Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Best Advice I Can Give You ...

Before I really start wibbling away, I should probably admit that the best practical advice I can give anyone who wants to improve their writing is to read this book:

The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry

Now … one 'how to' book a lot of people tend to end up mentioning is Robert McKee's Story,

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

and that's a great book and it's a good read ... but it's mainly about how to write a Hollywood movie. It’s a little like going on a bodybuilding course with Arnie, when what you really need when you’re starting out is a bit of walking and perhaps a swim a couple of times a week. For us mortals, McKee’s book is probably better as a tool for analysing the formulae of American cinema than as a place to find hints and tips to improve our own writing. It's cool to learn stuff like that the twenty third minute is often the crucial one for a traditional Hollywood film, though.

(The twenty-third minute was the traditional place to put the moment when the Protagonist of the story is presented with the Call to Adventure. In other words, you spend the first twenty two minutes showing us the everyday life of the main characters and establishing what the status quo is ... then the hero gets a chance to change it. In the twenty-third minute of Star Wars, Luke sees Leia's message; in Back to the Future it's when Marty sees the time machine for the first time. The hero then … doesn’t leap into action, at first he almost always decides to stay home, because - well, buy McKee's book to find out. After you’ve checked all your movie DVDs to see what happens in the twenty-third minute, of course.)

The Coursebook has all sorts of exercise and insights. It’s a much more practical and everyday than McKee’s if you’re just starting out, and is based on the UEA creative writing course. It was co-edited by Paul Magrs, who by an amazing coincidence has also written - amongst many other things - Doctor Who books like:

Doctor Who - Sick Building (New Series Adventure 17)

And so, to conclude, everything always comes back to Doctor Who.

Here are those links for US Amazon:

The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry

Doctor Who: Sick Building (Doctor Who (BBC Hardcover))

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting

6 comments:

Iceduck said...

I was indeed duped into buying Story, thinking it'd be full of tips to improve my writing! It's the size of the Trojan horse, so I was rather disappointed by it.

(Incidentally, while I'm interested in all aspects of the writing process, I'd be interested to know how much contact a writer is likely to have with editors over the course of writing the novel, and what form this takes. E-mails every five minutes to check on details? No word until complete? Or somewhere in between?)

Anonymous said...

Good question and definitely worth a post later on.

(Short answer: nowadays, I'm left to my own devices; but Rebecca Levene was very, very helpful when she edited my first book, Just War).

Lance Parkin said...

Um ... and that last comment was me, being all anonymous. I may have left some clues as to my secret identity.

funnyerik9 said...

I just read Ray Bradbury's book "Zen in the Art of Writing" and liked that a lot. Very inspirational.

Paul Cornell also recommended to me "On Writing" by Stephen King which I found as a good read.

-Erik

Lance Parkin said...

King also has a great quote - he was at a signing and a woman told him enthusiastically that 'she was also a writer' and he asked what she wrote and she replied 'my journal'.

The quote: 'it was like saying you're a judge because you're occasionally judgemental'.

I'm all for people expressing themselves. People should write, and people should enjoy it, and there's no be-all and end-all to being published, and being a writer can be a foolish, odd and unreliable way to make a living.

But writing a journal doesn't make you a writer, not as the word is commonly understood. Wanting to be a writer or calling yourself one doesn't make you a writer.

It can be done, though. And more of that anon.

Iceduck said...

I met Russell T Davies in some event or other a few months ago, and asked him some writing-based questions. I mentioned a certain writer whose blog I'd been reading at the time, and Davies assured me that the writer in question was unlikely to say anything worth listening to.

But! The reason I mention this is that the way he phrased it was, "it annoys me when young writers are duped into listening to [unfavourable description of said writer]". My gut feeling at that point was that I wasn't, in fact, a young writer, but rather someone who's interested in writing, and has written a fair bit for personal use only.

That said, I've met people who claim to be writers who I feel have even less of a just reason for believing this. "Writer" is a word that I think people should be more sensitive to. I imagine the word "artist" receives worse treatment still.