I recently had a discussion about books on writing with some esteemed colleagues (as opposed to steamed colleagues which is a whole different story about an unfortunate sauna experience that I won’t go into now). I’m in two minds about books on writing:
1. They can be invaluable tools for learning the trade of storytelling and word-smithing, particularly for people who have not had a creative writing “education”; and
2. Stop reading them and start writing.
I think the second point is the bigger key for development as a writer. I’ve been involved in quite a few different writer’s groups and meetings of assorted creative types over the last few years and there’s only been two or three that I’ve found useful. That’s because most writer’s groups are full of people who love to talk about writing, think about writing and talk about themselves as writers, what they never do is shut up and write. I’m a terrible cook, I’ll happily admit that, but I’m also well aware that my cooking is not going to improve if I sit in the kitchen and talk to the oven about the finer points of the culinary process.
So, if we put aside the understanding that to improve your writing you must write, let’s come back to the books. There is certainly a place for books on writing and they can be instrumental in helping you refine your writing chops. The problem is that there is half an Amazon worth of paper dedicated to books of this type, not to mention the flood of ebooks on the topic, so how do you pick the trees worth pulping, or the billions of electrons that should be horribly inconvenienced to serve time as your writing aid?
I thought, after the conversations I’ve had lately, that this addition to the Good Stuff blog could be dedicated to my top five books on writing. These books are the ones I have found myself going back to repeatedly and provide real guidance on various aspects of writing.
5. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Sin and Syntax, as it proudly declares, is ‘for writers who need more spunk than Strunk.’ We all know that language evolves, and today it seems to be evolving at an ever quickening pace, this book serves as your grammar guide updated for the 21st century, so you can forget dusting off your old copy of Strunk and White, as influential as that book obviously was it doesn’t really know LOL from ROFL.
With Sin and Syntax Hale has created a book of syntax that is both extremely valuable from a nuts and bolts grammar perspective as well as discussing the way we can break the rules to good effect, from discussions on the much-over-used-but-still-great hyphenated description to how you’re gonna use casual words in differing contexts.
The big winning point for me though is that this book is a grammar guide that I enjoyed reading, it is also relatively simple while still providing all the necessary guidelines of grammar.
4. On Writing by Stephen King
Part biography, part reflection and part instruction I’ve included Stephen King’s On Writing in my top books on writing because it is inspiration and guidance packaged up and delivered from one of the world’s most successful authors. King spends time discussing his writing method, one that involves little planning – a concept that I am terrified of and could never see myself adapting - but he is very open in indicating that every writer is different and that is just what works for him.
Where this book shines is in the tiny details, the little nuggets of writing gold that King shares. Reading this book feels like you’ve won the chance to sit down and chat with Stephen King over a beer as he dispenses the lessons he has learned along the writing path.
The autobiographical sections of the book are hugely enjoyable in their own right as King tells the story of his brush with death when he was struck by a van, his battle with drugs and alcohol and his journey from struggling writer to household name.
3. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
Number three on the list goes to Roy Peter Clark’s book of short ‘factoids’ for writers. I had heard many good things about this book (just look at the reviews on Amazon for an indication of the hype it gets) so I decided to pick it up and have a read. At first I was unsure of the value of a book full of short dots points on writing, I mean I was looking for real hard-hitting discussion of the art of writing not ‘The Little Writer’s Book of Fun Facts’ but once I started reading the book it turned around and smacked me over the head with the cricket bat of value again and again, 50 times in fact.
From the very beginning Roy Peter Clark sells writing to the reader as a craft that can be learned, ‘tools not rules’ is what Roy Peter Clark says he will give, and he delivers. Each of the 50 strategies presented in sections ranging from ‘Nuts and Bolt’ to ‘Useful Habits’ are strong and concise. Some of the points Roy Peter Clark discusses are probably well known to you but it is always good to get hit over the head again every now and then.
2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is a book that strips story back to its very core. It is a discussion of mythic structure, the fundamental story stages and archetypes that have existed ever since men started making things up and telling each other. It will show you why Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has the same fundamental elements as Star Wars, why Beowulf is like Casablanca, why stories from mythology and movies are so similar.
Christopher Vogler’s work is heavily based on the Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell. It is a book about story structure that delves deep into not only how you can structure stories but why certain story elements hit the very heart of what it is to be human. For me this book required two readings, almost straight after each other, to grasp just how massive the role of story is within the human spirit. This book goes a long way to helping you learn how to harness the elements necessary to create stories that are equal parts refreshing and timeless.
1. Story by Robert McKee
And in at numero uno, taking top spot in my five favourite books on writing is Robert McKee’s Story. For those of you who have read this book I’m sure it’s no surprise. It is the reigning, undisputed, heavyweight champion of books on story structure. Of all the books I’ve discussed in this list, this is the one that gets opened again and again. If I hit a snag with my story’s structure or with my characters I often open this book and start reading.
This is a book on screenwriting, that’s what it will tell you on the cover, and while McKee is a screenwriter and the book discusses story in terms of film and uses films as examples it really is a book applicable to any form of story, be it film, novels, plays, comics or interpretive dance (perhaps). McKee’s book is insight after insight on story. If you’re a novelist you can ignore the screenwriting references and this book will still teach you more about story than any other book out there. When you read this book you realise, quite simply, that Robert McKee knows more than you.
Not only does Robert McKee know story, he knows how to explain it in an engaging and informative way. This book does not, like so many books on writing, discuss story on a wishy-washy level as if they don’t actually want to give the secrets away: plot occurs because of conflict, characters should be active, show don’t tell, kill your pumpkins…whatever. McKee instead explains what this MEANS in practice. His discussion on story being ‘in the gap’ is still the best piece of story advice I have read. Characters set out to achieve something, they take an action they think will achieve that goal but a gap opens between their expectation and the result, it is in that gap that character is born, that conflict is born, that STORY is born.
This book is the bible of storytelling for a reason.
So that’s my top five books on the craft of writing that sit, dog-eared and worn, on the shelf beside my writing desk. If you’re interested in improving your writing go and read them, absorb them with your giant brain sponge and then stop talking to the oven and start tapping that keyboard.