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Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady

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A friend once told me that in her MFA program, plot was a dirty word. When I read how-to books aimed at literary writers, I believe it. Literary writers emphasize pretty prose, without much thought about how to get from Once upon a time… to the end. STORY LOGIC AND THE CRAFT OF FICTION attempts to bridge that gap. It’s an admirable goal, but sadly, there is nothing new here. Even worse, Brady dresses up the information in that overblown, wordy style that academics are so fond of.

For example, she never uses so common a word as cliffhanger. She calls them “strategic postponements” and goes on to define them thusly:

Effective chapter divisions tend to splice plot at moments when literal discovery generates new pressure on characters–pressure that is only felt in the next chapter or chapters, that has yet to be acted upon, so that the action overflows the “frame” of the chapter.

Or when she is trying to discuss what to leave in and what to leave out, we get this:

When you write fiction, you are in the peculiar position of striving to discover and exploit multiple connections among the elements of a narrative and simultaneously working to submerge all surface traces of this coherent “argument.”

Um…what?

In addition to plot, Brady blunders through chapters on characterization and POV, although she seems more sure-footed when discussing things like imagery and setting.

The best section was on showing and telling. Brady breaks apart the “show, don’t tell” myth to discuss ways in which telling is useful and even necessary to a good story. Showing is for the important things, the main conflict. Telling is not. But besides being a bridge between chapters, exposition can also be used to establish intimacy with a character, raise the tension, and set up what’s to come. Brady gives decent examples of each technique, if you’re willing to wade through the jargon to find them.

Perhaps to Brady’s MFA students, the idea of plot is a new concept. But serious writers are also serious readers. We’ve been devouring stories our whole lives and don’t need a basic primer on how stories work. Dressing it up in academic speak doesn’t elevate it and won’t fool writers into thinking they’re getting new insights. I believe Brady can teach the craft of fiction at the sentence level, but her “story logic” leaves a lot to be desired.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing edited by Writer’s Digest instead of this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

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THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is such a violent title for such a gentle book. I expected it to be an expansion of Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR, perhaps showing how the famous general’s strategies and philosophies could be applied to the writing life. However, except for a few choice quotes, Bell ignores Sun Tzu’s book. Instead, he offers writers short, easy lessons on things like staying motivated, finishing what you start, keeping a journal, and writing solid scenes. Unlike Sun Tzu, who treated people like pawns and his generals like idiots, Bell respects writers. He tells the truth, but always wrapped in encouragement and love of the craft.

THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is divided into three sections. The first is called “Reconnaissance.” Here, Bell talks about the writer’s lifestyle, giving advice on discipline, staying on schedule, ignoring the competition, and keeping your ego in check.

The next section, “Tactics,” is about the craft of writing, from premise to final polish. Bell examines all the expected topics like point of view, dialogue, pacing, characterization, and exposition.

The last section is called “Strategy,” where Bell discusses the basics of writing for publication: networking, finding an agent, writing a synopsis, and handling rejection. Combined, these three sections cover just about anything a beginning writer needs to know about how to write a book and get it published.

I enjoyed THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS a lot, but I kept coming back to the gimmicky title. Calling something “The Art of War” assumes that there’s an enemy to fight. But who is the writer’s enemy? Agents and editors are our allies, and our readers are our comrades-in-arms, helping us achieve our dreams. Nor is the book the enemy, as some writers seem to think.

The truth is, when starting a writing career, we are our own worst enemies. Bell wants all writers to overcome their own self-defeating behaviors. Armed with THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, writers will emerge victorious with the spoils of war (a finished novel) in hand.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 6 slices craft, 2 slices business

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is a book that speaks to writers at all levels of craft. It’s meant for screenwriters, but novelists will benefit from it as well. Schechter shares ten lessons about screenwriting, with the emphasis on what works, rather than just a list of no-no’s.

Schechter starts with the big secret that beginning writers (and some advanced ones) don’t like to hear: all stories share a structure, writers need to learn it, and it will feel more like engineering than art at first. This won’t sit well with those who “just want to write” or “go where the characters take me.” But I’d urge even the most plot-phobic writers to give MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY a try. Schechter’s clear instruction and exuberant tone might just win you over.

Once the foundation is in place, Schechter takes writers beyond simple structure into theme and character. He explains why heroes have to be active and the key ways a hero must change over the course of the story. He explains antagonists and their motives, and how these two principal characters reveal the theme through their struggle. I especially liked this part. Understanding theory is one thing, but getting all those elements onto the page is another. MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY helps writers leap across that chasm.

One small thing about this book bothered me. Sexist chapter titles like “Your Bad Guy Punches Like My Sister” and “I Can Pitch, You Throw Like a Girl” were so unnecessary (and yet, so typically Hollywood). I wish Schechter had come up with more clever and inclusive chapter titles.

MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is great for beginners because Schechter gets right down to the nitty-gritty without any filler. He uses examples from the same handful of movies (Star Wars, The Dark Knight, Up) so you can understand how all the different parts work together. But it’s also good for more advanced writers who have read dozens of craft books. Even if you already know most of the information, the way it’s so elegantly pulled together and clearly explained is a beautiful thing to behold.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

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Charles Baxter is an extraordinary writer. Let me just say that up front. The only time I would ever use a word like luminous is when I’m talking about Baxter’s books. In short, I’m a fan. And one of the things I like about his writing is the way he handles subtext–those moments in fiction where the implied is as powerful as the shown.

