The best fiction for writers

640px-Stack_of_BooksMy friend (and fellow writer) Cornelia Dolian challenged me to come up with a list of the  10 most important works of fiction for writers. Well, she claims to be my friend, but anyone who gives out an assignment like this is clearly a sadist.

In order to maintain some semblance of sanity while doing this, I assumed that my target writers were Americans writing in English, and would benefit the most from American fiction. I’ve also only listed books that I’ve actually read.

Within those bounds, I tried to include works that are indicative of the range of American fiction. And it was still really, really hard to get to 10. It would have been hard to get to 50. Also, I don’t care that No. 1 on the list is a memoir. It’s one of the most important stories in American history, so deal with it.

So without further ado, my 10 best works of fiction for writers (OK, and one memoir):

  1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)
  2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
  3. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
  4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
  5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
  6. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston,  (1937)
  7. A Good Man Is Hard to Find or Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor (1955, 1965)
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
  9. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1962)
  10. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

Got your own list? I’d love to see it. And Cornelia’s also asked Twitter, so if you follow her there, you can see all the answers.

Image credit: By Heffloaf – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
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Writing craft and heroes

640px-Boudicca

Boudicca, an early hero of Britain.

As I continue revising my WIP, I’ve been reading a lot of books on plot and craft. Some focus on the story logic of Hollywood movies, like Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff.

I’ve also read a couple by amazing writing resource K.M. Weiland: Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs.

I happily recommend any of these books for anyone looking to learn more about plot and structure for novel writing. But the more I read about character development, the more I felt like something was missing from my reading list.

For the last several months, I’ve been trying to make my story fit into the eight-sequence Hollywood plot pattern. That worked really well for plotting, but when I turned my attention to character development, I could tell I was missing something. I understood that character was just the other side of plot, but the movie structure just wasn’t working for me. Was there some other kind of structure for character development that would help me to move forward?

What I discovered is that, yes, there is, and it’s been around for a long, long time. It’s the hero’s journey, the narrative monomyth described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, and later popularized by Bill Moyers on the PBS show Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.

This is ground I’d covered in school before I even tried to write a novel. But it was buried deep down until I picked up Christopher Vogler’s classic, The Writers’ Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler’s primary concern is movie plotting, though he examines it through the lens of the hero’s journey. Vogler takes Campbell’s archetypes and waypoints on the journey and applies them to the familiar three-act plot structure.

What I like about the hero’s journey is that it’s much more focused on change in the hero than the typical Hollywood model, which is much more concerned about what happens when. This makes the heroic monomyth quite useful for examining structure from a character development point of view.

Next up on my crafty reading list is John Yorke’s Into the Woods, which engages with many of sources above, but examines all narrative (not just film) using a five-act, Shakespearean structure that finds its roots in the fairy tale. I’ll post a review here when I’m done.

Photo credit: Statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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Podcasts for writers

podcastSo I’ve been listening to podcasts. Would you like to know which ones?

The Bestseller Experiment is a completely insane attempt by two Brits (one living in Canada) to write and market a best-selling novel in 52 weeks. It’s worth it for the interviews alone. My favorite so far is horror writer Joe Hill.

The Allusionist, hosted by Helen Zaltzman, is all about words: their many meanings, origins, and connotations. Zaltzman has a great sense of humor, and doesn’t shy away from language that might make some squirm.

Kidlit Drink Night discusses topics in children’s literature, from picture books to YA, accompanied by truly hideous drink recipes (red wine hot chocolate? Ick!). Listening to this one allows me to pretend that I have amazingly cool friends who invite me over for stimulating conversation and mixed drinks.

I’ve also been listening to Imaginary Worlds by Eric Molinsky, which focuses on speculative fiction. Recent episodes have included discussions about Will Eisner and black cosplayers.

Got any recommendations? Leave them in the comments. And happy listening.

Photo credit: Podcast by Nick Youngson under CC BY 3.0.
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New Year’s resolution: No Sarlacc pits

indexThis was going to be one of those super-positive, energetic, hopeful New Year’s resolutions posts. I was going to review what I accomplished last year (or what I didn’t accomplish), then set out some ambitious, inspiring goals for 2017. Right after I read Richelle Morgan’s great post at The Winged Pen about goals, I felt like I was ready to take on the whole Empire myself.

So what happened?

Well, just as I was about to open a shiny, new notebook and start resolutioning, I read this post by Catherine Ryan Howard, the gist of which is, basically, that there’s something to be said for just shutting the hell up and actually doing some writing. In it, she also refers to a classic post by Chuck Wendig that pretty much says the same thing (except with far more profanity because, you know, Chuck Wendig).

Goals can be motivating, if they’re the right kinds of goals (hint: “getting published” is the wrong kind of goal). But what Howard and Wendig are getting at is that it’s so very easy to let your writing aspirations fall prey to activities like:

  • Blogging about writing.
  • Blogging about writing goals.
  • Blogging about not meeting writing goals.

And all the other metawriting the unpublished writer engages in: conferences, workshops, classes, platform building, critiquing, reviewing, and so on. I’ve done it all.

Don’t get me wrong; all of these things are helpful. But if we fall into the dangerous Sarlacc pit of thinking we have to do all this stuff before we start writing, before we finish that project we started, then it’s going to keep us from moving forward.

So here’s my writing resolution for 2017: If at any time I’ve got a choice between a writing-related activity and doing some actual writing, I’m going to choose to write. And after I’ve done some writing, if I still have time, I’ll do the blog/conference/class/workshop/thing. Cuz I ain’t getting any younger, you know?

Oh, and also resolved: Stay away from Sarlacc pits.

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Solstice gratitude

I keep saying it, and I also keep hearing it: 2016 sucked. We had a bitterly fought, divisive presidential election here in the US. People keep shooting each other, and even bombed hospitals in war zones.

When things get ugly in the real world, many of us turn to music. But then David Bowie died, right after releasing a brilliant, yet heartbreaking, final album. And next we lost Prince.

So it goes.

But today’s the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere of our blue planet, the shortest day of the year, and a good day to remind myself that the light will come back. So on this day, I’m focusing on the positives: family and friends, safety, food and shelter. Oh, and one loyal, though occasionally grumpy, dog.

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Happy solstice, everyone, and best wishes for abundant peace in the coming year.

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