The Novel Writer's Toolkit - A review

The Novel Writer's Toolkit
by Bob Mayer
Writers Digest Books (2003)

The Novel Writer's Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published
I had high hopes for this book. Guess I should have read the Amazon reviews then I would have realized that it's written for beginning writers. Not that that's a bad thing. Novice writers need guidance, too, but there are already so many books geared to them and I've been past that stage for a while, so I look for other things, but I'll try to give you an idea of what's worthwhile here.

As you can see from the Table of Contents, the book covers everything from the initial story idea to getting published. The information is basic. Sometimes too much so unless this is your first book ever on writing. That doesn't mean there aren't gems for the novice.

For instance, this is part of what Mayer says about antagonists:

If a novel has a problem that needs to be resolved, who usually introduces the problem? The antagonist. Taking the point of view of the antagonist during outlining can help you focus the plot of the novel. Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist's plan until the critical moment at which the protagonist starts to act. 

Novice writers have difficulties writing antagonists/villains, so this nicely points out how crucial it is to get them right.

He also acknowledges that new writers want rules. They want black and white. Do this, don't do that, but writing, as he says, isn't ever that easy. You have to know when and how to apply the wisdom you're handed. This is an important point and one he brings up over and over. Such as when he talks about Show, Don't Tell:

First, let me say that it (the rule) isn't completely true all the time. There are indeed times in a novel when you should tell . . . The line between showing and telling is nonexistent at times. It's a sliding scale. At one end (telling) is pure exposition,; at the other end (showing) is dramatization. Telling tends to summarize information, giving it secondhand. Showing allows you to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste firsthand.

Mayer takes a reasonable approach to most rules, such as when he says:

Another problem to beware of: perfectionism. Some people thing that the writing has to be perfect. They spend an inordinate amount of time editing and rewriting. Sometimes, you just have to accept it's either good enough, or that the horse is dead and can't be brought back to life.

Mayer spends a fair amount of time near the beginning talking about organization. If you're challenged in this are, this book does offer some suggestions that might work for you.

There is a newer edition of this book out there. I suspect it will have lots of different things to say about the market. If you're determined to go the traditional route, the advice here is still valid, but in 2003, no one knew how ebooks would change the publishing industry so the author spends no time at all on that route.

So it's not a bad book for a beginner, but it's more of an overview. If you're looking for something to help you with how-tos (like how to show instead of tell, or how to characterize) I'd recommend Stein on Writing above any other writing book.

If you'd like to see other reviews about writing references, I'm starting to get quite a collection, and they can be found here.

What books have you found helpful in you quest to write well?

Six Sentence Sunday - A Knight in Cowboy Boots #7

Another Six Sentence Sunday. This is from A Knight in Cowboy Boots which, to my delight, is now available on Amazon. You can read an excerpt here or download the opening at Amazon.

This is the moment after their first time together. Maddie has just made a comment about Zach's "equipment."

Assault  weapon?” Zach repeated. “That there’s standard equipment, darlin’.”

“There’s nothing standard about that,” Maddie said.

“I didn’t hear you complaining.”

“Of course not. You sprang it on me when I was mentally incompetent.”

 I love when you comment.

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

Writing Fiction: A Narrative Guide to Craft - A review

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 7th EditionBy Janet Burroway
Longman Publishers

This writing craft book is into its eighth edition, so one would conclude it’s a valuable resource.

I’d like to say it is, but something in the voice of the book grates on me. Is it the phrasing that indicates (in my mind at least) a superior tone? Is it the sense of absolute conviction? Is it the literary/main stream focus of the examples? Is it the wordiness that doesn’t seem like is says much? Is it that so much of the book’s 400 pages is dedicated to short stories rather than discussions about writing well? Is it that I see contradictions between sections? I’m not sure. Probably, it’s all of these things together (plus others) that make me . . . resistant . . . to the book’s message.

So there’s my disclaimer. The truth is that a book that speaks to you, that clarifies things in your mind, may not speak to me, so you might get more value out of it than someone else will.

And the book does have value.

For instance, the Chapter Seeing is Believing talks about how to show. Included in this chapter is a section on “Filtering.”  To illustrate what filtering is, the following two examples are offered.

With Filtering:
Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. She looked out the window and there, across the street, she saw the ivory BMW parked in front of the fire plug once more. It seemed to her, though, that something was wrong with it. She noticed that it was listing slightly toward the back and side, and then saw that the back rim was resting almost on the asphalt.

Without Filtering
Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. Across the street the ivory BMW was parked in front of the fire plug again. Something was wrong with it, though. It was listing toward the back and side, the back rim was resting almost on the asphalt.

What she calls “filtering” I call POV tags, but I agree with her that the second example is stronger. As valid as her point is, what annoys me here is the heavy handedness of the first example. Yes, I’ve seen neophyte writers present much worse, and the heavy handedness gets her point across most ably. But it still annoys me. The cleaned-up example also violates advice she gives in another section later in the book when she talks about passive voice. If she were being consistent, the sentence that starts “It was listing . . .” would start “It listed . . .” eliminating the helper verb.

So yes, the book has value . . . if her style speaks to you. If you write literary or mainstream, you may find value in the stories offered for examination.

Is it verbose? I think so. For my money, it’s 400 pages that could have been half that. It contains far too many complete short stories (included as educational aids) than I can imagine it needs. Okay, so I don’t have patience for long examples, and the plethora of them makes it feel too much like a text book to me. Your mileage may vary. You may absolutely adore this sort of thing. If you do, go for it. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Six Sentence Sunday - All's Fair #1


This is from a piece I've been working on as a promotional short story. Georgia's just been giving her ex-husband a back rub, but he's now flipped over under her.

Sol's hand rose from her hip to trace her collarbone. The light touch jolted her, and Georgia's balance deserted her. She laid a hand on his stomach to brace herself and felt the muscles there tighten, becoming rock hard. He lifted his torso, his hand sliding around her neck to cup the base of her skull and pull her toward him. It was like sitting in a car on the freeway, watching a jackknifed eighteen-wheeler skidding sideways toward her. Nothing would get her out of the way in time.

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

Nuggets for August

 Because I've been writing like a crazy person and celebrating the release of my first book (you can read an excerpt here if you're so inclined), I've been letting Six Sentence Sundays stand in for regular blog posts. I'll get back on some kind of regular schedule soon, but in the meantime, I've been collecting links to share.

Everything is changing in publishing. Alexandra Sokoloff talks about epublishing and provides valuable links (so this is a link to links--it had to happen sooner or later)

A good post from Carley Ash about writing the opposite gender when that gender is male.

Wisdom about when to query from Query Tracker's blog.

Rock Canyon U has some great stuff geared toward authors who write for children, but this compilation is great food for thought for any writer

I posted a while back about the challenges of staying abreast of technology in your stories. This post from D.P Lyle is a wonderful illustration of cell phone technology that could impact your story.

Over at Ringing out my balalaika, Paige put together some of Angela James' tweets about the comments from the rejection reports at Carina Press, which give an interesting insight into how editors think during the acquisition project.

Scene or Summary. Sometimes a tough choice, but Lynnette LaBelle provides some solid guidance.