm (sorta cliche/plot device, but works for story)
  • tons of people, Macy demanded everywhere at once
  • two guys – the one she wants & the one she must deal with first
  • needing to face her fear/hang-up and RUN for the guy she wants
  • overall: choices, weather, too many people, TONS of conflict

5. Then I made a wish list of elements I’d like for my own wacky wonderful ending (including, but not limited to, a brawl involving the strippers and this total Creeper McCreeperson).

6. Finally I had enough ideas to make a new outline for a new shiny ending that hopefully will not be so horrible that the very thought of it paralyzes my writing.

And I share these ideas with you, free of charge. (Because, yes, they might be worthless.)