Reading for Better Writing

Occasionally, I get asked by students who want to write fiction what they should read to become better writers. My immediate answer to this question is always the same- On Writing by Stephen King. It’s THE book by one of the greatest literary craftsmen of the last hundred years, and in itself almost functions as a perfect introduction to the art of writing fiction.

However, what about once you’re ready for something a little more advanced than King’s essential starter?

Until recently, my answer was to recommend people read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, it’s a book on scriptwriting, but much of what’s in that book applies to writers of fiction just as well. Snyder’s unique Genres are a great tool for focusing your story, and his master plot outline can bring a story into clear (if formulaic) shape. However, it’s a book of structure and tips, not so much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, and that always left a bit of a gap.

Well, now I have something to fill that gap- advice that will take an author’s writing to the next level, or at least give them piles of tips from the hands of another master writer.

36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk

As the name suggests, this is a collection of writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk originally done for the writing site Litreactor.com. They were done between 2005 and 2007 on a monthly basis. Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is the writing teacher you wish you had, and the advice he gives as he pulls back the curtain in those essays is invaluable to anyone who wants to write fiction. He’s the graduate class to Stephen King’s undergraduate class, and I cannot overstate what an effect reading those essays had on my own approach to writing.

I highly recommend anyone who has started writing, and perhaps finished a few stories, to go and find a copy of that essay collection. The official collection is only available on Litreactor.com as part of a paid membership, which I recommend you go for, however if you’re lacking in cash there are a number of bootleg collections floating around if you do a simple search. These essays will be most helpful to people who have written a bit already, and are meant for people who are serious about writing, but if you are they’re worth every second you spend reading them.

Palahniuk also starting writing occasional new essays for Litreactor.com, such as this gem about thought verbs, and it will give you an idea of what to expect. It was the reason I sought out more of his writing advice in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Rob

 

How Much Should You Write a Day?

Yesterday, I made a post about Tracking Your Writing Progress using a spreadsheet in an effort to develop good production habits. After I posted it, a friend wrote to me and asked how much I thought was a good number to aim for. It seems like such a simple thing, but it was an issue I struggled over myself, and still struggle over.

My initial answer to him was figure out whatever you think you can handle each day consistently, and then multiply that by 365 to get a target number. However, after considering it, I think there is a little more psychological strategy needed to really get the best out of using a spreadsheet.

Let me explain.

Stephen King, in his amazing book, On Writing, recommends you sit down and crank out about 2000 words a day. It’s a nice number, and I often see other writers quote it as a great target for beginners, since it’s an achievable goal in two to three hours of your time, depending on how fast you type. King apparently churns that out in the morning, and then spends the rest of the day editing, reading (he recommends 4-6 hours a day!) and doing family stuff.  He credits that with some of his incredibly productivity, and he sees it as a manageable pace you can keep without burning yourself out.

I’ve tried King’s approach during the Summer (I’m a teacher, so Summer is when I have time to dedicate myself to writing), and actually made it work. I did 2000 words every morning, and the result is my upcoming release Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess. So yes, it works. I felt the balance, and was refreshed and ready to tackle my next book when I finished it.

Then, I crashed and wrote almost nothing for four months.

For you see, my Summer had come to an end, and as a teacher that meant September- with its flood of preparation work, to be followed by marking and general exhaustion for the following months. (It also didn’t help I had two brand-new classes dumped on me at the last second and had to spend the following weeks desperately trying to get a handle on them, but that’s a teacher’s life.) I had a great 2000/word/day schedule and each day I would come home, look at my computer and think- “No way I’m going to finish 2000 words today.” And this became my excuse for giving into my exhaustion and not writing.

Seriously, those “easy to fit in” 2000 words actually became a mountain I had to climb, and it became easier to play at the bottom than to try to climb the mountain, no matter how much I loved the view from the top.

So, when I came around to try using spreadsheets recently, I really thought deeply about what number I should put in. My initial thought was 500 words/day, then I decided that was too low, and went for 1000 words/day and finally settled in 1500 words/day since I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo in July and that will require 1,667 words/day. I figured I’d better start training for that, and 1500/day would be a good practice number.

But then, I saw Mur Lafferty’s Magic Spreadsheet, and read the thinking behind it, and decided that actually I shouldn’t be writing 1500- I should be writing 250 words/day.

I decided this for 3 reasons:

  1. 250 is a number I can crank out in my sleep, it’s not intimidating, and too low to function as an excuse.
  2. Most days, I’ll naturally write more than 250 anyways. That 250 is a minimum, a starting point, and when it’s done I’ll be warmed up and ready to keep going.
  3. It’s a number I can maintain when school comes and I’m awash with work. Over a lunchbreak, or over breakfast, I can churn out 250 words and if that’s all I can manage- so be it.

Also, I did the math- 250 words/day = 1750 words/week = 91,000 words a year.

That’s a novel a year! And, if I also do things like Camp Nanowrimo, that will be a whole lot more than a novel a year! A hell of a lot better than what I’m producing now- 8 months of little writing and 4 months of inconsistent writing. (Now you see why I’m looking at spreadsheet strategies.)

Now, 250 might not be the right number for you, you’ll have to find your own numbers and do the math, but for me it seems to fit. I might raise it to 500 later on if it’s too easy, but I doubt that will happen until after school starts this Fall. After all, this is about building a consistent habit, and setting myself up for success, not failure.

Good luck!

Rob