Whether you are just now entertaining the idea of writing a book or have been writing for a while, all authors need certain tools if our goal is to publish and make money with our work. Now, if your goal is to simply create a piece of literature that “says something deep and probing” about society or life or is esoteric and selling the book doesn’t matter? Then that is a noble goal and I wish you the very best.
There are works that have broken all the rules and come to be known (usually much later) as classics. I will, however, respectfully point out that the majority of those who follow this blog want to write commercially and make a decent living, so my list is geared toward a certain group of authors.
What this means is that anything can go in writing. Rules are not to be a straightjacket, rather guideposts.
I will say, however, that if we deviate too far from what audiences expect, then most agents won’t rep it because they won’t have a clear way to sell it. Readers might steer clear because it becomes what I call “Blue Steak.” It might be yummy, but it is just so dang odd that only a handful of the adventuresome might dare take a bite.
When I wrote my post Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors, I did get some push-back regarding archetypes and three-act structure. To be clear, I never said, “All authors must adhere to boring and predictable rules that turn a story into a ridiculous trope.” Nor did I say, “You can only write a good book if you reverently follow every rule.”
I merely stated that we need to understand the basics before we can get to creating “art.” If we don’t, we’re relying on “happy accidents.”
If we don’t understand the rules, we don’t know how to intelligently and artfully break them. Maybe we will write something unique and successful without ever understanding POV. But then how do we duplicate that success if we don’t know how we created it in the first place? This is akin to going in the kitchen and tossing ingredients in a bowl without knowing what they are, how they taste or how they work together (or don’t). Maybe we’ll make something yummy…or maybe we’ll make a chemical bomb.
When it comes to promotion, experience has taught me that if we are doing the latest fad? It’s already outdated. Algorithmic alchemy has a short shelf-life and I predict that soon it won’t work at all. Automation is ignored, spam filters are better at eating newsletters, and people are drowning in FREE! This means we need to be vigilant to grow, even in areas where we are fearful or weak.
I’m blessed to know thousands of writers, many of them legendary. The interesting thing I’ve found, is that normally the most talented writers, no matter how many zillions of novels they have sold have something in common. They continue to learn.
Last week, I was on the phone with a writer most of you would recognize. He was telling me of the books he was reading to help his current project, the social media and computer books. This author is a widely recognized genius. His books have been made into iconic movies and even assigned to college students. But, despite all this success, he’s wise enough to appreciate that, if we want to master our craft and thrive in our profession? We must always refresh and be open to new works, ideas and techniques.
For instance, craft evolves as readers evolve. Marketing doesn’t stay static. We need to always keep our fingers on the pulse of change and be open to getting out of that comfort zone.
In my career, I’ve read countless books, but these are the ones I would recommend as a staple in any writer’s library. Maybe you can use Christmas money or gift cards to begin stocking your resource library.
Hooked, by Les Edgerton
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
For Character Development:
The Art of Character by David Corbett
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
I STRONGLY recommend Angela and Becca’s Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. In fact, I think you get a deal if you buy them all together. Do yourself a favor. These tools will keep your characters psychologically consistent. When you do want to vary or surprise, these books can help you do it artfully. We don’t want readers thinking WTH?
That is bad.
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
Mind Hunter by John Douglas (Profiling is good for the FBI and writers)
DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders 5th Edition) Helpful for characters, dating, the workplace, and family reunions😉.
For a Swift Kick in the Pants:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Successful Novelist by David Morrell
Linchpin by Seth Godin
Mastery by Robert Greene
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Failing Forward by John Maxwell
Guides for Social Media:
Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb (of, course, LOL)
Purple Cow by Seth Godin
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Buyology by Martin Lindstrom
I’ve read many other fantastic craft books and guides (often written by the same authors). I’m not listing them all because this is just what I recommend should be standard in our stores of resources. If you guys have any others you’d like to mention, I am always learning and growing, too. Feel free to mention them in the comments!
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Will announce December’s winners tomorrow. Sorry. My check-up took three and a HALF HOURS (which is why I only go to doctors about once a decade if I can). I apologize.
I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!