Learning with Pros

Yes, you always want to study the stories that are out there and their effect on you. That’s a given. But sometimes there’s nothing more helpful than listening to a pro’s observations, reflections, and insights. Sometimes they help you see things that might take you years to discover on your own. On the other hand, nothing can be more damaging than accepting a pro’s model of how story works when it’s wrong. So always check the pro’s view with your experience. If the two don’t jibe, then toss the pro’s insights. Having said that, I’ve found a wealth of practical knowledge in the resources below.

Books that Help Me the Most

  1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. This book has been in print far longer than any other book on writing stories for a reason: it’s incredibly insightful and helpful. He covers everything–following the feeling, structure, character, problem, setting, the creative process. If I could only have one book, this would be the one.
  2. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. Incredible insights into character. If I could only have two books, this would be one of them.
  3. Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. Plot was the hardest thing for me in the beginning. I read this book and immediately wrote a short story that went on to earn me $2,000. That was my first published story, and I owe it to the concepts in this book. I still find it useful to review Bickham’s ideas.
  4. Writing & Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham. I hate his business about “self-concept”–it’s mumbo jumbo that makes no sense to me. But everything else has been gold. He version of stimulus-reponse, scene-sequel, starting a story, and dialogue in this book are excellent.
  5. The Secrets of Action Screenwriting by William C. Martell. This is the book that opened plot turns to me.

Other Books I Find Useful

All of these continue to provide good insights into projects I’m working on.  Some are out of print, but you can get them via the inter-library loan program. If you’ve read all the books above, I’d start on these next.

  • Creating Characters by Dwight V. Swain
  • How to Build a Great Screenplay by David Howard
  • How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz
  • How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
  • Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost
  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Techniques of Fiction Writing by Eloise McGraw
  • The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist by Thomas McCormack
  • Write Away by Elizabeth George

More Books on Writing Stories

While the books in this category haven’t provided as many practical insights to me as the ones above, I’ve still found MANY useful things in the ideas the authors share. I recommend you give them a go. I found them useful enough to get a copy for my personal library.

  • Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A Whitney
  • How to Write A Damn Good Novel and How to Write a Damn Good Novel 2 by James N. Frey (everything but the stuff on premise which drives me bananas)
  • How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat
  • How to Write Romances by Phyllis Pianka
  • Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative by Mieke Bal
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks
  • Spider Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block
  • Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block
  • The Art of War for Writers, Plot & Structure, and Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
  • The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova
  • The Eight Characters of Comedy by Scott Sedita
  • Writing to the Point by Algys Budrys
  • Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
  • Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hauge
  • Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith
  • Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman

Books on Emotion

I found great insights into emotion and story telling in all the books below.

  • Deeper Than Reason by Jenefer Robinson (examines how emotion works in general and specifically with literature and music)
  • Feeling Good by David Burns (just read the first 50 pages if you’re not interested in the rest, notice the requirement of belief)
  • The Science of Emotion by Randloph Cornelius (excellent overview of the current study of emotion)
  • The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (all about rooting and sympathy)

Books Examining Media Effects

These are research-based essays on media and how it creates emotional effects in viewers and readers; I found them both helpful and fascinating. You can get all of these via the inter-library loan program.

  • Communication and Emotion: Essays in Honor of Dolf Zillmann edited by Jennings Bryant and Joanne Cantor
  • Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research edited by Jennings Bryant, Dolf Zillmann, and Mary Beth Oliver
  • Media Entertainment: The Psychology of its Appeal edited by Dolf Zillmann and Peter Vorderer
  • Psychology of Entertainment edited by Jennings Bryant and Peter Vorderer
  • Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations edited by Peter Vorderer, Hans Wulff, and Mike Fredrichsen

Excellent Online Articles and Podcasts by Professionals

Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp

I’ve been to many workshops, and this is the best one I’ve been to. Card is a master storyteller, but he also knows how to teach. Card has been holding them once a year. Check his website in December/January to see the initial announcement. Auditions usually run through March. Do whatever it takes to get in.

“Clear Vision” by Dewitt Jones

Click on the Zing tab and scroll to the bottom. Follow the link there. Watch the brief clip. Then watch the whole Clear Vision video. It will change you.

Dewitt Jones is a National Geographic photographer. The principles of creativity, including capturing zing, apply to any creative endeavour–from writing and drawing to coming up with a new microchip. And this video on the creative process, HOLY COW, it’s so good I had to buy it so I could watch it whenever the yearning takes me. Note: the first few minutes are blah, blah, blah. The good stuff is when he begins to talk about the how of creativity.


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