I haven’t taken many formal writing courses. (This may come as no surprise to people who don’t like my stuff.) As a journalism minor in college, I learned how to write concisely and get to the point fast. I also enrolled in a few extension screenwriting classes and a comedy writing class. That’s about it.
Over the years, I’ve joined a number of writer’s groups but dropped them just as fast. I didn’t find the feedback valuable. Most of it seemed arbitrary and not well thought-out. Maybe I don’t take criticism well.
Part of my informal writing education comes from attending author presentations. Through the Vegas Valley Book Festival, One Book Henderson, and the Clark County Library District, I’ve seen Tom Robbins, Chuck Palahniuk, Walter Mosley, Michael Chabon, Mitch Albom and Dave Barry, among others. I’ve picked up kernels of brilliance from all of them. Palahniuk tries to avoid passive verbs at all costs, Mosley writes every day (even on vacation) and Barry’s favorite word is “booger.” You’re just not gonna get that kind of information in a traditional writing class.
The rest of my writing education, such as it is, comes from books on writing. Like most authors, I have my favorites. Some, like “Bird by Bird” by Anne LaMott and “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg, are more philosophical essays than how-to manuals. Others, such as Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey,” deal with archetypal characters and stories. For nuts and bolts, I haven’t found anything better than “Fiction Writing Demystified” by Thomas Sawyer. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is revealing, not so much from a writing perspective, but because it’s the closest you’ll come to an actual King autobiography. Plus, he tells you the best way to become a good writer is to be an avid reader. I second that motion. You can learn a lot by reading great authors. And you can learn a lot more by reading hack authors. (By the way, try not to get depressed when you read something by a brilliant writer. The goal is not to emulate his or her style, but to understand why it’s brilliant.)
I also highly recommend “Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path” by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott. The path is cyclical and no matter where you are at any given time, the authors explain how to deal with it. It’s an essential roadmap, especially if you’re feeling unmotivated or just plain stuck.
On the screenwriting side, the two bibles are “Screenplay” by Syd Fields, and “Story” by Robert McKee (played with a nod and wink by Brian Cox in the movie “Adaptation”). McKee is a little too structured for my taste, but as someone once said, “You have to know the rules to break the rules.” Another excellent book on screenwriting is “Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” “The Princess Bride”), featuring my favorite quote of all time: “Nobody knows anything.”
Finally, there’s Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Cameron’s “morning pages,” sort of a free form writing meditation, are a sure-fire way to tap into your subconscious.
These are the books that have helped me. If you’ve got others to add to the list, please drop me a line. I’ll be happy to mention them in future posts.