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Solid foundation

On my continuing quest to master (ha, ha, as if) story structure, characterization, POV, setting, and all the many important facets of writing a damn good book, I read a lot of craft books and take the occasional online course. I attend chapter meetings and the annual RWA conference. I read blog posts and agent tweets and writing magazines.

It never ends.

But the amazing thing is, neither does the learning. I can’t believe how many times I’ve wondered why I waited so long to read a certain book, because that one finally crystallized a concept.

What I’m starting to think, though, is that maybe if I had read that book a year ago, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I think that I have to be exposed to a concept multiple times before it really clicks. Before the nuances and images become clear.

There are some books that I think would have helped me had I seen them earlier. For example, the much-lauded (by me, at least) Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. Another is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Both of these fundamentally changed how I approached my writing and provided a sound footing for future learning.

They indoctrinated me to the basic nomenclature and concepts that most lectures, books, and articles build on.

After going through these two works—and many, many others—James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure made so much more sense to me. Tips and notions that once seemed merely handy were turned profound when laid atop the foundational works.

And now I’m listening to The Hero’s 2 Journeys, a seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. Had I not been exposed to story structure on a fundamental level, I’m not sure this recording would be the magnificent lightning bolt that it has been for me this week.

What do you think are the foundational books that every new writer should start with to prepare them for their lifetime of learning?


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  1. Curtis


    I would not be writing if it were not for “Writing the Natural Way “by Gabriele Lusser Rico 1983. Mind mapping is a later and distant cousin. But, mind mapping retains a rigid feel that Rico avoids. She is all flow.
    The Artist’s Way “by Julia Cameron was a good re-starter for me.

    For structure, Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks is clear and to the point. I have also found Larry’s mentor Syd Field helpful. Screenplay :The Foundations of Screenwriting., The transfer is obvious. This is the foundation for Larry’s work.

    One sentence from Field’s book was worth the price. ” The need of your character gives you a goal, a destination and ending to your story.” Anne Lamotte says the same thing just in a little more poetic way. This just happens to be the way Fields states that his plots and stories are character driven. 🙂 I think Anne knows more about structure and plot points than she let us in on. Writers remind me of musicians.

    • Reply

      Interesting point about Lamotte, because her style is so different that it doesn’t feel like a how-to, but in essence it still is.

      Maybe sometimes it’s less about the content and more about the approach. We all learn and internalize in different ways.

      The seminar I mentioned is interesting because it’s really aimed at screenwriters, but everything still applies. The outer journey, the inner journey, and how they mesh. It aligns nicely with GMC too.

      Not sure we solved anything, but we’re thinking, right? Oh, and expand on your comment about writers and musicians. I’d like to know in what way. I once heard Sting talking about the structure of a song and I suddenly noticed it in every song I listened too.

  2. Reply

    What do you think are the foundational books that every new writer should start with to prepare them for their lifetime of learning?

    ANSWER: Atomic Gator Blog (who doesn’t need lots of comedy in their life?)

    You asked, I answered.

  3. Reply

    99 percent of books on writing are horseshit. I know, because the small turret in my brick fortress is a library full of every book on writing known to man, and they are in fact useful, but only as kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

    That’s because the only thing that really matters is structure, and nobody really understands structure. It’s all micro-level nonsense about comma splices and whether your anti-hero should be an alcoholic or a serial killer who only slays bad people.

    The books on screenwriting, now, are good, because all they HAVE is structure. You can’t hide bad story bones in a screenplay with pretty words. It’s all skeleton.

    STORY by Robert McKee is great on explaining how story skeletons — of all types — should work.

    SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is short and wonderful and damned useful.

    Let it be known: every writer should go out, right now, and sell their silly useless books on writing, then use that money to (a) buy STORY and SAVE THE CAT, then (b) donate the rest of your free cash to the starving children of Africa or whatever.

    DO IT NOW.

    • Reply

      Epic Black Car: I’d have to say that understanding structure has been one of the biggest game changers for my writing. I’ve posted many a blog on the subject.

      Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard great things about SAVE THE CAT, and will have to check out STORY. It’s interesting that you mention screenwriting books because Hauge and Vogler hail from the movie world, and their insights have been great. It’s structure and GMC, mostly.

      Thanks for gracing my site with your presence. My little green car and I are honored. 😉

  4. Reply

    It is very wise what you said Gwen, sometimes I wish I could go back to law school because I am sure I will appreciate the courses now more than ever.
    Some times it takes a long time for me to understand something I thought I understood it before.
    Do I make sense? LOL LOL
    Could to catch up on your blog Gwen!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Mirella. When I went to grad school it was a completely different experience than undergrad. I was giving up so much to be there, and I wanted to actually learn the material, not just get a piece of paper. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.

      I’m so glad you’re back online. Can’t wait to hear more of your adventures in Sudan. =)

  5. Reply

    Good post. I always think I am getting better based on the foundation and structure of writing I’ve learned these few years, but then I get smacked upside the head by some other thing that I should *know* by some other writer (usually a judge in a contest). But I feel more confident now, too, in that I have more requests based on my writing than I did five years ago when I knew *nothing* about writing. So that helps.

    And now? My DVD set awaits and I have the screenwriting course to look forward to which starts on Tuesday.


    • Reply

      Thanks, Christine. I think the process never ends, and even things we once knew, we forget and have to be reminded. Your writing is getting really strong. Something will click.

      See you on the loop!

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