The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

Reading this British book published in 1978 (a revised version of the 1948 original) was like going on an archaeological expedition in a foreign country. The English recommended by the author differs from my own for reasons of both time and place.

In some passages, the author of The Complete Plain Words speaks of the changes in the language that will inevitably take place in the decades to come; it’s almost as if he’s conversing directly with me, forty years in his future, at the same time that he’s conversing with his predecessor, thirty years in his past.

Our national vocabulary is a democratic institution, and what is generally accepted will ultimately be correct. I have no doubt that if anyone should read this book in fifty years’ time he would find current objections to the use of certain words in certain senses as curious as we now find Swift’s denunciation of ‘mob’. (53–54)

See below for what I learned, what stood out, and what I heartily agree with, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel is a book by an experienced agent about how to write fiction that is not just good but great.

Maass offers valuable advice on how a newbie can avoid amateur mistakes and how a published author stuck in a rut can get out of it.

Broad topics include: premise, stakes, setting, characters, plot, subplots, point of view, theme, and industry shop talk.

Do you want to be published? Drop what you’re doing and read this book. Do you want to start getting fat royalty checks again? Sit up and pay attention. Whatever situation you’re in, it’s time to seize the day. It’s time to break out.

If you’re interested in this book, I also highly recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

When and Why I Read Writing the Breakout Novel

Go big or go home!

I also read this book 26-Mar-14 to 28 Mar-14. Worth reading twice, or as many times as necessary.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  13-Mar-17 to 19-Mar-17
Length: 260 pages
ISBN: 9781582971827 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2001
Amazon link: Writing the Breakout Novel

The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray

I’d say The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel is useful whether you’ve got a completed manuscript or not.

There are suggested methods for rewriting a whole manuscript by targeting certain parts of it on specific weekends, and suggested methods for writing vivid word pictures: use sensory descriptions, strong verbs, and concrete nouns—especially repeated objects that can become symbols.

But there are larger lessons, too.

The book talks about the primal conflicts that make stories compelling. Using examples from successful fiction and film, it explains story structure by breaking down subplots by character and showing how major scenes happen when secrets explode from the subplot and collide with the plot.

I still like Save the Cat better.

When and Why I Read The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

I read this before. I remember it had useful things to say about subplots.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  07-Mar-17 to 13-Mar-17
Length: 266 pages
ISBN: 9780823084432 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

I love Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

I’ve been using Snyder’s fifteen-item beat sheet to analyze movies. The beat sheet has helped me remember movies after I’ve watched them, and has also helped me appreciate their twists and turns as they happen. Ultimately, I hope internalizing the beat sheet will help me as a writer.

A 2013 Slate article blamed Snyder for a slew of bad movies, claiming that ever since he published his ‘formula’, movie-makers have slavishly followed it, to the detriment of art. It’s hard to disagree, until you read the rebuttal, which is that bad movies exist because making good movies is hard. Okay, yeah, fair enough.

Storytelling is an old art, and stories already had a three-act structure back when Aristotle was around, because he wrote about it. Nobody blames Joseph Campbell, with his famous Jungian Hero with a Thousand Faces, for ruining storytelling by outlining the meta-myth from which all myths spring. No more should we blame Snyder for understanding how best to bend myths into movies.

I read the Campbell book; didn’t much care for it. I’ve considered reading Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, but I suspect it’s more on Campbell’s end of the spectrum than Synder’s. Somewhere sitting happily in the middle is Robert J. Bly’s book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel, which leverages many mythological archetypes and terms from Greek rhetoric but explains and exemplifies them usefully, often giving tips for writing novels lifted from—you guessed it—the discipline of screenwriting. I’m tempted to read something by Syd Field or Robert McKee, but then, at least at this point, I’m not actually interested in screenwriting per se.

Save the Cat isn’t all about the much-maligned beat sheet; if it were, the book would be called Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet instead. What else is in the book?

  • how to write and test a good logline (one sentence movie concept)
  • Blake’s list of 10 unconventional movie “genres”
  • how to choose a hero
  • how to arrange your scenes on “the board” (use four rows; one row of about 10 scenes for Act I, two for Act II, one for Act III)
  • how to leverage a handful of quirkily named commonsense rules of screenplay writing (including Save the Cat)
  • how to troubleshoot a weak screenplay
  • what to do after you finish writing a screenplay
  • a glossary of terms (industry terms and Snyderisms)

Right, so, what does “Save the Cat” mean anyway? It just means that your protagonist should do or experience something very early on to win the audience’s support.

