Thursday, 27 September 2007

Coffee Break: Writers' Guides by Users

Thanks very much for your contributions to last week’s coffee break; it was fascinating to read the various methods you used to develop your work. This week I’d like to find out what books, courses or writing resources have helped you and which you might like to recommend – or not – to other novel racers. I’ve listed a few of mine below.

1. A couple of years ago when I was getting really hung up about not being able to plot, I saved up quite a lot of money and went on Robert McKee’s Story seminar. It was the most extraordinary experience: Robert McKee is a master at holding his audience and I learned a lot about what makes a bad story even if I’m not always sure I’m writing a good one! Terrific writing, as Robert McKee I’m sure would agree, is as much about fairy dust as formula but this seminar certainly helped provide a framework, which made me feel more confident about how to structure a story. Robert McKee’s book ‘Story’ covers most of the material if you’re interested but can’t afford the three-day seminar.

2. Of all the How to Write books I’ve squandered money on, believing that this is the one which will tell me the secret of success, it’s Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ that I return to when I’m stuck. His no nonsense, no prisoner approach does, indeed, tell you what the secret is and hey, guess what? To become a writer first of all you have to write! Well, it does no harm to remind yourself of that when you’re tempted to clear out cupboards or wash the car instead!

3. Sorry guys, but the magazine that’s really worth its subscription for me is ‘Mslexia’. Okay, I know it’s specifically aimed at women but it’s a really useful source of writing information and I refer to back copies for years.

I feel a bit guilty about number 3 but hopefully the rest of you will have other ideas to redress the balance. I look forwards to reading them!


KeVin K. said...

The thing I liked best about King's "on Writing" was that he called my uncle a 'heavy hitter.'

For writing instruction at any level, you can't do better than Jerry Weinberg's "Fieldstone Method." Great stuff.

(And now, since you've used up both of my ideas, I must go and ponder what to write about next week.)

B.E. Sanderson said...

I get most of my information online, from wherever is pertinent at the time. Like the link I put up last week. I'll try to put up more as I stumble across them.

LOL Kevin, I'm having the same problem. I'm interested in what you'll be putting up, since I'm next. I have a few ideas, but I'll just keep my fingers crossed that great minds don't think too much alike.

JJ said...

Good question. I’m a terrible one for buying how to books, and have blogged about this before. I just love how to books, but I get into a very dangerous area where I think reading them is enough!

However, ‘Structuring Your Novel’ by Robert C Meredith and John D Fitzgerald has done more for me than anything, despite being a slightly uncomfortable read. It’s made me think about why I want to tell the story: what is it that I believe I’m trying to say, and until now I lacked something that this thinking has appeared to put right. I’m moving through the book now as I continue to write and I know that I will return to it when it comes to the editing.

Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers on Page One and Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton is a much nicer read and is also proving very useful to me.

I loved On Writing by Stephen King, but when I read it I was more interested in him and his story rather than how he does it, so I probably ought to go back and read it again.

Helen Shearer said...

I'm not really a how-to book person but there have been a few worth dropping a few bucks for.

On Writing By Stephen King is very good. It's funny, informative and straight forward. The poison ivy bit will crack you up.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is invaluable - the best $5.95 I've ever spent.

I also loved Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. I didn't think punctuation could be that much fun.

As far as classes go, I've only taken one seminar offered by Richard Taylor. He has published various different things and he teaches at Carleton University. His classes were very informative. The man knows everything!

Hope everyone had a great week.

Rowan Coleman said...

I have to start with some exciting news! Yesterday I found out that the U.S edition of my book THE ACCIDENTAL MOTHER has made entered at no 24 on the New York Times Extended bestseller list. This is a big acheivement for an unknown British author over there and I'm thrilled. This week I have also agreed a new two book deal with my U.S Publishers Simon & Schuster so it has been a really exciting week!

Now on courses and books. I started an M.A in writing with the wonderful writer Sue Gee about seven years ago. I learnt so much from her and my fellow students in that year but half way through the two year course I was offered my first book deal. As the pressure of holding down a job and writing my first novel and studying for an MA got to me I had to give the MA up. I do run a writing course (I hesitate to use the word 'teach') and find I learn as much about writing that way as I would taking one. The amazing depth of ideas and talent I find in the people I meet constantly inspires me.

I have never read a book about how to be a writer, but I'd like to read Stephen Kings book, I admire his technique hugely. I am going to subscribe to Mslexia. Can't believe I haven't yet!

