Best Books On Writing Well

ppp_prd_087_3d_people-cooperationOne of my workshop students recently asked me to recommend some books to him to help nurture his writing craft.  These are the ones I suggested: William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL; Strunk’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE; and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.  I don’t think any writer needs any other writing reference book.  And as much as these books will help (and they will), the most important thing toward developing your craft, of course, is to write every day.  Getting yourself into an excellent writing workshop environment is also invaluable — as with any field, having a mentor to help you along accelerates your development in whatever your chosen field.

On Likable Psychopaths

In fiction, generally, your protagonist should be likable.  You want to draw your readers into his or her drama.  No one’s really driven to follow or care about a character for whom they have no sympathy.  In most cases, your readers have to root for your protagonist.  A totally depraved protagonist, for example, is not inherently appealing — unless, of course, the author offers an appropriate context for a protagonist’s repulsiveness or antisocial behavior.  Dexter is a terrific example of a sympathetic, yet antisocial, protagonist — a charming serial killer with a certain moral code.

Even Hannibal Lector has a peculiar charm.  We follow a protagonist like that because he fascinates us — he has a twisted sort of a “likability quotient,” but an appeal nonetheless.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, perhaps, features an unlikable protagonist, but we read because we know he’s going to get his comeuppance.  Even Holden Caulfield isn’t especially likable, but there’s that slim chance there that he might win at the end.  Nevertheless, it’s a razor’s edge: it becomes impossible to keep a reader involved in your story when he or she has turned on the protagonist.

You can have a killer be sympathetic, of course, but then you need to carefully set forth his moral reasoning and logic.  Moreover, this has to be plausible and effective enough for your readers to buy into it.  Most of us don’t root for straight-up psychopaths.

Prefacing Dialogue With Thoughts

I often encourage writers to improve their passages of dialogue, whether in fiction or memoir, through the judicious use of a character’s internal thoughts or environmental descriptions.  Often these brief asides that precede a quote add contrast to what’s said, advance characterization, or simply break up long chunks of dialogue.  However, you can also overdo this.  Constant references to either internal thoughts or environmental descriptions that precede almost every line of dialogue are distracting.  I’m a big fan of the well-considered use of such references – in fact, they’re an essential ingredient to masterful writing – but you also should take care to not diminish the immediacy of the dialogue by interrupting too much to share such references.

Character Overload

Sometimes novelists, short story writers or memoirists make the mistake of introducing too many characters — specifically too many minor or walk-on characters — at the opening of their narratives.  Of course, more complex stories tend to rely on numerous characters.  Nevertheless, they each have to be ladled into the narrative soup, so to speak, at the appropriate times.  It’s one thing if an opening includes a walk-on character who will never reappear and is so obviously wallpaper — a waiter serving your two main characters, for example — but then don’t develop that waiter’s personality or “character.”  As readers, we’re looking from the first page to make an emotional connection to the protagonist and any other major character who appears at the start of the narrative.  Accordingly, we get confused, or even upset, when we connect to someone right from the top who we later find out will never reappear and didn’t really matter.  Establish your protagonist and your major characters first, and, in general, don’t crowd your opening pages with the development of other, less important, individuals.

Executing Proper Points of View

A lot of writers seem to be confused about the proper use of point of view.  For example, in several new works I’ve read, the author, from a third-person perspective, “gets behind the eyes,” or gets into the interior thoughts, of any and every character in the manuscript.  But that’s not how a third-person point of view, whether limited or omniscient, is supposed to work.

Generally, a fiction writer will present his or her story from either the first-person, third-person limited or third-person omniscient point of view.  In a first-person point of view you can get into that character/storyteller’s mind.  In a third-person limited point of view, you can likewise get into that particular character’s mind — but, strictly, no one else’s.  Of course, you might have two strong protagonists and may want to structure your story from both of their points of view.  That can be done if you know what you’re doing, and if you intend to structure your story in that way.  The Harry Potter series is a good example of this approach.  The story is told mostly from Harry’s third-person limited perspective; at times, though, the limited point of view shifts to other characters — but, again, not every character.  In general, don’t give yourself free reign to just jump into several characters’ minds.  Especially don’t do it unintentionally.  The final, popularly used perspective is that of third person omniscient.  Here, you look down on all the action as if you were omniscient, and you can comment, somewhat objectively, in the detached voice of the author, on the characters or events that transpire.  But still, this doesn’t mean that you can get behind the eyes of any of the characters.  Dickens and a lot of older, classical novelists expertly structure their novels in the third-person omniscient point of view.

The adherence to strict point of view perspectives has become less important in newly published works.  As a general rule, though, it’s neither recommended nor considered acceptable to lurch back and forth into the minds of any characters that you choose.  Once you decide from which perspective you’ll present your story, stick to it.


Whether to Write Memoir or Fiction?

Have been thinking a lot lately about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of writing a memoir or novel.  If your story is peculiar or infamous — for example, if your experience is war-related or concerns a particularly unusual health challenge — memoir is the way the go.  The reason, of course, is that readers will specifically want to learn what it was like to be a prisoner of war, or what it was like to undergo some 60 operations and organ transplants.  They don’t necessarily seek someone’s imaginative narrative in this regard.  But what if your unique story isn’t especially dramatic?  What if the scope of your circumstances are relatively banal and concern such issues as religious conversion, or family strife, or dating pratfalls?  While such generalized experiences can certainly be the building blocks of a terrific memoir, they also provide inspiration for gripping fiction.  The advantage of fiction, here, is that the author has greater freedom to build tension and structure the events from the most effective literary perspective.  Conversely, the writer’s ability to tell is relatively hamstrung in memoir — things happened as they happened, and no one’s real life takes an ideal fictional arc.  Instead, we have ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and “what actually happened” doesn’t always make for scintillating literature.

Another consideration: as tough as the U.S. publishing market is for fiction, it’s a lot more challenging for memoirs by relatively unknown authors.  So unless you’ve hit a million Twitter followers, fiction may present the most marketable opportunity for your story.