From writing craft to writing fears, a few books I’ve found helpful in the writing journey.
A friend recently asked for the title of a book I’d mentioned on the craft of writing—it turned out to be 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham. (Not 28, as I’d told her—turns out I was making even more mistakes than I thought!) She wanted to order the book for her daughter, who’s completed her first novel—at age 16.
While researching the title, I came across a slew of other worthy additions to a writer’s bookshelf. Books on writing are generally divided into two categories: how-to (craft) or motivation. Both are essential, in my view, yet some writers need one more than the other. I know writers who pay hardly any attention to craft, and still succeed, while others have all the craft knowledge in the world yet struggle to put words on the page every single day.
The other thing I’ve noticed is the change in form. These days, many writing instructors prefer to give workshops, either online or in person, rather than write how-to books. There are also many, many blogs that regularly publish writing advice.
Yet there is no replacement for a good, solid how-to manual on the craft of writing.
If there’s a writer, either budding or experienced, on your Christmas list, here are a few of my favorite writerly books, many suggested by writers I queried in an effort to help my friend chose a writing guide for her daughter. I read all of them, in the early days when I didn’t know a scene from a sequel, or a beat from a black moment, and some I’ve reread several times— the mark of a useful how-to book, oddly enough, is that you can’t really understand it all in one go.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes is available at both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Pro-tip: You’ll want to have applied the advice in this book BEFORE you send your work to an editor.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Again, the advice on editing here is crucial if you want to submit your work to editors. Don’t give them a reason to reject your novel or short story when you can so easily fix what’s wrong.
Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein. This one’s for more advanced writers, but beginning writers can learn a lot from it too. I read this book three times, each time learning more as I became more adept at the craft of writing. The bits that made no sense in the beginning became clear a few years later, with more writing experience under my pen. Stein has written several other writing craft books, and I’d recommend them all.
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. Don’t be put off by the title; this book is full of advice for anyone writing a novel, regardless of your goals. (And if you say you don’t care if your novel “breaks out” or not, I call bullshit. Everyone would like to see their name on the New York Times bestseller list. This book offers solid advice on how to get it there.)
Get That Novel Written, by Donna Levin, was one of the first books on writing I read. From the first chapter: “We all know that it’s impossible to distill the magic of novels into a few simple rules. But we have to start somewhere.” This book is as good a place to start as any.
Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Theodore Cheney. How-to writers are fond of numbers—this time 39, which refers to the second edition of this book. I have the earlier version, subtitled “How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise.” Either way, this book helps those in the advanced stages of revision, because “the secret to all good writing is revision.” Not just novelists, but writers of all stripes—including corporate wordsmiths— will benefit from this book.
The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. Don’t laugh; this book proved to be invaluable when it came to crafting funny dialogue and witty narrative. Yes, you can learn how to be funnier, if not downright funny. Remember, readers (including editors) love to laugh, even if the subject matter is dark, so why not learn how to make that happen?
These books are more about motivation than craft:
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is a classic. The title refers to the process of breaking down a big project (a report on “all the birds”) into manageable pieces. If you want to be entertained, motivated and downright tickled by a wise writer’s account of the writing life, get this book.
If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. Another classic, though not as well known as Bird by Bird. Yet at least a couple of authors suggested it to me, which tells me I wasn’t the only would-be writer it made an impression on. Although the book was first published in 1938, the advice is timeless, which explains why it’s still in print. (And at $3.99 on Kindle, it’s a bargain.)
The Courage to Write, by Ralph Keyes. I hesitated to list this one, because it’s so personal. Reading this book made me think the author had taken a peek into my mind and spied the sheer terror that lurks there. If you want to write but lack the courage, this book might just help you, or at least convince you you’re not the only one.
Another idea: Why not give the writer in your life the gift of a workshop?
A lot of writers these days swear by the workshops taught by Margie Lawson. The bad news is, they’re all given in the United States—a bit far for some of us to travel. The good news is, she offers lecture packets for $22 a set. I purchased the one on writing body language and dialogue cues and found new ways to liven up those stale, but necessary, bits of body maneuvering. For the very craft-oriented writer—Margie assumes you already have all the motivation and plot-direction you need.
A personal recommendation: Discovering Story Magic, by Robin Perini and Laura Baker. I was lucky enough to know these two award-winning writers when I lived in New Mexico, and have participated in both their online classes as well as their in-person day-long workshops. Their techniques teach even us pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants, rather than plot via an outline) how to figure out what comes next in our story by knowing what drives our characters. They use popular films to deconstruct character and plot, making their presentation entertaining as well as informative. For beginning as well as advanced writers.
Robert McKee’s Story Seminars are highly regarded, especially for screenwriters. The seminar is billed as “an opportunity to apply classic story design – the kind that has resulted in masterpieces of all kinds – to your own cinematic, theatrical or literary premise.” And it probably succeeds with that, but as a non-plotter, I have trouble relating to his technique. If traveling to his seminar is too far/expensive/daunting, try his book, Story. Although I found it confusing, I know writers who got a lot from it—admittedly, they were advanced writers who studied craft as if it were particle physics.
And finally, what movie would I recommend to writers?
I watched Adaptation with a group of my writer friends, and we howled with laughter (much to the annoyance of our fellow movie-goers) during most of the film. It’s about a screenwriter’s attempt to adapt the book The Orchid Thief to film, and features a scene from one of Robert McKee’s workshops (see above). Everyone who’s struggled with writing will relate to the scenes of Nicolas Cage dealing with writers’ block, but more importantly, will laugh out loud at the self-referential “adaptation” that results.
And frankly, if you can’t laugh at the process of writing, you’re not going to last long in this business.