I do think at some point that finding out how to be a writer is down to the individual alone. You have to let of of the side of the pool and head for the deep end because its only when your in danger of drowning that you learn to swim. Or maybe drown. AH how I love a corny metaphor first thing in the morning!


Jen said...

Wow, Rowan, that's bloomin fantastic - well done you! How thoroughly exciting :0)

As for books/courses... well, I did the Open University Creative Writing course last year which really was the making of me. I said in the first tutorial that I'd rather just be told if I was flogging a dead horse but ended up coming out of it with a distinction! Well worth every penny. The most eye-opening thing wasn't the course content, as such, but the simple fact that I'd actually managed to have ideas to order.

Books - ooh. See Jane Write is a good 'un for Chick Lit writers. The Artist's Way and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron are two that permanently nestle on the top of my teetering bedside pile.

I can see this topic is going to make another dent in my meagre funds...

Sasha said...

Fantastic news Rowan. You go girl !!!

Great topic, Chris. i loved Sol Stein's soltions for Writers and found it essential in the editing process- it provided a real light bulb moment for me.

I also found the Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel really helpful for plotting and twisting.

I have two of Julia Cameron's book with me but haven't cracked them yet.

Chris I have heard wonderful things about Robert McKee and it sounds like I am going to have to knuckle and buy his book:-)

Helen said...

Other than wannabe a writer, which I read for pure entertainment value, I haven't read any self help books. I do have a few but have never got round to reading them (actually I read the chapter on characterisation in the creative writing coursebook the other day which was quite useful).

I also find the two writing magazines useful (writer's news and writing magazine?) and will try Mslexia now.

And Rowan - fabulous news. I'm really pleased for you.

Lane said...

Thanks Chris for another great question and well done Rowan for such an achievement!

Courses? After uni I never wanted to see the inside of a classroom again (although I somehow ended up later teaching English?). Having said that I quite fancy doing an Arvon course one day.

Books? Well Heather Seller's 'Page after Page' really wet my whistle a couple of years ago. The fact that she was in favour of 'creative napping' might have had something to do with my enthusiasm for the book. She has since written Chapter after Chapter which I have asked my ever obliging library to order for me. I don't normally buy 'how to' books until I have proof that they have something to say.
The exception to this was 'Wannabe a Writer'. I'm a big fan of this book because not only is it informative, it is also hugely funny.
I've never read On Writing but have just ordered that too, on the strength of commetnts above.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is one I keep around. It's a bit Zen speak but she has some interesting motivational tips and often it's motivation that I need.
I'm currently on the hunt for a reprint of Dorothea Brande's 1932 Becoming a Writer which I hear is a definitive read.
Magazines?. I love Mslexia. My subscription has sadly lapsed but the piles of back copies are regularly referred to.
Have a good weekend chaps:))

Flowerpot said...

I found Escaping into the OPen by Elizabeth Berg does it for me. A really inspirational book that I read often - in fact, time for another read.

Recently the thing that helped me most was a critique from Hilary Johnson. It was for a novel I wrote last year but her advice was applicable to any book. Her crits aren't cheap but worth every penny I think.

KeVin K. said...

Wonderful news, Rowan!

Won't be able to use that "unknown British author" appellation much longer.

CTaylor said...

Oh God, I'm a book buying maniac. I've bought dozens over the years but the ones I value the most are:

Solutions for Writers - Sol Stein

How to Write a Damn Good Novel - James N Frey

The Creative Writing Coursebook - Andrew Motion etc

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - Renni Browne

Make Your Words Work - Gary Provost

Becoming a Writer - Dorothea Brande

In terms of courses...

Well, back in 2003 I did an evening course in creative writing at the local technical college. It was two evenings a week for a year and we started with an overloaded class of 35. By the end of the year on 8 of us had stuck it out. To be honest I learnt sod all about the craft of writing but the practical exercises we did motivated me to write and I tried lots of different genres.

After that I joined a paying writing community for short story writers called "Bootcamp" where the crits are frank (sometimes brutal) but the teaching was extraordinary and I learnt SO MUCH about what makes a good short story.

I haven't been on any novel writing courses but I do read a lot of books about it and trawl the internet for interesting and informative articles.

P.S. Rowan that's WONDERFUL news. You must so chuffed.

Juliette M said...

I already get Mslexia (I love it) and I read the New Writer through work, as we have a subscription. I am not really one for how-to books, preferring to just get on and write, although I am quite tempted by See Jane Write and Will Write For Shoes.

