Saturday 25 April 2020

Books about writing...books

Books about writing… books

In my most recent SCWBI crit group chat (held on Zoom, of course!), we discussed a wide range of writer topics, as we always do. As writers always do: How can we all write in the time of Covid? What to write next? What age group is my book really for? And does that matter?  What’s the right balance of writing new and editing/re-writing. That sort of thing.

 A perennial topic is the usefulness of the ‘guide’ books, the how-to’s, the ones that tell us there are underlying patterns and rhythms and if we all mastered them… well, we’d just be less lost, and whole lot more confident about how and what to write.

 I’ve read a few. Many are forgettable. But some are, in my view, pretty good, so I’m going to review them here, and give you an idea of what they say. It might help you judge whether they are worth your hard earned pennys, or not. And more importantly, worth your time.

 1 Into the Woods – John Yorke

Probably the most popular and well known of the books I’ve chosen.
It’s concise, well written and – for a relatively short book – covers all the bases: What a story actually is. (Ask yourself if you know that. It’s an interesting question).  Also structure, inciting incidents, showing rather than telling; (illustrated with examples rather than directions – how meta!), character, structure and dialogue. You get the idea.

I guess it’s the ‘if you only read one book, read this one,’ book, of the ones I’, recommending.

 2 The Writer’s Journey  -  Christopher Vogler

Joseph Campbell for the modern world.   There is – really – only one story, and it plays out in many ways and variations, but there are common notes and patterns in all the best ones, and Vogler goes some way to convincing us of what they are.

 He goes to great pains to remind us, it is a form, not a formula.  Do it by numbers and your book will be dull and lifeless. Your reader will know where you are going, even before you did when you were writing it. But, equally, ignore at your peril. The monomyth is part of what makes a story a story.

 3 The Seven Basic Plots – Christopher Booker

 My personal favourite, not least because, though it’s a hefty tome, you can dip in and out and pick out the bits relevant to what you want to know at any particular time.  Especially useful for second draft writing a chapter, when you may be scratching your head, wondering what kind of story, or part of a story, you have actually just written. (ahem).

 He subscribes to the mono myth too, but argues there are seven core varieties: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. And further, that when you make certain choices about your character, what happens to them and, crucially, what they make happen, your story becomes one of these variations.  It’s also great because it focuses a lot on actual books, not mostly films and TV like so many other books about writing do.

The subtitle is ‘why we tell stories,’ and he goes further than anyone I’ve ever read, in terms of exploring what stories are, and – yes, why we tell them, why we write them.  And I can’t even begin to try and summarise that, but it’s worth reading, especially if you are someone who dedicates a huge part of your life to creating and writing stories, even if you’re not quite sure why.

That’s you BTW.

So, three great books.  And I’m eager for recommendations too, so please provide in the comments section.

 Finally, do I subscribe to these theories myself? Yes, absolutely. But I do think it’s important to remind myself that knowing the structure and form of a symphony or a sonnet, is useful, but it won’t, in the end, help me, or anyone, be enough in itself, to make great music or great poetry.

Chris Vick is the author of several books for young people. The latest, Girl. Boy. Sea. is shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie medal 2020.


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Anne Booth said...

Thank you very much for these recommendations. I think maybe it would be good for me to set some time aside to read these. I love 'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott myself, but that is less about structural approaches and more about blocks and attitudes.

Chris Vick said...

Thanks, Anne, wil check that one out.