The Book That Every Beginning Writer Needs to Read

In my book recommendation series, rarely do I ever dedicate a post to a single book. It is also a rare that I recommend a book on writing. Mostly because I strongly believe that ever writer:

  • Needs a writing mentor.
  • Needs to take a writing workshop where her fellow peers can offer her feedback and where she can also critique the work of her peers in a group setting led by a writing mentor, or other credible writing authority.
  • Needs to be well versed in literature in general.

Trust me, the three things I have listed above are of enormous help to any writer. Without this training, just having a book on writing is not going to help you any.

However, if you HAVE done the three things that I have listed above, then there is one book on storytelling that you need to read in addition to all of this training:

Story Engineering: Mastering The 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing

by Larry Brooks

My Review

I was fortunate enough to get to know Larry as a fellow Top Ten Blogger. When he asked me to review his book, I jumped at the chance of learning from his years of experience as a published author. Now that I’ve finished reading his book, I’m excited to share with you my thoughts:

If you are lost at sea in the storytelling process, picking up Story Engineering will be like picking up a compass. No, it won’t map out your exact journey—no one can really do that for you—but it will point you in the right direction. Larry’s book will teach you a set of storytelling principles that every published author follows (Larry calls them the “6 Core Competencies.”)

Now, one of three things will happen when you read Larry’s book: either you will read it and be reminded of everything you learned under your writing mentor, but will still be thankful that Larry put everything you learned into an easy to read, organized, reference guide; or, you’ll realize that you no longer have to resort to reading books by great authors and hope you’ll learn how to tell a great story through “osmosis”—that instead you can acquire the core principles of storytelling the more direct way, through Larry’s book; or, for the very first time, you’ll be uncovering the biggest secret that all the great published authors know:

That there IS a set of principles that all great storytellers must follow.

But just because there are set of principles, it does not mean that the storytelling process is formulaic by any means. Larry explains it better than I do, but basically, if we compared storytelling to the world of architecture, Larry’s the guy who is telling you that your house needs to be made out of wood and not Styrofoam, that the foundation needs to be earthquake-proof, and not built over a sinkhole. Larry’s not the guy who tells you how to paint the outside, or how to furnish the inside, he’s the guy who tells you where to put up the support beams so the roof doesn’t cave in during the storm. To translate: he’s the guy that helps you make sure your story doesn’t implode under the weakness of its foundations.

One more thing: this is the book for writers who want to go through the traditional publishing route. So if you feel very strongly that there should be NO parameters or guidelines when it comes to storytelling, then this book is probably not for you. But if you have an open mind, then you should definitely check it out.

Now for some constructive criticism:

  • A little thing that’s missing: a vocabulary list at the end of the book for easy reference.
  • I would have also loved it if the important terms in the book were bolded or italicized when they were first introduced.
  • I liked that the author compared storytelling with engineering, but I still didn’t want the cover to make the book look like it was an engineering textbook. An image more appealing and enticing to writers would have been better.
  • The title could have been shorter and more to the point, something like: “The 6 Habits of Highly Effective Writers.”
  • At last, I just have to say this: there were way too many references to Top Gun. Larry gives a ton of other illuminating examples for the core competencies, but for some reason Top Gun comes up as an example more often than others. At first, it’s not a big deal, but after its continuous mention it leaves the reader moaning: “Oh no!  Top Gun? AGAIN?”

But the truth is, if you are clueless about the storytelling process, Larry’s book will be a godsend to you. But even if you have some idea of how the process works, you will still be sooo glad that Larry took the time to lay out the core principles of storytelling into one, easy-to-read, very well-written, very helpful, and very practical book.

Today’s beginning writer simply cannot do without Larry’s Story Engineering–unless you want to look silly when your future agent tells you that you have an interesting idea but that you need to develop it into a concept, and you have no clue what he means.

Story Engineering will make you a smarter writer by telling you what every published writer already knows, and because of this, you’ll be referencing this book for years to come.

