In the process of writing my book I have been working my way through several craft books a.k.a. How-To books meant to help you outline, structure, and write your characters, plot, and overall novel. Stephen King’s On Writing was the first one I read, and it spurred me on to begin what is now 61,000 words strong. The next book I opened was Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, and while very different from King’s how-to, it has been just as useful in helping me craft my story.
Cron focuses on what she calls a third rail – the central idea of the book which is the main character’s big problem or misunderstanding of life. This is the why behind all of his or her actions, and should spark all decisions leading up to the major aha! moment, which is when he or she sees past her misbelief and sees clearly for the first time. Every scene included in the book, Cron writes, should touch this misbelief/resolution in some way to make sure the reader has a clear connection to why everything is happening.
A common complaint I have with the books that I ultimately set aside is that I stopped caring about the outcome. You’ll read a review later this week of a book that I set aside not because I was bored, but because I just didn’t care how it ended. Cron explains that a book should not just be a run down of what’s happening, it should also always be evident why those events are important, from something as simple as going to the grocery store to something as complex as a huge multi-army battle. This really spoke to me so I ate up all her advice about making sure I constantly ask why something is happening.
In partnership with the why is the how you communicate the why to the reader. It seems really simple, but something should happen, which causes the character to act, and that action causes something else to happen, which sparks yet another action. Everything should be connected, and if everything is connected then everything will speak back to the why behind the main character’s story. Just because something is well-written doesn’t mean it should be in the book. The reader isn’t reading for beautiful writing, they are reading for a good story that helps their mind escape.
The part of the book that I read quickly through but plan to come back to later were the last 3-4 chapters covering her organizational method for outlining, planning, and keeping track of the internal workings of individual scenes and the novel as a whole. Folders and scene cards and character cards – if I had read this book before I started writing I probably would have gotten caught up in the organization of it all and written very little. I probably would have gotten very frustrated with myself and maybe not have written anything at all, convinced that I’m not smart enough or whatever.
Once this first draft is done, though, this system will be very helpful in revising and rewriting. I can fill these scene cards and character info pages and world rules lists as I reread through my manuscript, and then I can rearrange those details as I need to. I am glad I wrote from my mind first and will organize second. This book will be right next to me once I’m ready (hopefully Halloween, fingers crossed!).
For someone who is just starting out and excited, I’m not sure if I would recommend this book as one of the first ones to read. It’s pretty full of “you musts” and “if you want to write a good story you have tos” and I found that a little…I don’t know, aggressive and discouraging? I mean, if a person hasn’t done a lot of writing in other areas I might, just to make sure they understand how to structure a novel. But if you read a lot and write a lot, you’re probably okay getting started and coming back to this book when you need some motivation or guidance when you get stuck.
It’s got a lot of great advice though, and so as long as you listen to all of it and take what you need, it’s a great book to have on your shelf if you’re plugging away at your own book! Go get you some.