Teaching-wise I couldnt do better than one of my BA teachers, George Green, author of Hound and Hawk (books about Cuchulain and his charioteer - wonderful stuff.) He was always fair in his criticisms and never coated problems in sugary fluff, or handed out shinier grades to those he liked best (something I ran into with another tutor.) I also had the great luck to be taught by Rita Ray and Liz Mood on my MA at St Martin's in Lancaster, both of whom are amazing and inspirational women.

Finally the most useful help I can think of is that which came from my writers' group during my MA: Gerald Vinestock, Mark Syred, Vicki Lawless, Diana Dickinson, and Jan Petersen. I hope they go on to success with their writing.

Great news on the book list, Rowan!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Well done, Rowan. Great news!

Courses: I have to agree that, for all its faults (mostly administrative), the OUs Creative Writing course is excellent and more to come (third level and MA). I took it as I had become stuck in a non-fiction rut and needed something to bump me out of it. Which it did - with brass knobs on and whistles blowing.

How-to Books: I've read a good few over the years, to the point where I realised (a) they were beginning to contradict each other and (b) the people who produced them weren't taking their own advice. I threw out the ones I had and don't bother anymore.

If I'm in the mood I will look for off-beat or tangential texts. For example, two of my favourites are: 'The Open Space' by Peter Brook which is about theatre, but is equally valid about writing; and 'The Comedy of Survival' by Joe Meeker which investigates comedy and tragedy in a whole new way. Both are about story telling.

I have a pile of reference books - dictionaries, thesaurus, grammar, punctuation, Writers' & Artists', and so on.

Mostly I just read fiction and try to learn from that.

Kate.Kingsley said...

I'm an advocate of "On writing" too ~ love the fact that such a mega-selling author has such a balanced and down to earth work ethic. And the over-riding message of "Write!" is heartening (although I'm not sure I'd write on Christmas day like King does!). Now that A215 is trundling to and end, and I have some life back, I think I at re-read it.

I'm trying to put myself on a writing book diet ~ cash outlay aside, I'm spening more time reading them than i am writing, and thats counter-productive.

Hey, well done on the distinction on A215, Jen ~ I'll be spending the weekend tweaking the ECA, then off it goes on monday!

And Congrats to Rowan on the great news also ~ well done!

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I am a "How To" book reader. Have quite a selection on my shelves, some read, others browsed.

I did a course a few years ago at a local college which helped, got some excellent tips, advice etc. I think having rejections to short stories has also helped. The lack of feedback is quite frustrating but I can usually judge where I've gone wrong.

I also started The Writers Bureau course. The only problem with it has been the first ten or so modules which cover articles, letters, studying magazines, analysis and my interest has always been in fiction. Particularly paranormal. I wish I could say the WB course helped but apart from the advice on some excellent literature to buy, plus the modules which also offer good advice, I've kept my mind on fiction. Perhaps I'm wrong but I feel unless you have a good plot, strong characters, all the self-help books in the world won't help you achieve. However, I still plough on.

Crystal xx

liz fenwick said...

I just realized my earlier comment went down as my daughters - so you don't have a stranger in your midst!!!!


Feeling very under qualified to comment here having just had my first rejection letter, admittedly a very pleasant "do not be disheartened we are very selective " one from an Agent, however will keep trying onward and upwards until some fool falls in love with my un peu chronicles.

I am not one for how to books, I think it is something to do with my teaching background where it was oft quoted "those who do, do, those who can't teach others to, and those who are hopeless at teaching others to do it, write a how to book!"

But having said that I have several refernce books apart from the Artists and Writes year book and do a lot of radin on the net.

Off now to lick wounds ! Any suggestions for suitable Agents gratefully and humbly received!

B.E. Sanderson said...

OMG, Rowan! That's awesome news! Congratulations! =oD


Just popped back to say congrats to Rowan having posted same on your blog Rowan then thought it rather rude of me not to say it here!!

Cathy said...

Firstly, congratulations Rowan!

I am another OU writing course student....I am soon to start my fourth course with them. Although I have quite a few 'how to' books I find I get more from courses. It is not just the deadlines, the academic and tutor input, but also the sharing of your work and ideas with others doing the same journey.

Writing books I tend to dip into rather than read cover to cover, but I do usually favour the ones which teach practical aspects of the craft rather than those intended to spark creativity. I'm not sure I could name a favourite as I get different things from each book I look at.

I'm also a Mslexia fan, a longtime subscriber to Writers News/Writing magazine and I spend hours reading about books, writers and writing on the internet...

Caroline said...

Yay Rowan!

