Books that Help

There are many things that have affected my writing over the years. The Army taught me how to capture snippets of scenes on 3×5 cards so as not to lose them. It also gave me my primary character pool — soldiers. (I do so love soldiers. The sense of duty, honor, and respect that goes with them is hard to understand outside of a uniform.)

I’ve read countless books on how to be a better writer too. My two favorites are Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld and Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer by James V. Smith Jr. Neither are very well known but both have impacted my writing career in big ways.

I’ll go ahead and give you a rundown on the three main things I garnered from these books. If you’re an author and you haven’t read them, I encourage you to give them a try. But if you don’t have either the money or the time for another writing craft book then let me give you these three things.

1) They taught me to view my writing as a craft. 

“Craft” is a verb. It’s an action, and like any martial arts move you see flaunted on the movie screen it has to be honed in order to be any good. That means practice, and lots of it.

2) Character boxes

I adapted this one from Fiction First Aid. On my first pass through the editing process I highlight little boxes around each major and minor character when they show up in the text. Anything that has to do with physical description in particular needs to be drawn out so that I can compare and make certain I haven’t altered anything later in the text.

I don’t normally have this problem with the main characters, but the people who intersect the story at various points sometimes get lost. These boxes help me find them again and keep them straight.

3) The Brain Stretch

This one I adapted from Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer. Near the end of the book Smith gives this worksheet to use to help bring fresh content into your writing. I call it “the brain stretch” and I try to use it once or twice a year.

It’s a challenge. You find a certain number of expressions, puns, emotional moments, and what have you. I took some of his suggestions out and put my own in so I’ll give you a sample from the one I am working on this month;

– List 10 characters in 100 words or less.

– Write the “nugget” for your current work in progress. (The “nugget” is the main thrust of your story in 100 words or less.)

– List 10 expressions you’ve either heard or read and how you might use them in fiction. (Normally I just write the character most likely to use said expression off to the side.)

That’s just a sampling of what I’ve adapted this “brain stretch” into. Sometimes I use what I’ve found but often it’s just a way to reset my mind. By the time I’m done with it I feel more capable of doing the work in front of me.

So! If you haven’t read either of those two books I highly recommend them. But I also have to give the disclaimer that what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. There’s a reason why the examples I gave above are adaptations of what I read; I’m different from those two authors and had to tweak those exercises to fit me.

Which, I think, brings me to a fourth lesson they taught me …

4) Don’t be afraid to adapt teachings into something you can work with.

In the end, it’s your craft. Other people might write, but only I can write like A.J. Maguire.

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