Monday, November 22, 2010

Sharpening the Axe. Never Stop Learning Your Craft: Guest Blog by Spokane Author T. Dawn Richard

The other day I was at the farm where I keep my horse. One of the workers there passed by me on his way to the barn and in way of conversation told me he and the owner had plans to transfer some cows from one pasture to another.

"How many cows, er, cattle, er, cows?" I asked.

He answered with a kind smile, "You know the rule. Never ask a cowboy how many cows he has, how many acres he owns, and never pet his workin' dog."

I had been schooled. And no, I didn't know the rule. More like a form of cowboy courtesy I guess and a little funny I'd never heard it because this wasn't (pardon the pun) my first rodeo. I've been around horses most of my life, and growing up in Montana it seemed everyone had a farm. But this was the first time I'd heard the expression.

Writing is much the same. We can spend years learning the craft, but then there's that moment when you hear or read something that will improve your writing and you wonder - why haven't I ever heard that before?

While I believe there is no better teacher than practice, there are a few books I have in my own library which I have found to be invaluable as teaching tools when learning to craft a story, book, or screenplay.

One of my very favorites is a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Be sure to check out Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet. While the book was written for screenwriters, it works just as well for novelists. And it's a very fun read.

Another book which should be on every author's shelf is Make Every Word Count by Gary Provost. This is an older book and as far as I know, no longer in print, but you can find it on Amazon. It's a great reminder that every word, every sentence, and every paragraph in your writing must do the job it's meant to do.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is one I give to friends as gifts. Without strong first pages, it's doubtful any agent or editor will be encouraged to read your entire manuscript. This book is written for the novelist, but screenwriters will also benefit from learning the importance of opening with strong images.

My last recommended read for now is Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Problem Solver. Are you stuck? Does your writing need something but you just can't identify the problem? This works both for the screenwriter and the novelist. It's a detailed step-by-step troubleshooting tool that takes the guesswork out of what should be changed, added, or deleted from your work.

So, I'll leave you with this - something a very wise man told me when I was learning everything I could about writing, but not putting much on the page. "While learning is good, don't be so busy sharpening your axe that you don't have time to chop wood." So true.

Keep up the writing!
T. Dawn Richard

Spokane author T. Dawn Richard is a full time writer and author of the May List Mystery Series. Her first book in the Amateur Sleuth series, Death for Dessert, was published in 2003, followed by Digging up Otis, and A Wrinkle in Crime. Dawn completed two screenplays in 2009 and has several other projects in the works.

Her books are available on


Mary Jane Honegger said...

I love it when writers share a list of their favorite books on writing. I'm always pleased when there are new ones I've never heard of - and there were two on this list. I think I'll just add them to my Christmas wish list. Thanks for sharing, Dawn.

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks for the reminder that we are all lifelong learners and that lessons can jump out from anywhere. I also loved Save the Cat and Blake's humor. I checked out The First Five Pages on Amazon and it is available in Kindle format. Yay. By the way, Digging up Otis was a fun, enjoyable read. Thanks, Dawn.

Norm de Ploom said...

Sometimes I am too busy smelling the roses or looking at the trees and miss the reason for the walk. Writing is a goal for all of us. These great books you mentioned should just be trail markers along the rosy path to our personally written words.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Very well stated, Norm. Wonderful post, thank you.