Great storytelling is not necessarily innate – it can be learned.
Since I began writing fiction back in March 2013, I have split my reading time equally between reading other genre-based and literary fiction, reading books on how to write and reading books on how to self-publish. Writing is a craft but it seems to me that discoverability and publishing are also crafts. Learning both is, in my humble opinion, essential to the process of becoming a professional writer, and author in particular. Some may not want to engage much in the marketing process – and that's fine. We all have different writing priorities. It's important to me because I want to earn a living from writing as much as I want to connect with people who enjoy reading my work – sadly, that's a commercial reality for me and my family. And, over the last ten months or so, I've come across some fairly mundane, even unhelpful, books in those latter two categories. And I've read some game-changers.
I've said frequently that one of the things which strikes me most about the indie revolution, if it should properly be called that, is the willingness of some major figures to help other authors – Hugh Howey, Michael Bunker and Jason Gurley, to name a few who have helped me. Pay it Forward and the whole community benefits. It's a compelling, human philosophy and my own contribution is to draw your attention to three of the best books in each of those two areas – how to write firstly and then, in a second post to come, marketing a new book and, in the process, your existing backlist. Additionally, I intend to interview some of the authors for their insights.
An aside – this is not based on my own experience as I'm still very much learning my craft. These posts are based on my opinion of how comprehensive, accessible and easy-to-understand these books are for writers at various stages of their career. How much they have contributed to my understanding of the processes involved and how much I have been able to improve as a consequence. Additionally, I should say that what gives me extra confidence is that the principles contained in all these books can be found echoed in blog posts and forum comments across the indie publishing world.
The first blog post will be about the process of writing itself and, by God, there are a morass of books on this topic. I've read perhaps ten or twelve in the last ten months on various areas and, of those, the best are Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell; Story by Robert McKee and Writing Characters Who Will Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris. There are others too - Writers and Artists Guide on How to Write by Harry Bingham is also great, but largely covers a lot of the ground covered by Bell and McKee but theirs are more specialised books and better as a result. These three books cover specialised areas, rather than covering the whole process lightly, which is why I like them.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell vs Story by Robert McKee
There is a considerable amount of crossover between Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Story, by Robert McKee, but each has something special to offer the fledgling novelist when learning the craft of one of the most important parts of the fiction process – structuring the story. Bell's easy style is honest, engaging and simple. The points he makes are clear and concise – uncomplicated yet compelling. McKee, by contrast, is complex and sometimes difficult to grasp but goes into significantly more detail then Bell. For example, I read Bell's work twice and felt I had grasped the essential principles – albeit I am sure I will dip into it again frequently from time to time. Story, McKee's seminal work for screenwriters, took far more time to master. His style of writing is more complex but so are his ideas. His analysis of what makes stories engaging is advanced reading.
Bell's work begins by 'putting the big lie to sleep' – writing great fiction can be taught. He's right, it can be. There are principles – foundations to the craft – which can be learned. And if you read enough in your genre, and read enough around it, and write until you can't write anymore, you'll find that you're a far better storyteller than you were when you first popped into Waterstones, gazing at all those spines jealously wondering if you had what it takes. The ideas will flow more easily and you'll look at the work of others differently. He explains the importance of structure in a story – how it holds the whole thing together and compels the reader to read on. The three act structure, the inciting incident (Bell refers to this and similar points in the plot as the disturbance and then the two doorways through which the protagonist(s) cannot return) and when these points should occur in your story. He discusses beginning strong – a key component in hooking a reader and an essential element of the self-publishing world with samples being the key to sales – and discusses the tricky middle period where most writers struggle to retain pacing. And then the all-important ending. He outlines the importance of dealing with scenes properly – causing me to ditch chapters in my own drafts and go with scenes instead. He deals with character arcs and plotting systems – in particular, he analyses outlining/not outlining (the 'pantsers') and his own LOCK method of plotting (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout ending). Finally, he looks at common problems and offer solutions, tips and tools. In one book, he offers more simple yet compelling advice than any other single tome I've ever looked at. For the beginner and intermediate alike, it's a great book. And, unlike McKee's book, Plot and Structure is the gateway to more excellent books and resources by Bell and others – Jodie Renner, for one, who writes on the same blog as Bell – the Kill Zone, a very useful resource.
McKee, on the other hand, takes far more time and effort to master. His analysis is complex and probing and his theories on story and its structure and purpose far more detailed than Bell's. Although based on films, rather than novels, its principles can be almost universally applied to any storytelling. His analysis of structure goes much deeper – beat, then scene, then sequence, then act then story. How they connect to create a river which carries the (reader) along inexorably and inescapably. Each one leading, escalating, into the other. Beats escalate in tension and conflict into scenes; scenes escalate into sequences and so on. What is the value of your scene? Is it positive or negatively charged at the beginning? Has that value charge changed by the end? If not, what has actually happened? Does the scene take the reader anywhere? If not, it is simply exposition and should be cut and the exposition filtered in more deafly elsewhere. Crisis, climax, resolution – all are dealt with in eye-watering but essential detail. To me, McKee's work was a game changer. There's more but to paraphrase it here would only do the book a disservice. I unreservedly recommend it.
