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 in 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.

Prologue Problems

A Friday Free-for-All [in which our heroine obsesses about writerly things]

I’ve been reading literary agent Mary Kole’s blog, Right now she’s doing a series of critiques on story beginnings and her first critique post caught me by surprise. The author wrote one word: Preface, and Kole stopped immediately to comment “Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory…” To me, this is very bad news. I love prologues, and I especially love writing them.

A brief history of my prologues:

House Red: The prologue is a total crutch, but c’mon, it’s my first novel. In this case, Mary Kole is right.

Savage Autumn: The prologue is not so much a crutch per se…but I’ll admit Chapter One starts off more slowly than what is currently popular in contemporary fantasy YA fiction. The prologue’s there because someone had to die before the story begins, so the reader can believe the antagonist is capable of killing.

The Black City: Brand new prologue, I fell in love with it immediately (which is a sure sign that something is very wrong). Buoyed by my success with the prologue, I started the first chapter. And it’s terrible. It’s really, absolutely terrible. It starts off slowly, with too much explanation and even more backstory, as well as very dull description of the world. So in this case, my prologue didn’t start off as a crutch, but I used that beginning as an excuse to let everything fall to poo-ness.

Granted, this is my very first draft for The Black City, and there will be plenty of time to fix those issues later on. Thank heavens.

Prologues aren’t always terrible, right? I mean, I’ve read plenty of  novels where they work beautifully. I find them all the time in my favorite mysteries and contemporary fantasies. A couple of fantasy examples I can come up with off the top of my head are: Fallen by Lauren Kate, Frostbitten, and Stolen, both by Kelley Armstrong. Hmm, looking at this short list, I realize that in order for a prologue to be successful, the novel’s title must end in “en.”

That’s easily remedied. Savage Autumnen. The Black Cityen.

All better!

Seriously, though, I will go back to my Chapter Ones and pretend the prologues don’t exist. Tighten up the chapters, bring in tension and whatever else is needed. Fireworks. Amorous alligators. Really angry toddlers with kicky feet.