A boatload of books on making fiction: tools to use on a cruise

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bookstoreA coaching client who’s developing a novel recently asked me a delicious question. What books would I recommend to a fellow fiction writer, one who’s setting sail for a cruise around the Pacific?

There are so many on my shelves here, and on my Kindle as well. Collected, curated and used over the last 12 years, these are the ones I’d grab if my boat was leaving the slip.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment

1. Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction. Great overview of the craft.

2. The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. 650 pages covering every aspect. About 150 of them are writing, top-notch. Exercises in each chapter, too.

3. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Get it in paper. Worth every glorious page.

4. Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. How to flow between scene and sequel.

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 1.26.29 PM5. Showing & Telling, by Laurie Alberts. Finally gives Telling its due in creating a story

6. The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield. Everything you want to know about making compelling scenes.

7. The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. Crafting an opening to a book that agents want to pick up.

8. Story, by Robert McKee. Brilliant 400 pages on story structure, with movies as examples. Get the audiobook as a companion.

scene-structure bickham9. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. Joseph Campbell’s classic story archetypes (like The Mentor, The Gatekeeper) illustrated with examples from movie stories.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. The master of making tension on every page. Has a dandy workbook as a companion novel, too

11. Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. Sci-Fi master has a great style while showing the way to start a character.

12. What Would Your Character Do? by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel. Psychologist to artists (and Creativity Coaching trainer) Maisel, writing with his wife, has great personality quizzes for your characters.

13. The Novelist’s Notebook, by Laurie Henry. (Another one you should buy in paper.) This one is special, a book with essential questions and rules you establish to explore for your novel. You write upon the pages of this hardback book, the size of a nice journal. I used one for my novel Viral Times, and now another for the forthcoming Monsignor Dad. A place to store ideas and get concepts for meta-writing — the scaffolding of your book’s structure.

14. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. Great instruction on making anything more clear and compelling. Branch to the right, to put the noun+verb combo as close to the sentence’s start as possible, for example.

15. Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, by Sherry Ellis. My essential text for leading the creativity nights and mornings in the Workshop’s meetings.

There are many, many more. Inspiration takes up a whole shelf. Some others are focused on poetry, and still more on the art and craft of creative non-fiction. They say you have to make time to read if you want to write, and it is also true about reading these textbooks and guides. Grab a few from your library to audition them before you buy.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment. What are your go-to books to make your fiction glitter on the page?

From Oxford, a holiday gift or two

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The Oxford University Press has unveiled another big-ticket present for the word-lover in your life (even if that’s you.) The new Historical Thesaurus is the largest thesaurus in the world, covering 92,000 words in two thick, printed volumes.

Price? Just $316 at Amazon, plus shipping. Look at what you get:

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a unique resource for word-lovers of all types-linguists and language specialists, historians, literary commentators, among others-as well as being a fascinating resource for everyone with an interest in the English language and its historical development. It is a perfect complement to the OED itself, allowing the words in the OED to be cross-referenced and viewed in wholly new ways.

Amazon has a fun video of how to use this new resource to call someone stupid. Below-worm is among the epithets, right up to dork. Hundreds of them.

The entire project nearly went up in flames during a 1978 fire at the Press, which gives you an idea of how long this venture has been in play. The OED itself, available online in a subscription package, is still in print at $995. But the printed OED is now 20 years old. A compact version of the printed OED, just 18 years old, is available at Amazon’s used marketplace for as little as $161. 

Fast finds for definitions

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This morning I stumbled across Memidex, the free online “dictionary, thesaurus and more.” If you ever need to know the difference between rhinoviruses and arborviruses, or what contiguous means, or a synonym for incipient, Memidex (memidex.com) finds it fast.

What I liked about this online tool was its relentless linking. The definition for arborvirus is teeming with medical words all linked to other definitions.

The unique features of Memidex include:

  • detailed information for each sense
  • more cross-references
  • convenient hierarchical links
  • full listing of inflected forms
  • no obscure abbreviated labels
  • quick search for exact matches
  • complete, easily browsable index
  • easy-to-link-to URLs
  • clear, simple, uncluttered layout
  • frequent, recorded updates
  • fast average page access time

Library resources old and new

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I live at the fringe of the Austin city limits, just a few blocks from a wonderful branch of the Austin Public Library. The Spicewood Springs branch has been closed several months for expansion, so I’ve had good reason to visit other APL branches like the downtown Main and Old Quarry.

One thing I’ve learned while building up my practice of workshops is to borrow books from those libraries. I say that I “audition” them, since it’s practical to purchase a reference book or textbook I believe will help our group members. But it’s much better to buy something you’ve had a few weeks to sample and use.

Managing my loaned books is easier than it used to be, here in our online age. An APL card entitles you to an account on their computer system, where you can track whatever you’ve checked out, and when it’s due. You can even renew a book for a second three-week period, if no one has requested it. Tick a box next to the title and it’s yours for 21 more days.

At the same time, the APL still maintains a Telephone Reference Service, which might seem like a throwback in the era of Google. But call 974-7400 Mondays through Fridays 10-5 and you can talk with a librarian who will work to answer questions about grammar, geography, history, help with homework, or deliver answers on famous people, TV, film, sports, poetry and quotations.

That reference desk operates a lot like the more modern Internet adjuncts for research. There’s plenty of Ask Jeeves and About.com, but there’s always a “pay us to search for you” option somewhere nearby those sites. The library offers a less costly way to get those reference answers from a person — who can make associations much faster and better than Google.