Finally, you might be asking yourself: who is Larry Brooks and why does he have the authority to speak about this topic? To answer both questions, I’ll let him explain:

“You should know that my first published novel, Darkness Bound, sold to a major New York publisher on the very first submission, with virtually no changes or rewrites required, and that it went on to be a USA Today bestseller… [My other novel] Bait and Switch, was named by Publishers Weekly as the lead entry on their Best Books of 2004–Mass Market list, after a starred review and an Editor’s Choice nod.” –excerpt from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Although Larry labels himself as a cynic, I found the conclusion of his book to be very optimistic. At the end, you feel that this is a man who has mastered the art of writing a great story and sincerely feels that by sharing what he knows about becoming a successful published author, he’s saving new, unpublished writers a whole lot of time.

It’s as if Larry knows his readers are lost at sea, and he doesn’t mind offering them his own compass as a guide. And we appreciate him for that.

much love,

Ollin

Click here to buy Story Egineering by Larry Brooks.

What books on writing do you recommend? Please share with us in the comments below.

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26 comments on “The Book That Every Beginning Writer Needs to Read

  1. Already have this gem and studying this book closely!

  2. Sonia M. says:

    I love to find more books on writing! Thanks for sharing!

  3. T.S. Bazelli says:

    I’ll have to check this one out. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Thanks for the recommendation Ollin, sounds interesting and it’s always good to hear of good books about writing skills.

    My fave “how to” book (for lack of a better name” is Story by Robert McKee. I’ll disagree on just one point, I don’t believe you MUST have a mentor. I’m sure it’s a great thing, but do I feel it’s necessary for me as a writer to succeed? No, but that’s just my own personal opinion in regards to myself and how I am with things.

    I did however, take a workshop, which was definitely useful. As for being well versed in literature, I am on the genres that interest me, I cannot read a book just because it’s a classic and I should. Reminds me of how I attempted Wuthering Heights and was so bloody bored, I stopped reading it or caring what happened….oops me bad.

    • Ollin says:

      Ah I guess it depends on what you mean by literature. I meant books in general, I didn’t mean the classics. I think any book is considered literature, but then I guess some would disagree with that definition. I guess I was going by Larry’s definition which he describes in the book, and for him literature doesn’t just mean the classics it means all works of fiction.

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Ollin says:

        And I do think a writing mentor is necessary. The knowledge you gain is priceless. But I guess we disagree on that point.

        • I think mentors can come in all forms, I have one book by another author called Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff and it’s been like having a mentor, that is how good the book is, perhaps that is why I feel okay about not having a physical mentor so to speak🙂

          • Ollin says:

            Of course, you’re not worse off for not having a mentor, but what I am saying is that if you can have that relationship available to you, take it. It’s priceless, and yes, it is so much more than a book. What I’m trying to say that it is only to your benefit. Just as a in-person teacher can be so much more illuminating than a textbook.

  5. Kerry Meacham says:

    1/3 through it and love how concise it is.

    • Ollin says:

      So helpful isn’t it? It’s a book you’re gonna keep going back to double-check that you’re following the principles.

  6. Larry says:

    Thanks, Ollin, for your kind words about my book, glad you liked it. Thought I’d “explain about the “Top Gun” examples… not defend, per se, just clarify.

    You’re right, probably too many Top Gun references in there, but I should ad, I use just as much stuff from The Davinci Code, the largest selling commerical novel of all time. I wanted to use examples from books and from films (as the principles apply to screenwriters as well), and in both cases, I selected titles with the widest possible breadth of audience.

    Also, I wanted the examples to be simplistic and therefore transparent. Top Gun is nothing if not simplistic, but that simplicity allows a writer to spot and understand the milestones and structure and principles easily (even bad stories usually follow these principles or they wouldn’t get published; once you’re in the market, then more qualitative criteria kick in; that said, if you don’t adhere to the principles described in the book, the odds are that the story won’t ever get published, and if you do publish it yourself, it’ll have a hard time finding an audience). If I had used, say, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (also a perfect model for all these storytelling principles), a writer might find it harder to be certain they’re seeing the right things at the right places in the story, which is the point of using an example. They aren’t recommendations, they’re models (med students used dead people as models… just sayin’).

