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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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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June Casagrande’s “It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences.”

“It had been being the best of times, it had been being the worst of times.”
Really?

 
This is a small, short book that will so heavily impact your writing…no, scratch that.

It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. is a small book that will impact your writing.

Yes, much better.

If you don’t recognize the second sentence is better than the first – you may not understand why it is, but if you recognize it is – this book is a necessity.

If you do understand, you’ve probably read this book.

I didn’t write “…don’t recognize that the second sentence…” because It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences. teaches lots about when to use that. I didn’t write “…probably already read…” because it also teaches lots about flabby speech and misuse of adverbs.

And how to subordinate for effect, such as “If you…”

And lots more, all with examples.

Casagrande’s mantra is “Write for the Reader.” Writers who say they write to please themselves first miss the point (almost wrote “are missing the point”); they write for a one-reader audience (rewrote that clause three times). Write to be read. Start with one reader, get more by developing your writing. (a missing conjunction, fix it (she demonstrates how)).

 


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Robert Newton Peck’s “Fiction is Folks”

Robert Peck’s Fiction is Folks was a difficult book for me to get through on my first read and an entertaining book on my second read. I’ll read it at least one more time before I’m satisfied I’ve sucked all the marrow from its pages (that odd phrasing is one of his suggestions. Such odd phrasings wake the reader up. You may not like that one, that’s fine, and learn the technique. Practice it. The technique useful even if my example is not).

My initial challenge was the reason I was entertained on my second read: Peck is homesy and folksy. He is direct, clear, honest. He’s a native Vermonter and it shows in both his prose and his examples.

An important point about his examples: most of them passed over me on my first read because this entire book is an example. He explains something and read his explanation again. It’s an example of what he’s explaining. Now look at the example he uses for his explanation. Yes, it’s an example and it contains a thread to the next example.

Also (and like most Writers’ Digest books I’ve read) he covers a broad range of topics well beyond character (the main item in this book). A partial list includes:

  • Blurbs
  • Plot
  • Character
  • Covers
  • Story
  • Marketing
  • Structure
  • Language
  • Exercises
  • and this doesn’t touch on the general stuff you need to know to get your work published

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Ansen Dibell’s “Plot”

First, Whoa!

The book’s entitled Plot and it has immediately useful (to me) techniques and examples on

  • Plot (duh!)
  • Story
  • Structure
  • Setting
  • Description
  • POV
  • Exposition
  • Scenes

and it does it all in 170 pages (which includes a seven page index)!

I’m blessed because I purchased most of my writing texts in the 1970s-early 1990s, long before anybody with a mobile could claim expertise and back when people had to demonstrate their abilities repeatedly to make any kind of claim.

One such demonstration was (duh!) getting a book published on a subject in which you demonstrated expertise. Publishing books cost money and took time. Honest-to-god real editors (line, copy, proof, continuity, …) actually read through a manuscript before sending it on to printing. Publishers weren’t going to put money into a project just because someone said they were an expert, that someone had to demonstrate they were an expert. Often.

And let me add, most people didn’t claim themselves to be a guru, maven, jedi, rock star, queen, genius, leader and last but not least, expert. Other people claimed it for someone once said someone proved their guruness, mavenhood, jediability, et cetera.

And usually it took a lot to prove.

How I long for the time when people’s expertise was actual expertise and not a vacuous claim because, by god, they’re going to get their fifteen minutes if it kills them.

But I digress.

Dibell’s Plot is comparable to sitting in a writing intensive. There are examples throughout, and she picks her examples wisely. Each example demonstrates several techniques but she never throws them at you all at once. She starts by demonstrating how someone is a good story/novel opening then cycles back to show how the exposition reinforces the nascent plot elements then cycles back again to demonstrate how the character reveal points to plot elements yet to come.

As I wrote above, Whoa!

Want more? How about Dibell’s explaining alternative plot structures (beyond traditional western 3-act, conflict oriented plot) back in 1988? (I’ll admit I missed these in my first reading.

Plot is one of several Writer’s Digest books I bought way back when. As a working author, they are revealing in so many ways. Most of these authors are recognizable by work if not by name, and all were full-time authors.

What causes a full-time author to write an how-to-write book? All the Writer’s Digest books I’ve read are wonderful learning tools. These authors definitely know their craft and are able to share it.

But writing an how-to-write book took time away from their writing their stories. I know I loathe anything which takes me away from my crafting (save posts such as these, were I relax my authorial muscles, stretch my imagination tendons, and basically take either a necessary or welcomed break from being creative (being creative is work. Ask any woman who’s gotten pregnant and delivered a child)).

But writing an how-to-write book is another creative process. Was this their relaxation?

Perhaps it was their way of testing their own knowledge? Of encapsulating it? I critique other’s writing and learn as much about my own craft as I do helping them with theirs.

And such musings are largely irrelevant. Plot is an excellent learning tool and strongly recommended.


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