Whenever we sit down to read a book, we take it for granted that the author will confidently display his storytelling skills. But whenever we sit down to write a book, all that confidence flies out the window because we know the truth: What storytelling skills?
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. In this week’s episode, we take a look at The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird, a book written for screenwriters, but adopted by all writers. In this book, we learn not just the fundamentals of story structure, because we can learn that from anyone, as The Writer’s Bookshelf series has proven, but the little tweaks that can turn a mediocre story into a hot one.
And we all want to write the hot one, don’t we? We certainly want to read it. This book helps us to write the book that the reader wants to read.
Remember that dream you had about Santa Claus disciplining his elves with a giant candy cane? Not the one at the North Pole, but the one at that New York department store? Yeah, that’s not what we’re talking about today.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. Today, we’re looking at From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler (transcribed and edited by Janet Burroway), a book about yet another approach to writing that’s neither for plotters nor pantsers. In this case, this book is for the dreamers.
Check out our one-sided conversation in this video.
Note: I’m pretty sure I was tired when I recorded this episode, and the energy I display in it shows. You may need to plan for session viewing in this case. Finish the video, but I understand if you do it over several sittings. Probably makes sense that I also have little energy as I write this article. Fortunately, the book is more energetic.
The Donald-sance continues this week (no, not that one—the Donald Maass-a-sance), with Donald Maass’ latest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. If you liked the last two books we covered, then you’ll no doubt appreciate Maass’ unique take on the subject matter driving the thesis of this book.
And what exactly is that thesis?
Okay, that’s the topic. But that’s also what his latest book is about. For the most part.
Honestly, this one’s difficult to talk about because it goes beyond the craft of writing, and it has no peers, as far as I know. It’s a unique take on a topic that is hardly ever addressed but still important to consider if we want to approach our work with more than just a half-heart. So, it’s one worth putting on the list.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. Check out the discussion in this week’s video.
Note: You aren’t imagining things. We did skip Donald Maass’ third and fourth books. Why? Because they’re not on my bookshelf yet. Maybe for Season 3.
Last week, we had a look at Donald Maass’ debut for writers who want to breakout in Writing the Breakout Novel. This week, we continue the discussion about Donald Maass and his education for the rising stars in the fiction industry in, well, read on to find out! (Or, you could just look at the screenshot. It ain’t rocket science.)
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf, assuming you’d left earlier.
Have you written the breakout novel, but you worry it lacks that certain…fire? Well, maybe you want to give Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction a glance (or even a whole read). Because we could all use a little more fire in our fiction, especially if we choose to read it. Learn more about this important book in this week’s video.
Quick question: Would you prefer to learn how to write the breakout novel from a writer or a literary agent? This isn’t a trick question, nor is there a right answer. It’s just a question. But one worth asking.
Throughout The Writer’s Bookshelf series, which you’re reading now—welcome back—I’ve featured books by writers, authors, and instructors. This week, I’m presenting Writing the Breakout Novel, the first of many books on writing from Donald Maass, a major figure in the world of literary agencies. If you selected “literary agent” from my question above, then you’ll want to check out this week’s book.
What is voice? No, I don’t mean that thing that comes out of your mouth when you talk (no, the other thing). I’m referring to that enigmatic “writer’s voice,” which is something that most people, writers included, can’t ever seem to define when asked.
The writer’s voice is a mysterious thing that every writer needs, but no instructor can teach.
The writer’s voice is a valuable thing that can make the difference between building a readership and building a revolving door of sampler readers.
What is voice?
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. This week, we cover Writing Voice, the Writer’s Digest compilation of articles and chapter excerpts that attempt to identify, demonstrate, and “teach” the writer’s voice. If this concept gets you in the throat, then be sure to watch my commentator video on everything the book offers that you may want.
So, you’re ready to write your magnum opus, but all of your ideas are rooted in stock images and cardboard cutouts. What are you to do? Well, it’s time to put some meat on those three-dimensional bones and dash in the mood music. It’s time to write “deep” scenes.
But what does that even mean? Thankfully, veteran authors Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer, not yet featured on The Writer’s Bookshelf) and Jordan Rosenfeld (Making a Scene, also not yet featured on The Writer’s Bookshelf) have teamed up in the excellent book Writing Deep Scenes (now featured on The Writer’s Bookshelf) to answer that question and a lot more (not literally that question, but the question that lives in that same camp). If you want to pump up your writing game and learn the techniques to develop your scenes into substantial works of art and functional conflicts (not settings, to be clear, but complete five-point dramatic scenes), then this book may be right for you. Learn more by watching this video.
Oh, and welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf, in case you’re not sure where you are at the moment.
Once upon a time, a plot twist involved writing a scene that surprised the audience. Maybe the twist made sense. Maybe it came out of left field. But either way, it was unexpected, and the audience cheered. Unless the plot twist sucked. Then they booed.
Nowadays, audiences are more discerning in how they appreciate a plot twist. The fact that a plot twist can suck means that not all plot twists work. If they don’t align with the established rules of the story, they’ll suck. If they shock for shock’s sake, they’ll suck. If being told the story has a twist means the audience can now figure out the ending, it’ll suck.
You don’t want your story to suck.
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. This week we focus on Mastering Plot Twists by Jane K. Cleland. This short but dense book will show you how to craft plot twists that are both natural to the story and surprising yet inevitable, just as a plot twist should be. Find out more in this week’s video.
