Keep these three books by your desk

Over the course of the last six or so years I've accumulated a supply of how-to books on the subject of novel-writing. In this article I'm going to talk about three of the best and why you might want to add them to your library. I've chosen them because they're books that get right into the heart of your writing.

Starting with the basics--editing your own work. If you're a newbie writer (and all of us start like this) you probably have mere seconds to persuade a literary agent or editor that your manuscript is worth reading. They will probably make this decision within a paragraph or two of your first page if your writing is poorly presented and edited. Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is one of the first books I ever bought when I started writing. It covers some of the most important things you need to know about licking your manuscript into shape, whether it's how to set out dialogue, how to see whether you're 'telling' your story, or, preferably, 'showing' it. The part I've found most useful over the years is actually the chapter on 'beats'. Beats are the little bits of writing that go between dialogue, for example:

"Stop tapping on the table." 

He was banging his fingers on the wood one after another. So annoying.


The second line there is a beat. Sometimes beats add to the mood and tension of a scene. The second line above does neither of these things and simply slows things down. There's not room in this article to describe all the other good things that Browne and King show you but the other chapter I particularly enjoy is the one about the difference between 'showing' and 'telling'. If you tell your reader a story it can be less gripping than showing it unfold in front of them. When you watch a movie you see action taking place in front of you. Nobody's telling you what's happening on that screen; it's just there. This sounds obvious but when you're starting out it's very hard to be a good 'shower'.

The other area where Browne and King score is explaining how point of view (POV) works. Whereas nineteenth and early twentieth century authors often employed a narrator or an omniscient third-person who knew what was happening (perhaps as the result of some later awareness, in the case of the latter) novels today usually rely on a limited third- or first-person narrative (usually, but not always). Head-hopping from one character's POV to another's is regarded with suspicion. Browne and King show you how to keep one chapter or scene to just the single POV.

I know that most of my author friends in North America, and many in the UK, too, have a copy of their book.

Moving on beyond the nuts and bolts to more structural questions, the next books I'd recommend come as a pair: Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, the literary agent. Maass is very good at clinically breaking down successful novels to show what it is the author has done to make the book work. Regardless of genre there are similarities to successful novels. Start by reading the first of these books to give yourself an idea of what Maass's views are and then move on to the workbook.

The latter gives you exercises to complete, based around your own novel. So, for instance, you might look at your central protagonist, wanting to make them more rounded and three-dimensional, more intriguing, contradictory, perhaps, too. Maass asks you to write down the one thing that your protag. would never, ever say. Your ageing, cat-loving, lady librarian might never say, " Get your fat a.. out of my face, loser!" Maass then asks you what your lady librarian would never ever do, get drunk on Bloody Marys and start propositioning all the men in the bar. He then, mischievously, asks you to find places in your book where she says and does exactly these things. WHAT!?! you may cry. Believe me, it's very illuminating to see what happens. There are very many more exercises in the book I enjoy. Raising the stakes is a good thing to do. Maass makes you ask yourself why solving the mystery/gaining the girl/winning the war/coming to self-understanding really matters. When you think you've got the answer, he asks you for yet another reason. And then another. His thesis is that it might be that reason two or three are actually more compelling and interesting motives, but perhaps you haven't yet thought about this in depth.

If you work through some or all the exercises in the workbook you'll have found some places in your manuscript where you can really turbo charge plot or characters. You don't have to do all he suggests but I'm sure that you'll find some great new material for your novel if you look at what you've produced as a result.