Five Books on Writing to Read
There’s no shortage of guides on how to write. The worst are written by failed authors with a single languishing novel to their name—or sometimes even without—who are hoping to cash in on young talent searching for answers. These are the books that give the name of writing guides a bad reputation, the reason why many talented authors will staunchly refuse to touch guides. But amongst the waste lie some wondrous books, wherein authors of repute break down their approaches, offering comfort and inspiration as readily as their works of fiction. Though these books are hard to find, they exist, and their pages are treasures I believe we should all heed. So here are five books on how to write that, in my opinion, are worth reading.
As well as being a successful published author, Richard Skinner created the ‘Writing a Novel’ course in 2009 for the Faber Academy, of which he is the Director of the Fiction Programme. Since then, he has helped shape hundreds of novels, many of which have gone on to become bestsellers. He might well be the best novel-writing tutor on the planet.
What strikes me first is how beautifully this book is written. It’s neither dry nor overly technical. It is, in fact, a fun piece of writing. Skinner’s passion for writing comes across on every page, and it’s packed with helpful anecdotes, arguments, and exercises for writing. It’s almost impossible to not to find some important point that rocks your view of writing on every single page.
It’s also not critical. The book never holds you to task on the absurdity of writing a novel; it wants the novel written just as much as you, and it continues to support and guide.
I recommend reading this twice. First before starting your novel, in a single sitting, pulling out general ideas, and following the exercises to build the back-end of your novel. Secondly, read it a page at a time and consider everything being offered to you; write notes and study it.
Frankly, this book is an essential to everyone who wants to get their novel written.
For many, this is The Bible. The quintessential treatise on writing, written by a master.
On Writing is a memoir, analysing why Stephen King writes in the first section before moving on to tried and true writing advice. King provides not only the motivation but the theory of writing in incredible detail. In particular, his notes on dialogue and plot are illuminating.
In fact, it is so popular that much of the advice has become ubiquitous, so for many it will feel familiar, as countless articles have been written now, parroting the words of King. If nothing else, this will affirm what you know about writing.
Though not strictly a book on writing, this is an essential work in how stories are formed. Though sometimes critiqued by folklorists for its overly-broad strokes, this is an attempt to boil every story down to a raw workable formula.
Campbell’s writing should not be taken as gospel, however. Instead, this should work to inform only the most basic parts of your plot. You should use it to subvert and excite the reader by bending tradition on its head, but this can only be done by first understanding how a story is formed.
This is the book that shaped many Disney animations in the early Nineties, as well as Star Wars and The Matrix; iconic stories that define many of our early experiences of writing.
This is perhaps the most influential book on writing to have ever been produced. Originally compiled in the 1910s, this is a no-nonsense guide on writing. Though some of its message has become outdated, it is still highly recommended for its advice on brevity and clear, concise language.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of this is that it considers itself to be total, which gives it a prescriptive quality. As an informed writer, you will find yourself disagreeing with aspects of it, but therein lies the beauty of this. Often, it is the advice we most readily challenge that educates us most.
By the time Annie Dillard had written this book, she had already won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, so to say she knows what she’s talking about is evident. Yet, this is not a book on how to write. Instead, this is a book on how to live the life of a writer, how to build habits that inspire, and how to sit down every day and actually create something.
This is an Elements of Style for the soul of a writer, more than a guide on writing. This is a book for those days when the words won’t come and we feel like giving up. Time and time again, Dillard is a trusted colleague who has been through and seen everything we as writers face, and she has come out the other side better, stronger, and more willing to write.
This list by no means equates to the grant total of literary knowledge. There are plenty of guides worth exploring, from overarching works to others considered more specific in focus, and many I am yet to read. For example, Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction and James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel are both considered excellent; however, I couldn’t pass comment on them yet.
Of course, no guide could ever be perfect as the writer is, but every writer can become better. With the right guiding hands and a willingness to learn, that task is made easier.
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© 2018 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.