For me my MA from MMU worked. It was where I wrote In Search of Adam and it meant that I remained focused, whilst not being precious.

Course books. I love The Creative Writing Coursebook - editor Andrew Motion. Paul Magrs wrote it and I love him! He was my workshop leader during the MA and wonderfully supportive of me.


ChrisH said...

Great news Rowan, three cheers from us lot.

Helen Shearer said...

Yay Rowan!! Hearing news like that is so encouraging for those of us who are not yet published. Well done!

A. Writer said...

Great News Rowan! Well done you!

Books. Let me see my little collection I've got.

Self Editing For Fiction Writers - Browne and King

Wannabe a Writer? - Jane Wenham-Jones

See Jane Write - Mlynowski and Jacobs

Is there a book in you? -Allison Baverstock.

Haven't been on any courses. Unfortunately I had the chance to go on one at college but at that point I didn't want to be a writer so I didn't go. I'm an idiot!

I also get Writing Magazine occassionally as some of the articles are so blooming useful!!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Congratulations, Rowan!

On books:
Avoid "See Jane Write" unless you're an absolute beginner.

NoviceNovelist said...

I'm really late but did make it for sunday AM coffee! I wanted to add my congrats to Rowan and add my current favs to the list - I am a CW book junkie and shudder to think how much I've spent over the years but they've all given me something - even if only the joy of a new book on a grey day!

Currently I love and find useful:
Self editing for fiction writers - Renni Brown & Dave King
38 most common fiction writing mistakes Jack M Bickham
Writing from the Body - John Lee

Have a good writing week everyone.

hesitant scribe said...

Firstly - Rowan - that's fab! Well done you!
Secondly - I'm late again! Oh dear. When is coffee?! Thursday? Has it always been Thursday - my head is pickled!

And erm... writing and how to books and teachers...

I did a minor in Writing for my first Degree and an MA in Writing, and now a PhD in Writing. Am still not big huge published author!

Have billions of 'how to books' including the King and all of those listed by CTaylor. Am still not big published author.

I think too much info on 'how to write' can be a bit clogging on the creativity front, so have now started reading writers writing on writing, not how to but how they work, and live etc. These make me feel 'normal' in the loosest sense of the word and a sense of hope creeps in as I realise that I've still got time to finish the novel and maybe even sell it!

Mslexia is ace - a most appreciated welcome thud on the mat once every quarter.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Rowan, my goodness, that's fantastic! Congratulations - I hope champagne featured somewhere in your weekend.

Un Peu Loufouque: commiserations - but it's a milestone we all have to pass. I've had several, and expect many more.

I'm a regular reader of how-to books including many of those already mentioned. One that I've recently found very useful for help with plotting is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

And in terms of courses, I rate the week-long residential courses run by the Arvon Foundation very highly, check out (UK only - but they have centres in Devon, Shropshire, Yorkshire and the Highlands of Scotland, and non-UK writers sometimes teach on the courses so maybe non-UK racers could incorporate one of their courses in a holiday if they wanted to...) Their annual programme comes out in January, and it's always mouthwatering. I've done three of their courses since 2001 and have always found them very helpful indeed, as well as a lot of fun.

KayJay said...

I'm not the sort of person who reads the instructions included with the flatpack furniture - I prefer to plough on independently until I get stuck! My thinking has always been that much can be learnt by the mistakes you make along the way, as long as you recognise them as mistakes.

Recently I got stuck. Somebody recommended How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N Frey, so I've started it.

Result! Not stuck anymore. I don't know if I agree with everything he says, but the very act of thinking about things in a more objective way has made me see my novel in a new light. I spent most of yesterday restructuring, replotting and sharpening things up. Now I feel I can move forward for that 'difficult' last section of my novel. Hurrah!

Rowan - huge congrats, I'm so pleased for you!

Une Peu Loufoque - I can only dream of being at the stage you are now. Don't be blue. You can frame it and hang the damn thing in your loo when you're a bestseller.

Steve Patterson said...

Somehow I ended up here while doing a search for Stephen King.

Stephen is little folk and has a place with us.

I also love that book the Stand.

wordtryst said...
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wordtryst said...

Rowan, that's wonderful, inspiring news. Congratulations.

It's great to see people mention some of my fave writing books: King's On Writing was an eye opener for me, and I read a friend's copy twice. I'll even read it a third time, since I plan to get my own copy. I own Sellers' Page After Page and loved it.

No writing courses yet.

And Kevin, what's that about your uncle and Stephen King exchanging fisticuffs?

sexy said...
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