When and Why I Read Save the Cat

I have read this book before. It has been great at helping me think about plot. In fact, I have the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet on the wall by my computer. I read the book again to get a firmer grip on the details. There is so much more good advice than I remembered. How does it all fit in such a short book with so much whitespace? I don’t know how he did it.

Genre: non-fiction (movies, writing)
Date started / date finished:  26-Feb-17 to 04-March-17
Length: 195 pages
ISBN: 9781932907001 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Save the Cat

Style by Joseph M. Williams

I never thought I would read the word “turgid” so many times in my entire life. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace repeats the word, of course, because it’s telling you how to avoid writing “turgid prose”.

There’s a lucid chapter on the subject of usage, which deftly cuts through all the normal chatter about what should be a rule and why or why not, but most of the book is not about controversial words and grammatical constructions. It’s about what makes a passage understandable, and it describes the process of transforming one that’s not into one that is. It’s describing the acquisition and communication of concepts and knowledge as much as anything. It’s almost a book of cognitive psychology. I have a lot of books on language and writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this before.

Maybe that’s because it was originally a textbook. It feels a bit strange to watch someone poke sentences and move bits of them around on the page; the skills being described can only really be improved through use. This version of the book is informative, but perhaps not as effective as the versions that give the reader practice writing and revising.

More on what I liked about the book and when and why I read it below.

Continue reading Style by Joseph M. Williams

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

Everybody Writes is a book that Derek Zoolander would recommend to “adults who can’t write good and want to do other stuff good too”. If you’re one of those, then, by all means, share and enjoy.

It’s not, or not entirely, Ann Handley’s fault that I found her book disappointing. For one thing, I had high expectations. I eliminated at least a dozen books on blogging from my Amazon cart before I decided to buy hers. For another thing, I was, simultaneously, reading a book on writing I much preferred, an erudite tome called Style by Joseph M. Williams. And anyway, I am probably not in the target audience. The subtitle of Part I, “How to Write Better and How to Hate Writing Less”, should have been an obvious red flag: I don’t hate writing.

The book has a lot of good reviews on Amazon, so some people seem to have found it useful, and even I got some use out of it—just not as much as I was hoping to.

More on what I disliked about the book as well as when and why I read it below.

Continue reading Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

An Introduction to Fiction by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

An Introduction to Fiction reminded me why I felt put off by a lot of the literature I studied in high school English classes: modern literary criticism is oppressive in its political correctness, and the stories themselves are almost uniformly depressing.

On page 274 of this textbook, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, provides a possible explanation for literary gloom: “[W]e have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.”

Tolstoy is one of those sophisticates. You will surely recall this famous line (from Anna Karenina): “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

We believe this, do we not? Genre fiction stories in which the characters catch the killer, go on adventures and return triumphant, defeat cosmic evil with the help of magic swords and stalwart companions, and/or fall in reciprocated love with their true soul mates are derided as shallow and commercial, no matter how inventive, entertaining, or uplifting we find them. We are apparently supposed to prefer deep explorations of the multitudes of ways people’s lives can and do go wrong. Blech.

In short, the textbook was mostly a downer. Nevertheless, some of the analysis of the components of fiction was interesting, and I did like a few of the stories. See below for more on what I liked and what I learned, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading An Introduction to Fiction by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

What You Need to Know about British and American English by George Davidson

I’ve come a long way since the days when I consistently spelled the word ‘British’ with two t’s, which is phonetically intuitive but correct nowhere on the planet. Nevertheless, there were still some new factoids in What You Need to Know about British and American English.

When and Why I Read It

I write English lessons for students in Singapore; it’s important to know the British English standard here.

Genre: nonfiction (language / English)
Date started / date finished:  07-Nov-16 to XX-Nov-16
Length: 216 pages
ISBN: 9814107832 (paperback)
Originally published in: ????
Amazon link: ???

The book was published by some Singapore company called Learners Publishing, which was apparently acquired by Scholastic.

Writing for Children and Teenagers by Lee Wyndham

Although writing is a timeless sort of endeavor, the technology we use for writing and research has changed a lot in recent decades, so much of the discussion of process in this book is laughably out of date. On the other hand, there’s some good information here about the internal mechanics of story.

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap in Colorado because I write for kids.

Genre: Non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  7-Jul-16 to 13-Jul-16
Length: 258 pages
ISBN: 0898793475 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1968/1989
Amazon link: Writing for Children and Teenagers (only available used)