In THE ART OF SUBTEXT, Baxter gives an embarrassment of examples of subtext well done, proof that he is a careful and thorough reader. However, if you’re looking for practical advice about handling subtext in your own stories, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Baxter discusses how writers set a scene–where objects and people are in relation to others. For example, a man towering over a woman implies one thing, crouching at her feet implies another. He also discusses a character’s wants versus his true needs, the tone people use when speaking to (or ignoring) each other, and how the description of faces affects our perception of characters. There were a few good ideas sprinkled here and there, but most of them were rather obvious and most were handled better in other how-to books.

Different books are meant for different purposes, and perhaps THE ART OF SUBTEXT was never meant to be more than a piece of literary analysis. (With a fair amount of “get off my lawn” sniping at the modern world for good measure.) I don’t want to criticize a fish for not knowing how to climb a tree, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in this book. Baxter is, after all, a college professor, so I expected a bit of actual instruction along with all the theory.

While THE ART OF SUBTEXT is a good warm-up to get you thinking about the idea of subtext in your fiction, it’s truly more about reading well than writing well, and therefore does not offer much to the fiction writer.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

Story Climax by H.R. D’Costa

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Most of us don’t think about the end of a story when we start our manuscripts. We’re so busy writing the beginning and middle, we just sort of trust that the ending will take care of itself when we get there. But D’Costa reminds us that we might be able to sell this story to a reader on the strength of its beginning. But we’ll need a big, bold, satisfying ending to sell the next one. In fact, a writer’s career depends on nailing that ending.

Although it gives lip service to novels, STORY CLIMAX is a screenwriting book. Even so, there are many techniques a novelist can learn from screenwriters. If there’s one thing Hollywood is good at, it’s the big finish. Although all of D’Costa’s examples are from movies, novelists can still learn her lessons.

It’s not enough for an ending to have lots of action or the hero and heroine finally declaring their love. A writer builds up what D’Costa calls “narrative debts” that must be paid off in act three. In fact, they must be paid off with interest. Readers have come this far, and want and ending worthy of the money and time they spent on your story.

A teacher can’t really explain climax without talking about the antagonist and the stakes. STORY CLIMAX is a great primer on those two elements as well. But even if your antagonist is the most formidable opponent ever and your stakes are as high as they can be, there are still plenty of ways for the final encounter to go wrong. It can be rushed, underplayed, indirect, or the sidekicks can muck it up.

D’Costa shows why a direct confrontation between the hero and the villain is crucial, how to close off subplots before the climax, and how to avoid clichés like the “race to the airport” in the final scene of a romance. She gives many examples of stories that got it wrong as well as stories that got it right for great side-by-side comparisons.

I made the mistake of gulping down this entire book in one sitting. Ironically, I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this great book on endings. But I will be reading STORY CLIMAX again, while taking notes and consulting my own manuscript to make sure my climax is just as big and satisfying as I want it to be.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland

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A novel is too big to hold in your head all at once, especially if its a novel you haven’t written yet. Even if you’re able to keep track of a basic beginning/middle/end plot, you also have to consider character, theme, setting, backstory, voice, and a dozen other things. Even “pantsers” who never outline take notes along the way.

Any writer who is feeling overwhelmed by the size and scope of a novel (read: all of us) can benefit from OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK. Weiland’s previous book, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, taught writers how to make a useful outline. This one takes writers step-by-step through the process with exercises and questions. By doing the exercises, a writer will every essential piece they need to write a complete and engaging novel.

Weiland starts with the premise. She then takes writers through envisioning the big scenes, drops back for character sketches and setting ideas, then moves ahead into a detailed scene-by-scene outline. This organization mimics my own process perfectly, although every writer is different and Weiland encourages them to skip around if they want, or drop sections that don’t make sense for their books.

In fact, Weiland emphasizes that a good outline is whatever works for the writer. Even if a writer only did some of the exercises, or altered them to fit, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK provides enough questions to make sure a writer is thinking deeply about her novel, and enough structure to be sure she can complete it.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

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The title of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE certainly got my attention. I was interested in how discovery writers, or “pantsers,” write a successful book without an outline. James promised instruction, insight, and a way to turn traditional story structure on its head.

STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE spends a long time convincing writers that structure isn’t as important as the story arc and the narrative flow. That is true. It’s also not something any writer would argue with. Even the most die-hard plotters treat outlines like the pirate code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I read on, hoping for the revolutionary insights that were sure to come.

And then, this:

“Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, for it to feel complete it’ll need an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climatic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character.”

I did a double take. Did James just name everything he’s supposedly fighting against? By listing the things a story needed, he just explained story structure in a nutshell.

James spends the rest of the book going into detail about these story elements. He teaches the same principles that are in a hundred other books but has given them cool new names. He then denies that he’s teaching those very same principles. That’s like telling people to hydrate instead of drink water and then claiming to have a bold new health initiative.

Then James bemoans the fact that people aren’t taught to write organically. (Taught to write organically?) Writers don’t need instruction to open their computers and follow their muses. They need instruction on shaping the narrative to make it as effective as possible. There is a reason there are a hundred books about story structure including–make no mistake–this one.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s sad, because STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE is not a bad book for beginning writers. It’s just that there’s nothing new here, and giving the book an in-your-face title doesn’t hide the fact that James is teaching everything that’s been taught before, and taught better, by other writers.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain instead of this book.

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