Read Bell first then McKee is my advice. But read them both.
But neither, try as they might, deal with character as well as Roz Morris' book.
Writing Characters Who Will Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris
Story is important. What a facile thing to say, but stay with me. Maybe I'll say it another way – plot is important, of course, but character is more important. A great story unfolding around flat characters is hardly compelling. Neither is a crap story about amazing characters but the latter is, at least, readable because we love characters. Because we are, characters. And that's what we love about them – they resonate with our own lives. Which is why Morris' book is such an useful tool in your toolbox. 'It's the characters who make us care. Compelling novels are about people we're drawn to read about...' says Morris and she proves it. Show don't tell is nothing new, but Morris explains how to do this so that characters are more engaging. Motivation, dramatic need, conflict – fictional people are individuals just like us yet, so often, on the written page they lack the depth and interest which makes us human. Or they demonstrate too much of the small things and appear mundane. Morris asked: have we seen anything of their internal lives, social lives, work lives? How do they react to events? Who is more important – protagonist or antagonist? Ask Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling – you might find each answers differently but I'll just bet Thomas Harris would say they're equally critical. How do you design your character? How do you get to the most important details which need drawing out so we believe the character and are desperate to discover more – to follow them into the lion's den? This is what Morris tells us, and more, and better than any other book I have read on character. It is simple yet detailed, clean yet honest and utterly readable.
So, I decided to ask Roz Morris a little more about character and what she thought made character fundamental.
Roz Morris: Essentially, characters are what bind us to a story. Although we want plot – we want to know what happens – we also want to know who the story happens to. There are few absolute rules in fiction, but one of them is this – compelling novels always have people who we're drawn to read about. A great character is what transforms a plot event from an interesting situation to a worrying or a horrific dilemma. Well-drawn characters will drag us in and make us experience the story – as if it was happening to our closest friend. And the characters don't even have to be like us – many central characters in much-loved series are braver, meaner or unluckier than we are, but we're fascinated to share their worlds and to live on the edge with them. Think of Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes, Will Graham in Red Dragon. And often, the characters themselves generate the plot because of the choices they make. In a really good story, characters will be put in a situation that seems to be the defining moment of their lives – not just an adventure or a troublesome episode, but the time that tested who they were and perhaps changed them. If you can achieve that, you'll have a novel that feels epic.
What is the biggest flaw you see with manuscripts which cross your desk?
Roz Morris: When the writer tells us what the characters are like instead of showing it. Writerly types will recognise where I'm going with this thread - the commonly repeated advice to show not tell. What does the mistake look like? Suppose you want your hero to be rugged. You write in your manuscript 'Jack Flint was rugged; tough.' But that doesn't leave much of an impression. We skim over it. What you need to do is give us an experience that lets us learn that he is rugged. So: 'Jack Flint was a hard-looking man. He could make do on very little sleep and was often seen running in the early morning with a 10kg medicine ball balanced on the palm of an outstretched hand.' Now we know for sure that Jack Flint is rugged! There are two reasons that we make this mistake and tell where we should show. First – it's less effort. Second – when we devised the character before writing, we probably wrote a note to ourselves that Jack was to be rugged and tough. It's easy to remain in that summarising mindset as we write the actual book – but we have to break out of it otherwise the reader won't get the experience.
What made you write your book and why is it different to others on the market?
Roz Morris: I wrote the characters book because of mistakes I commonly see in manuscripts I edit. In fact, it started as a general writing craft book, covering plot, theme, setting and style as well as character. However, the manuscript grew so big that I had to split it. I decided the priority was to tackle characters first. (The other books are in the pipeline... plot is next.) Why is my book different from others? When I was reading other books about characters I found they weren't that easy to use if you were trying to troubleshoot your own work. They presented principles, but you had to learn for yourself how to spot if you weren't using them to their best advantage. I find that writers learn best by being self-critical – that's how we hone our craft. So what I did was identify all the ways I've seen fictional characters go wrong (over 20 years of editing) and distilled them into a series of tutorials that explain exactly what the problem is, what effect it has on the reader and what to do about it. I want to arm writers with tools rather than theories!
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor whose fiction has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, written for many high-profile authors. She blogs at Nail Your Novel and can be reached on twitter too – @Roz_Morris
She also has a novel, My Memories of a Future Life available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print. You can listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters too.
Next week – marketing is not a dirty word...