Jilly: Five Great Writing Craft Resources

What are your go-to references for improving your chosen skill–creative, mechanical, sporting, whatever’s important to you?

I decided a while ago that I wouldn’t spend any more money on writing craft—no books, workshops, courses or conferences—unless I come across something exceptional. It’s not that my writing is so good I don’t need it, but that I already have a great collection of resources at my fingertips and I’ve only scratched the surface of most of them.

Even if I write for another 20 years (and I intend to), I bet I could find the answers to 99.9% of my craft problems on my current bookshelf or the internet. My challenge is to digest all that great advice, evaluate it, select the bits that I need most in order to power up my strengths, bolster my weaknesses, and widen my skill-set, and apply those lessons until they become second nature.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in this post that I was surprised to discover how much I’ve absorbed about the process of self-publishing. I’ve also learned that some craft resources hit the spot for me, while other famous names slide through my brain and out again, leaving no trace. I had fun choosing my favorite indie publishing resources, so I decided to play the same game with the writing craft references. I found it surprisingly easy to pick the ones I believe will support my writing journey all the way to the pearly gates.

Your mileage may vary (I’d love to know!), but here are my choices:

1 Story (Robert McKee)

McKee is a screenwriting guru, but his lessons are applicable to storytelling in any form. We used his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting in class at McDaniel and I loved it. It’s one of the few books I own in paper and digital formats. McKee builds from the fundamentals, and his teaching is clear and actionable. Simple example: I’ve always written my scenes as mini-stories, but thanks to McKee I ask myself at the end of each scene, what changed? If there isn’t a meaningful change in story value as a result of the scene, I go back and find one or delete the scene.
McKee’s teaching is available in multiple formats—books (Story, and more recently Dialogue), audiobooks, and in-person seminars. He’s coming to London in November and I immediately signed up for his four-day workshop. That’s my idea of an exceptional opportunity.

2 Story Genius (Lisa Cron)

Lisa Cron’s writing guide sets out a scene-by-scene method for using brain science and cognitive storytelling strategies to create an unputdownable story. I really like Cron’s emphasis on the importance of backstory (which does not mean dumping it willy-nilly in the book!), and on how the deep-seated response to a critical backstory event drives your characters in the now. Her system pushes you to understand your characters in great depth. I own this book in paper and digital versions, too, and wrote a Craft Book Squee about it. I was already a good way through Alexis’s book when I discovered Story Genius, so I cherry-picked the process a little. I’m planning to follow the full method next time around.
I know several of the other Ladies are Lisa Cron fans. Nancy wrote here about attending a Story Genius workshop at the Writer Unboxed conference, and Justine is about to enjoy a similar experience at a writers’ cruise around the Caribbean (nice, Justine!). I believe there are Story Genius workshops and coaching programs too, but for now I’m happy with the book.

3 Argh Ink (Jenny Crusie’s blog)

When it comes to story, bestselling author and 8 Ladies mentor Jenny Crusie is what we Brits would call an anorak (her term of choice is wonk). She loves analyzing what works and what doesn’t, in film and TV as well as in her own fiction writing. Jenny is obsessive about polishing her stories to an intimidatingly high standard, and she’s happy to share the process on her blog with bonus discussion in the comments. Recently she has shared large chunks of her current WIP, together with her thoughts on structure, conflict, character, community, setting, re-writing, everything. Argh is a treasure trove of expert know-how, shared for free by one of the best in the business.

4 Romance Writers of America

RWA is a romance writer’s gold mine. Where to start? If you can afford it, the annual conference, with three intense days of keynotes, workshops and author talks, is worth attending at least once. If you can’t find the time or the money, you can buy the recordings, singly or as a package. Local chapters are another great resource. There are physical ones if you live in the US, online ones if you don’t, including special interest groups like the Beau Monde (for historicals), or Kiss of Death (for mysteries). Many chapters also run workshops, often online, usually inexpensive, and local conferences which offer a cheaper and easier but still high high quality alternative to Nationals. Oh–and not forgetting contests, at both local and national level. For the price of an entry fee (usually $20-30), you can get detailed independent feedback on your writing. Some of it will be invaluable, some not so much, but enter two or three and some patterns will start to emerge.
Tl;dr. Whatever you need, there’s a good chance you’ll find the answer somewhere in the RWA network.

5 GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict (Debra Dixon)

This book was written more than 20 years ago and has become part of the romance writing canon. It’s clear, simple, easy to follow and explains the basic building blocks of a compelling story: figure out what your heroine really, really wants; why it is so desperately important to her; and who is hell-bent on preventing her from getting it (and why). Or to quote the blurb: “Goal, Motivation & Conflict will show you how to use these three key elements to give dimension to your characters and direction to your plot. It will help you plan a road map to keep your story on track, discover why your scenes aren’t working and how to fix them, create characters that editors and readers will care about, be confident your idea will work before you write 200 pages, end sagging middles and much more.”

I have all kinds of other reference resources for specific aspects of writing craft like emotion, body language, self-editing and grammar—I might do a separate post on those—but the resources I’ve listed above are the ones I go back to time after time when I need a pick-me-up or I feel as though I’m straying off track. I’d strongly recommend them all to any romance writer, beginning or experienced.

What do you think of my choices?

What are your most trusted resources for improving your skill-set, as a writer or anything else–whatever is important to you?

5 thoughts on “Jilly: Five Great Writing Craft Resources

  1. I would second all of these and add to the mix: On Writing, by Stephen King, Save the Cat, by Blake Edwards and Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit. Mernit’s blog, Living the Romantic Comedy, is updated infrequently these days, but there’s a trove of excellent analysis and advice in the historical posts if romantic comedy is your genre.

  2. (-: I’m familiar with three of them, and I am interested in the other two (except, like you, I already have too many writing resources on my shelves). I really like that two of your recommendations are about community. I love Jenny’s blog, and I love the comments that ensure — so much reflection and conversation. She really takes an active part in making her original post a building foundation — often, the embellishments are revealed in the comment section.

    And of course, RWA is all about networking and connections!

    I have a few other books that I’d like to make yearly re-reads so that I get all the goody out of them. One is Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Writers. This is about more than printing out your manuscript and applying a red pen to it — it covers true editing, not just copy-editing.

    Another one is Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which gives me more courage for my convictions about the nuts and bolts of writing. There’s an emphasis on communication, rather than creating a thrilling and emotionally satisfying piece of writing. But the basic thing is, if you don’t have the communication, it’s hard to communicate the thrills and spills.

    • I bought Browne and King’s Self Editing book, and then I never opened it. I must have thought I knew enough about self-editing! Maybe this week I’ll crack the cover. I opened my “Unused Bits” file today when I was doing revisions, and I saw I had 25,000 words in there. Another novella, just of stuff I thought I could maybe reuse, not the stuff I just deleted. A lot of words! I think maybe I could learn something there…

  3. I second GMC by Debra Dixon. I also liked the month-long class I took called Story Structure Safari. Great for plotting out your book (similar to Story Genius, but not really). I’m also a big fan of Margie Lawson’s Immersion classes (you can purchase her study guides online).

    As a different sort of writing resource, I love Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Thesauruses — Emotion, Positive Trait, Negative Trait, Urban Setting, and Rural Setting (there may be more, but that’s what I have). Angela will be on the cruise in September and I plan on picking her brain about writing period novels. 🙂

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