Remember that one time you sat down at your writing desk, loaded up your writing app of choice, then scratched your head because you didn’t know what to type? Yeah, I know. Yesterday. What about the time before that? Yep, two days ago. Been there. How did you handle it? Went on social media? I get it. Walked the dog? Someone has to. Did your taxes (in August)? Okay, I think we have a problem here.
I don’t think the problem is writer’s block. I think the problem is with resistance. Writing is hard. It requires you to both imagine and think. That’s almost as bad as walking and chewing gum at the same time. No one’s that coordinated.
But what if you had the ability to write your story in an app that could minimize the need for imagination and thought by putting you in the zone? And by “zone,” I mean “mood.” What if you could trim out your distractions, put on mood-setting music that’s appropriate for your style, genre, or scene, and even set a writing canvas that resembles in some loose way the scene you want to paint?
The good news is that such an app exists. The better news is that I’ve already covered it once upon a time. But the best news is that such an app (we’ll call it Frost Writer, because that’s what the developer calls it) is getting an update today. That app, Frost 4.0, has just added new backgrounds, music, and features to make writing that story about dogs and cats living together fun again.
With Frost 4.0, there’s no need to complain about writer’s block. Just sit down, pick your favorite theme (which may include a new Parisian style theme called “Baroque” or a desert adventure theme called “Dunes” to name two of the latest additions), and get writing.
What are the limitations, besides your imagination? Well, it’s still primarily a drafting tool, not an editing or finalization tool. There’s still no special formatting in Frost 4.0. Need to italicize a word? Tough. Do it in post. Maybe you need to spell “café” with that accent? Not in Frost you don’t. Fortunately, when your writing session ends, you can export your text to a text file, then copy it into the formatter of your choice. Prefer Microsoft Word to Scrivener? Okay. Prefer Scrivener to Microsoft Word? Sure. You can export your work to either of them because it’s just a text file. No style. Just words.
Of course, you may be wondering why you should bother using an app that just lets you write unformatted text. Well, the short answer is that the inability to edit as you go means you can just get words written and not look back. But the better answer is that you can write distraction-free while also listening to appropriate music while also looking at appropriate backgrounds.
And now that those backgrounds are also dynamic? I mean, now you’ve got all you need to get that story started.
Note: If you have no idea what I mean by “dynamic backgrounds,” well, in practical terms, it means that the backgrounds “move.” In other words, you don’t have to stare at static images all day. If you want to write your holiday story with an active snowfall in the background, well now you can! With dynamic backgrounds, of course. Frost 4.0 has that feature, too.
Overall, I think Frost 4.0 is worth your time. For one, it’s free. But also, it does what it promises. Distraction-free writing that puts you in the mood. What more do you really want in a free web-based writing app? I mean, besides the ability to do everything that the premium apps can do?
According to the developer, the new update will go live on August 26th. I don’t know what time, so you’ll have to keep checking the link until you can get in. But once you’re in, I think you’ll like the newest themes and the new site design. Plus, you’ll get to maneuver through the themes and soundtracks via hotkeys this time. Just hold Alt or Option (depending on whether you’re using Windows or Mac), then press “S” for a new background, “F” for full screen (great for distraction-free writing), “L” for Dark Mode, and left or right arrows for switching music. And if you need to cancel anything (like full screen), just hit ESC. It’s pretty straightforward. Bear in mind that the developer also recommends that you use Chrome or Safari for best results.
And if you’re wondering, the latest themes are:
So, that’s Frost Writer 4.0 in a nutshell. Have you used it yet? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments below. You can also check out my hands-on preview in the following video.
Imagine walking up to the front door of a two-story house. You’re dressed in your fanciest clothes, holding a corsage in hand, rehearsing the speech you’ve had in your head for weeks. You know tonight’s the night that everything will change. You just need everything to go according to plan. That’s the only thing you need. You take a breath, fold your fingers into your palm, rap your knuckles against the door.
And you wait. And you wait some more.
Time passes. Do you knock again? Or do you keep waiting?
You hear someone yelling from inside the house. Someone else yells back. The words are inaudible. You check your corsage. You rewind the day in your mind. It’s Friday, right? Tonight’s still the night. Right?
Maybe no one heard you. You reach for the doorbell. But even before your finger makes contact, you hear something crash. Maybe a vase. Maybe a plate. Do you press it?
Do you want to know what happens next?
Welcome back to The Writer’s Bookshelf. This week, we cover the most important elements in all of storytelling: emotion, tension, and conflict. Without these ingredients, the story has no soul. Without these ingredients, the story has no readers. Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St.John is that one essential book that investigates these three elements with care, and it’s one I highly recommend you put on your shelf (and read) as soon as possible
You can check out my video about it while you’re here.
Check out other entries in the Writer’s Bookshelf series here.
Don’t forget to like, subscribe, comment, and do all of the things that convince me you like this kind of information and want more like it.
P.S. Rather than knock or ring the doorbell, you simply call your date and tell her you’re here. She asks where. You tell her the front porch. She says she doesn’t see you. You realize you went to the wrong house. She lives next door.
Notes: I picked this book for its representation of conflict, but it covers a little of everything, including emotion and tension, as references in the title, as well as characterization, naming characters, pacing, and so on. I want to make sure I mention the fact that this book references other books as a source of education (extending the life of The Writer’s Bookshelf) and presents one of the most useful story and character development sheets I’ve seen in recent times (simple but relevant) at the end of the book. I also want to reiterate that conflict is important, and I’d hoped to spend more time talking about it. Maybe in Season 3.