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Building a Frankenstein's Monster of Craft

I get asked a lot about what books and videos I've used in the past to hone my craft. And that list always gets updated. I'm constantly reading books on craft full of writing advice. The important thing about books on craft is that you need to take what works for you and discard the rest. You're assembling a Frankenstein's Monster of writing advice that works for you and helps you get to the point where you can write publishable prose.

Sometimes, you don't have all the right bits and bobs, or the stitching between the parts is bad and the jigsaw doesn't fit together.

I have a few core parts, though, the heart and the mind of the monster, that make up my personal philosophy on craft. Here are those core parts. See if they are interchangeable with the monster you're building. If they are, perfect. If they're not, cast them aside, employ a new grave digger, and look for new body parts.

Here are the body parts I used in my experiments. But I'm always looking for more. The fingers of a man who knew how to play an instrument might work better than those of a manual laborer. Perhaps I'm looking for the legs of a gymnast rather than a boxer. I'm constantly seeking ways to make the monster of my craft better.

Story by Robert McKee (get it here) This is part of the beating heart of my monster and also the mind. It's a book billed for screenwriters, but it goes back to the great Greek philosophers as far as how stories ought to be constructed. It doesn't offer rules, but principles. And these principles are things that go into every story I work on. As I'm plotting each new novel or screenplay I'm about to work on, I go back and skim through Story, looking for ways to strengthen the scenes I have in mind and working to strengthen the juxtaposition of them. For my monster, without these pieces, no story would gain thought or make sense.

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (watch it here) This is the stolen lungs and circulatory system of my monster. Joseph Campbell is more than anything a raconteur. Forget about everything you know about his hero's journey, though that's important. He knows how to boil any story down into its most essential elements. Every story. In every culture. He can make it relatable. It's his academic curiosity that fascinates me endlessly. Without this easy charm, no story I wrote would be able to breathe.

Adventures in the Screen Trade (1 and 2) by William Goldman (get them here and here) These books are the other part of the beating heart and what I call the cynicism system. This is the part of the craft that involves the business of writing and a sense of taste in stories that is so important. They brought with them the concerns and egos of those you might collaborate with and the coping skills to make the most of it. They also offered insight into what makes a great story and how to cross between the worlds of prose and screenwriting.

On Writing by Stephen King (get it here) This provided the intuition of the monster. This taught me how to feel through a story. It was difficult finding something so intangible to put into my monster, but here it was, waiting for me. And who better to provide that ineffable quality? This one is a must. It's practically the soul, though not quite.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks (get it here) This book is the monster's skeleton. Where On Writing provides something ethereal, this is corporeal. Brooks made the best case for outlining I've ever seen and I have adapted many of his tips and tricks into my own monster. He also has anecdotes about adapting The Phantom Menace, so there's another bit of Star Wars in the DNA of my monster.

Palm Sunday and Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (get them here and here) These might be throat of my delicate monster, though they don't directly have much to do with writing. Though Palm Sunday has some tidbits of Vonnegut's thoughts and process, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse gave me permission to practice in a hundred different voices. Vonnegut told stories in science fiction and literary genres, he told stories that made me think, and sometimes you could barely tell it was him from one story to the next.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (get it here) This is the experience of all the body parts, the legs that carry it everywhere and the eyes that witness that moveable feast and bring it home. This is the feeling of writing as well, the feeling of going to other places and bringing the stories back, summoning them at will. The legs carry you to any place and bring you back so you can report about what it is you saw.

250 You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig (get it here) This book the monsters sense of humor and bold ego that allows it to write from a place of vulnerability, remind the voice that it's worthwhile, and then reins you back in to remind you that it's probably terrible. Some of the book is review, some of it is new, all of it is useful.

Gotham Writer's Workshop: Writing Fiction (get it here) This book is the hands and arms of the monster. The dexterity required for the writing, the basic skills and building blocks that allow me to construct a story from its very basic building blocks. These seem like they'd be the easiest parts to include, but they're actually the most delicate.

Explore every book about your craft you can. With enough study of things like this, the hope is that you'll be able to flip the electric switch as you write a story and scream, "It's ALIVE!"

I've had a lot of things come out recently.

First, for StarWars.Com, is the latest in the Cinema Behind Star Wars series, this time about Kurosawa's masterpiece High and Low

I had two pieces come out for Fantasy Flight Games, first is a piece about villains for games, the second is a recap of my first session of the Star Wars RPG.

Additionally, I wrote a piece about convention etiquette for City Weekly.

I've turned over a mountain of material over this last weekend, too. So you'll see a lot more from me in the coming week.

As a reminder: You can join my short story Patreon here. 

The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!


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