#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I by Barry B. Longyear
#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear
One of my very first conventions was in Columbus, Ohio (I think it was there, anyway). Barry Longyear was one of the guests. Through a series of events, I attended a panel at which he read a loud a story of mine, and critiqued it as he went. That story was called “The Family Tree,” and went on to be named a Cauldron Award winner by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s FANTASY Magazine readers. That was a lot of fun, but the life changing event that I’m wanting to talk about occurred immediately after the panel, when I purchased a small book directly from him that was titled (of course) Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I.
It was as if I was Jack and had found the magic bean, only this time I did not have a mother who threw it out.
In this piece of magic, Longyear explains the fundamental concept behind the 7-point story plot, and then–using his own (bad) early work–describes exactly how to do triage on your work. To redundantly iterate (doncha love that?), he let me read early drafts of his work, presented just as they were first written, and then he freakin’ went back and pointed out what was wrong! I couldn’t believe it. Better yet, he then explained how he “fixed” it.
I am an engineer by degree, and a systems guy at heart, so to me this was like the greatest crack that had ever been invented. I waded into it. It’s a thin book, but I read it probably ten times in two weeks. Sometimes I read it while glancing over my own manuscripts. Sometimes I marked in it (I think). I believe I had dreams about it. And then I started writing new short stories … and … well …
Lisa has always been my last reader, and to this day, she will point to this book and testify that it was THE point of demarcation at which I started actually sending her “real” work. Not that everything I’ve done since then has been brilliant, but this was the point where I realized there were actual structures to consider when you sat down to write, that stories had patterns and rhythms and that when you didn’t set them up well, either they fell apart, or never got started, or (if you were too transparent) were too simplistic. It’s where I saw how a story that wasn’t a story, but was instead merely a gussied up idea, could be considered DOA.
In other words, this is the work that showed me the elemental particles of storytelling, and showed me the many ways they could be shifted and played with.
I then turned this tool around and started using it to critique manuscripts of other new writers, and I was astounded to find that all of a sudden I could see exactly what was wrong with a work, and even better, I had an informed and justifiable idea of how I would go about fixing it.
So, yeah. This book was a mind-changer for me, and I think it accelerated my learning curve my months, if not years. I think that justifies including it in my list of top-10 influences.