Category: writing “how to” books

Book Review: Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction

book review, writing "how to" books February 8, 2012

I love it when people tell me they’ve got a book idea. This is inevitably followed with something like “I just don’t have the time to sit down and write it,” “we should collaborate,” or “I’m not even sure how to get started.” The first two options generally result in me either politely mm-hmming or not so politely laughing at them, depending on my mood. The last option I usually take as an opening to provide suggestions on books that might guide them into the process.

How to Write Killer Fiction is a “how to” book about writing mystery and suspense novels. Author Carolyn Wheat present a four-part system for organizing both mystery and suspense novels and then discusses the writing process. The first third of the book is dedicated to the mystery novel, the second third to the suspense novel, and the final third of the book discusses the writing process for both genres.  

Wheat describes the movements in a novel as “arcs.” Arc One of the novel is for presentation of the conflict, for making contact with the reader and establishing tone and style. Main character(s) should be introduced, as should subplots, and the inner need(s) of the main character. Arc One is for hooking the reader. It should end with a crisis, the first turning point in the story.

Arc Two is for testing the character, for deepening the subplots, moving the tensions in the story to a “crunch point.” This arc should also end at a crisis, which is ideally the point at which the character “hits bottom,” the point of no return. Change in the character is now inevitable, and forward movement must happen despite resistance from the character.

Arc Three heightens the tensions that were pulled taut in Arc Two. The pace of the story should pick up in Arc Three, the character should be tested further in preparation for the final showdown. Subplots can begin to be resolved. Arc Three should also end in a crisis, a crucial decision or a recognition of what’s at stake.

Arc Four is the final showdown between good and evil. Plotlines are resolved, the character is transformed, and comes full circle. (cue the Disney music)

The final third of How to Write Killer Fiction, the discussion of the writing process, concerns the tools of writing, the styles of writing (plotter vs. pantster), the elements of a novel, and revision. There is also a section on publishing. I found this final third section quite informative and useful.

The first third of the book, the section on applying the four-part system to writing the mystery novel, was not helpful to me. The authors descriptions of the arcs are vague enough to be a bit confusing for me. There are so many subgenres within the mystery genre itself, that a blanket system like this is not effective.

My biggest problem with this book was the author’s heavy, heavy reliance on examples.  I felt lost for most of the book because I have not read many of the authors that she referred to.  Most of her points are made through examples:

We like the crooks in Get Shorty better than the so-called honest citizens of Hollywood, and we root for the gangs that couldn’t shoot straight because they make us laugh (page 95).

I’ve never read Get Shorty.

There are others, but the final straw for me was a reference to the television show MASH. I despised that show after only one or two episodes and never watched it again, in fact, make it a point to avoid it. I struggled to get through the first two-thirds of the book.

However, when I got to the final third, the section on the writing process, the author’s use of example slowed somewhat and I enjoyed it much more. I learned some good things about the writing process, and the positives and negatives of outlining versus blank-page writing. I am an plotter, to some degree, and Wheat has good advice for making the most of the technique.

Wheat also uses the terms “expansion” and “contraction” to describe the writing process. Expansion refers to the part of the process in which the brainstorming takes place, where the characters have the lead, when the author is asking herself “what if?” Contraction is when the author must pick and choose, must “kill the babies” and tighten the story. I found this method of describing the process to be really helpful in putting things in perspective.

While the book wasn’t a total waste of my time, I was discouraged by the heavy use of examples. It made me feel inadequate as a reader, and, to some extent, as a television viewer, but I don’t watch a lot of TV anyway. That’s something I’m not ashamed of.

Bottom line, this book is recommended with some hesitation. Wheat offers good information, but how good it is depends on the reader.

Book review: Hooked by Les Edgerton

book review, writing "how to" books, writing life January 17, 2011

After I read from my thesis during my defense the floor was open for questions. I was asked by someone what my favorite “how to” book on writing is. That was an easy answer… Hooked by Les Edgerton.

Here’s the review I wrote just after reading it:

The tag line on this book says “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.”

Don’t we all want to do that?

I can’t say that I’m ever particularly drawn to the writing “how to” books. I usually find that there is such a dearth of information in the books that I tune them out around chapter six or so, much like I tuned out my mother after 20 minutes of lecturing me about some behavior. Hooked, however, had me hooked.

Edgerton uses examples and engaging language to discuss the writing of fantastic openings. He explains that every story must have an inciting incident and a story-worthy problem. These things should be known before beginning the novel, because they will help clarify the plot and how to best proceed with the plot.

The first three chapters provide something of an overview of story structure and opening scenes. The real meat begins with the fourth chapter when Edgerton describes how to integrate setup, backstory, character introductions, foreshadowing and opening lines. Chapters nine through eleven deal with things to avoid, scene lengths and transitions and advice from editors and agents.

Throughout my reading of this book and I found myself trying to fit my own story into Edgerton’s formula of inciting incident and story-worthy problem. I found these these two items especially helpful, and identified the story-worthy problem and inciting incidents in my thesis. Identification of these items helps to focus on the plot and why the events are so important to the characters.

I actually took notes as I read this book. Here are a few of them:

Stability + inciting incident = instability + struggle to resolve instability = new stability

A story is a movement from stability to instability to a new stability.

Components of an opening scene:
1.    inciting incident
2.    story-worthy problem
3.    initial surface problem
4.    setup
5.    backstory
6.    stellar opening sentence
7.    language
8.    character
9.    setting
10.    foreshadowing

The beginning must be connected to the whole of the story.

Goals of openings:
1.    introduce the story-worthy problem
2.    hook the reader
3.    establish the story rules

A scene is a unit of drama.

Instead of elevating the emotional language, the smart writer flattens it.

Begin with a small moment of intense realization that affects your protagonist on an internal psychological level and you have room to allow the problem to grow.

Keep your story on the level of individuals.

I would recommend this how-to book for anyone who writes, and not just for help with beginnings. Beginning a book effectively will help the writer write the rest of the novel.