    So that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. “-” Have to add, too, that I loved Top Gun back in the day, maybe because flying a fighter was my lost childhood dream.

    Anyhow, thanks again for pointing your readers toward the book, and endorsing it so enthusiastically. L.

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you Larry, I hope you can see that it’s a mostly glowing review, and there were only little things here and there that I mentioned I thought could use improvement. But overwhelmingly it’s right on the mark.Thank you for letting me review it!

  7. nkeda14 says:

    Gee I LOVE Larry Brooks. He is a no nonsense type and I adore it! His blog is amazing too!

  8. Steve Davis says:

    I was lost and not sure the best approach to starting my novel, until I started following Larry Brook’s blog Storyfix. When this book came out I immediately ordered it. Best thing I ever did. It’s like the ultimate toolkit for writers. By following these concepts you get a leg up on your writing. By doing the prep work first it makes the creative part of the writing so much easier. I highly recommend this book. Best money I ever spent on writing books.

  9. Judy Dunn says:

    Ollin,

    Thanks for this review. Your post title is interesting. Because Larry’s book was perfect for this non-newbie writer. It just depends on what particular piece has been missing, I guess.

    I just finished Larry’s book and am starting a second reading to fully digest everything in it. What struck me the most as I read it was that the writers Larry calls ‘pantsters.’ the ones who are 99.9% right-brained like me, really, really need this book..

    And on his title, Story Engineering, it’s funny that you were not intrigued by it. Because it’s precisely what drew me to it. It’s been the missing piece for me. I have always gravitated toward the Anne Lamotts and Natalie Goldbergs of the world. Fine writers and writing instructors who helped me focus on the creative side of storytelling (which is the part I love!). But it was really the engineering part I needed help with (and was avoiding).

    Great discussion here. I’ll be reviewing Larry’s book on my blog sometime in the next week or two.

    • Ollin says:

      Great input Judy. You are right, the title of this post makes it seem like I’m only recommending it to beginning writers, but the truth is I am recommending it to all writers. Like I said within the post, it acts as a great reference guide for those who already know the process fully. Those who studied playwriting and screenplay writing for example will not find the book so much new as incredibly helpful because it puts everything they’ve learned into one, easy to read reference book.

      I’m looking forward to your review!

  10. I am always hesistant to read “how to write…” sort of books, though I won’t bore you with the reasons. But I may have to check this out, for sure! Thank you, Ollin!

  11. Bell says:

    “How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II” by James N. Frey. Plenty of good advice on research, voice, structure and character. A big plus: it is very concise. Every word counts.

    “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell (no relation — my “Bell” is a pen name)
    This book helped me realize I was making way too many mistakes when I tried to write fiction.

    “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler.
    More recent editions include short essays on relevant topics, such as polarity between characters, and a few on character roles. This book provides plenty of ‘real-life’ examples from literature and film.
    Basically, it focuses on the hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell. I hear it was mandatory reading for screenwriters in Hollywood at some point, and I can understand why.

    “Zen & the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury.
    Lots of interesting notions from a master. Bradbury appears to write without much of an outline in mind… yet he makes it work. “Your stories follow your characters’ footprints in the snow,” he says at one point.
    His thoughts on creativity and how writing derives from passion and a zest for life really helped me. They set me on the right path.

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you Bell. Awesome recommendations!

      • Bell says:

        I’m sure you’ll find good advice if you decide to try any of the books I listed above.

        I forgot to add one, though — How Not to Write a Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. It focuses solely on mistakes and is very funny, to boot.

  12. […] at Amazon.com (10 raves and one fuddy-duddy).  You can also read reviews HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.  And HERE and HERE. Thanks for considering. bookmark it digg it facebook it stumble it […]

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