Saturday, December 10, 2016

Guest Post: Sarah M. Chen

Please welcome fellow Sisters in Crime/LA member, Sarah M. Chen, to Type M! We worked together on the SinC/LA board plus we've done several events together. You may remember my posting about a cozy v. noir smackdown awhile back (we both participated, on opposite teams). Take it away, Sarah...

Reading Books on Writing

by Sarah M. Chen 


Lately, I’ve come across blog posts or Yahoo Group threads that mention invaluable books on writing. People responded enthusiastically, especially if it’s one they haven’t heard of yet. Some said they have so many books on writing, yet they’re always willing to add one more. Or that these would make excellent gifts for their fellow writer friends.

I’m reading all this and wondering if I’m a horrible person because I don’t have a lot of books on writing, whether it’s craft, inspiration, or memoirs by famous writers. It’s not like I don’t think they’re a great idea. As writers, we’re by nature alone and work in a vacuum. It’s easy to become disillusioned and on the verge of heaving your laptop across the room. Reading someone else’s writing journey or how they coped with the frustration of being a writer is comforting. Or learning a new way to write realistic villains is surely worth a quick read.

Now I admit, I read many writing books in school. I mean, it’s school, so we kind of have to, right? I studied screenwriting so the books I read were Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I have to say that the lessons learned in these books have stuck with me to this day. Even though they were geared mostly toward screenwriting, I found they can be applied to any type of storytelling.

When I decided to try my hand at writing crime fiction, I bought a book that was something like “How to Write a Mystery.” It was essentially a workbook. I can’t honestly review it because I never finished it. I kept thinking as I was going through the exercises, “Shouldn’t I be using this time to write?” Perhaps if I’d finished it, it would have made me a better writer or I would have made fewer mistakes along the way. Now I’ll never know.

Friends who found out I was following my writerly dream bought me books like Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit. I’m sure it’s a lovely book but I had no desire to crack it open. I feel awful for admitting it (and I apologize now if you’re the friend who bought this for me). And I hear amazing things about Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I keep telling myself one day, I’ll buy these books but really, I’m just lying to myself.

I do find quick bursts of inspiration and handy writing tips with crime fiction blogs. In addition to Type M for Murder, you have SleuthSayers, Criminal Minds, Do Some Damage, The Thrill Begins, and Kill Zone. I also have a printout of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing near my computer because—well, it’s Elmore Leonard.

But let’s not forget what truly inspired all of us to write great crime fiction: crime fiction books. For me, reading crime fiction (interspersed with YA titles) energizes me and gives me that needed boost. I know many writers can’t read fiction while they’re working on something but I don’t find that to be a problem. Although sometimes it backfires and I realize I’m a total fraud. But that’s a blog post for another time.

So what about you? Are there books on craft and writing that you swear by? Or are you like me, and you can’t generate enthusiasm for reading anything but fiction and the occasional blog post?

Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. She has published over twenty crime fiction short stories with Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Betty Fedora, Out of the Gutter, and Dead Guns Press, among others. Her debut book, Cleaning Up Finn, is out now with All Due Respect Books.


Sybil Johnson said...

I'm one of those people who have a slew of books on writing and I've actually read a lot of them! I admit there are some that people have recommended that I can't get through, but most I find useful. Maybe that's because I never took any writing classes in college so, when I started writing, I figured I could use some words of wisdom. Being the nerd that I am, I turned to books.

Anonymous said...

Makes perfect sense to me, Sybil! I wish I could muster the energy to read books on writing. I'm sure I would benefit, but it's just not in me! I think the screenwriting courses helped and I took a creative writing course in grad school (my favorite class and it was an elective). I intended to take a UCLA extension course on mystery writing when I first started out (I took one years before on writing script coverage and thought it was great) but never got around to it. Thanks again for this opportunity, Sybil. This was fun!

Sybil Johnson said...

I started writing my mystery first, then realized I could use some advice so I started reading books. Then I took Kris Neri's online mystery class through UCLA extension and G. Miki Hayden's online class. I think I benefited from trying to write something first before taking the classes. They were both well worth it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I heard Kris Neri's class was really helpful and worthwhile. That's the one I had my eye on.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, Sarah. And I think it’s good to have a basis in basic writing techniques. For me it was also screenwriting, which is a good way to learn structure. And I have a bunch of writing books. Some of which I’ve looked at, some which sounded good at the time, but which I haven’t cracked open. I think we take what we can from classes, writing books, crime fiction (and other fiction) and melt all into our own style and way of doing things. One of the things I don’t like about writing books or classes or gurus is they will say something – like never use a Thesaurus or having to have eight beats – and then that somehow becomes law. Stories do need structure, but there should also be room for creativity and individual style so not everything is so formulaic.

And thanks for the shoutouts to Criminal Minds and SleuthSayers.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you nailed it. You take in what you can whether it's classes, books (both books on writing as well as reading fiction), articles, blog posts, and mold it into something that works for you. Then it becomes your own. What's the saying? You have to know the rules before you break them. Thanks for the read and comment, Paul!

Travis Richardson said...

I've had a few how to "write books", but rarely finish them. I've also been to workshops and talks. Like Paul, I bristle whenever I hear unbreakable rules about writing. Creativity demands flexibility. I listen/read advice, but I try to treat it as gospel.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Travis, on having to stick to writing rules. It's helpful to know them, but if it's going to hinder my creativity or work against my story, then I have no problem changing them. Elmore Leonard's rules really speak to me and I agree with a lot of them (although I break several of his too). Thanks for the read and comment, Travis!

Travis Richardson said...

Oops, I meant to say "try not to treat as it as gospel."