J.N. Williamson’s “How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction

First, a different kind of how-to-write book; each chapter is written by a different notable in the field – Williamson, Bradbury, Tem, Grant, Bradley, …

The variety of perspectives is interesting. I wonder if each author chose their chapter subject or were assigned it by Williamson, who served as editor.

Bradbury’s chapter, for example, is about where ideas come from and nurturing them, not specific techniques. Tem and Castle each take a turn at character but each from their own perspective.

Bradley’s “World Building in Horror, Occult, and Fantasy Writing” marks the first time I’ve seen the “world building” term outside of writers’ cons (I’m hosting a World Building panel at LitCon 2021).

Beyond chapters on technique – Plot, Character, Setting, World Building, Revision, Submission, … – How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction‘s contributors explain the whys of their suggestions. Example: William F. Nolan’s “Involving Your Reader from the Start” chapter contains several examples of opening paragraphs (I don’t agree that all of them are good). Near the end of his chapter he writes “In the no-TV, no-video, no-comics world of Charles Dickens, readers were conditioned to deal with complex, dense, often-wordy opening pages in books and stories. It was an era of leisurely reading when the pace could be slow and unhurried. Not so today. …”

In other words, writing evolves with a purpose. Yes, there are fads and they pass quickly. What survives is what out-competes others in the environment.

Amazing how evolutionary science affects everything, isn’t it?


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Natalie Goldberg’s “Wild Mind”

Natalie Golberg’s Wild Mind is another book I purchased 25-30 years ago and left on my shelf while life happened. I picked it up this month and am grateful I kept it around.

I previously reviewed Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”, gave it high marks, and Wild Mind is another keeper, although a book I’d only recommend to writers already committed to their craft.

Like Writing Down the Bones and Dorothea Brande’s “Becoming a Writer”, Wild Mind is about the experience of writing and how to make that experience more fluid, dynamic, rewarding, and fruitful. There are some craft do’s and don’t’s at the end of the book and you can find similar do’s and don’t’s in most craft and technique books (and also in many of my StoryCrafting posts).

 
The book itself is a cornucopia of writing exercises designed to make you think differently when you write. Note that; not how to write differently but how to think differently when you write. Goldberg is a stickler for “your work, your style, your voice” and doesn’t want to change that.

Instead she offers exercises to free up your crafting to be more unique, more inventive, more exciting, more readable, and ultimately, more you.

Her forte is what I’d call “Ten Minute Drills.” For example, write “I remember” at the top of a page and spend ten minutes writing about what you remember. Easy enough. Now write “I don’t remember” and go for another ten minutes. Now your mind goes wild (and hopefully your writing follows). What don’t you remember? What have you forgotten? When you’re not walking down memory lane you’re traversing the paths of imagination. Find out where they take you.

Other drills teach you how to tame your inner critic (haven’t met an author yet who doesn’t have one) and how to set free your inner cheerleader (haven’t met an author yet who doesn’t need one).

Good stuff and strongly recommended.

Kit Reed’s “Revision”

I first read Kit Reed’s Revision (probably) four years ago. It was one of the first books I read when I decided to spend the rest of my life writing. I dogeared two pages.

I finished my second read about a week ago (as I write this). The book is a mess of dogeared pages.

It’s amazing how much more Kit Reed put into this book in four years, don’t you think?

Extra Effort Closes the Distance between You and Your Audience.

 
The entirety of the book comes down to Reed’s Rule Six: Extra Effort Closes the Distance between You and Your Audience.

Whenever you come to a moment of hesitation, unsurety, confusion, skimming, general off-ness, stop, figure out what’s not working, and fix it.

 
And Reed also provides a caution; Recognize when it’s done and let it go. There’s lots of examples of recognizing when something’s let-goable and when something isn’t. The one that hit me smack between the eyes is “Whenever you come to a moment of hesitation, unsurety, confusion, skimming, general off-ness, stop, figure out what’s not working, and fix it.”

I am training myself to do that. Too many times I’d read something and need to reread it, figure it out on the second take and decide it was okay.

NO, IT WASN’T!

Reed also offers several question lists to help you in your own revising. Early in the book Reed poses twelve questions so you can learn if you’re open to revision. Don’t know about others, I found it revealing (especially when invoking Reed’s suggestion to be strict (unforgiving) with your answers).

Another duh! list early in the book (pg 39) deals with determining if your work (and others, too, if you’re in a critique group) is ready to go out. Reed suggests writers/authors/writer-wannabes read for:

  1. Truth in action
  2. Accessibility
  3. Completeness
  4. Time scheme
  5. Point of view
  6. Length (with an eye to possible cutting)
  7. Organization
  8. And, once again, balance of showing versus telling. (Reed’s words, this, not mine)

Unsure what some of those mean? Read the book.


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Dorothea Brande’s “Becoming a Writer”

I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer right after reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The two books share a theme of self-exploration. Becoming a Writer was originally written before meditation and Buddhism were established in the west, and Brande still makes her case for self-exploration through “meditation without calling it meditation” exercises. I’d offer that Becoming a Writer is a prelude to Writing Down the Bones.

 
Both books contain exercises. Becoming a Writer‘s exercises are different; while still self-exploration oriented, they are directed towards perfecting one’s craft. There is a definite goal to the exercises and that goal has two parts: Determining if you have what it takes to be a writer first then developing the necessary discipline to become a writer.

Specific to that discipline, Chapter 14 “The Practice Story”, should be engraved on every author-wannabe’s brow. It is ten pages rich in getting a story out (and not necessarily a “practice” story. Her suggestions hold for any point in storycrafting, me thinks).

Becoming a Writer is not a how-to book. I’ve reviewed several how-to-write books and most of them are mechanic’s dreams. Those books deal wondrously with how to revise, how to handle POV, character, and the like. Such books are journeyman’s books for the most part, helping people develop their craft. Becoming a Writer is about developing yourself into a writer.

Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is not a book for everybody. I’m not sure how many authors, writers, and author-wannabes will take to it.

Did I take to it?

Oh, yes. But I’ve studied mystical traditions, perform regular meditation, and enjoy learning different teaching methods.

There are good exercises in the book and they’re really about learning about yourself as a writer, not about being a writer, not about writing better.

 
I’d offer that Goldberg’s primary focus is you being better at being yourself writing, not necessarily writing better. Consider it “Zen and the Art of Writing.” It even has an endorsement by Robert Persig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the back (another book I recommend for self-discovery. Or reading about someone else’s self-discovery).

The chapters are short. The longest is just under five pages. The average length is probably 2.5 pages. There are no “conjugate verbs this way” or “the best form of the participle clause is…” What there are are beautiful suggestions and insights into the writing life.

Long ago and far away I self-published Reading Virtual Minds V1: History and Science (trade-technical). Left-brained thinkers hated it. Right-brained thinkers loved it. It didn’t explain how to do things (left-brain), it explained how things were done (right-brain) and invited readers to decide if they wanted to learn how to get things done or just do them.

Writing Down the Bones is much the same kind of book; it’s not about doing it, it’s about getting it done.

Personally, learn how it’s done. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know how to do it.