I was recently asked to recommend some books on how to write and on any related topics. I started to trot out the obvious suggestions, then realised there was actually a real trove of material out there. So here, with some short comments, are my top suggestions.
Let’s get the two most obvious ones out of the way to start!
My book on How To Write gets excellent reader-feedback and is a text I’m very pleased with. If you can’t learn from this, then I think you must already be very skilled – or possibly very stupid. It’s also the most complete book of its kind. It doesn’t pick out one single aspect of technique or pretend that you can learn how to write in a couple of months. It’s a big, meaty, book on every part of a writer’s toolkit.
The Getting Published one is showing its vintage a little bit now. The material on self-publishing would read very differently these days. Indeed, these days, I’d probably self-publish the damn thing and not go via a publisher at all, which is a funny comment to make about a “Getting Published” book. That said, it’s still a very reliable guide to regular publishing and the strange world of Planet Agent.
3. On writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King
I’m not a Stephen King fan, but this is an honest, good and interesting book – and I know it has legions of fans. For me, the most striking part was King’s list of the books he read in a given year. That list is very intelligent and eclectic and goes to show that good writers, even commercial ones, simply can’t read too much or too well.
4. Story, by Robert McKee
A book for screenwriters, but still one of the best analyses around. I do find the book a bit annoying – and my brother who went to one of McKee’s weekend workshops said he found the guy VERY annoying – but still: you don’t have to marry him – and this book belongs in the pantheon, no question.
Both key texts for the new generation of self-pub. David’s book should be read in conjunction with his Let’s Get Visible – also an excellent primer. The strategies in the Write. Publish. Repeat book won’t work for most writers. Those authors’ basic mantra is to write heaps and heaps of material and build a career as much from the volume of output as from its quality. I can’t, as something of a purist myself, really get excited about that approach, but you still need to read the book. It’s got a lot to say, and it’s usually right.
7. Aspects of the Novel, by EM Forster
8. 10 Rules of writing, by Elmore Leonard
9. The Simple Art of Murder, by Raymond Chandler
10. The Art of the Novel, by Milan Kundera
11. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
These aren’t really how-to guides, or not useful ones anyway. The Chandler essay (and it’s only an essay, not a book) is a vastly important milestone in the development of crime fiction: a manifesto for a new age, and a manifesto that has echoed well beyond the walls of that genre.
The Elmore Leonard piece isn’t even an essay. It’s a brief (and somewhat tongue in cheek) list of suggestions. You could probably break all of Leonard’s rules and do just fine – and indeed, I do quite often break them.
But it’s important to read what writers have to say about writing – and a variety of writers at that. (Hence the Kundera, Nabokov and the EM Forster.) You won’t always agree and you don’t have to. The important thing is that you run the arguments in your head.
12. How Fiction Works, by James Wood
Wood is arguably today’s most influential critic – and he writes beautifully. My comment above that you need to run the arguments in your head applies here too. Wood’s book offers a personal and partial view. (He loves sentences and doesn’t, astonishingly, even mention story.) But he’s so good that his partial is worth most people’s everything.
13.Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss
Not really the how-to book that most people think it is. But it’s still fun and still worth a look.
Both books are part of a new wave of popular neuroscience. I prefer the Lehrer book, which is not specifically about writing but which is, for my money, very illuminating indeed about the creative process. But if you like something with more how-to-ish ambition, you’ll certainly get more from Cron’s book.
16.The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr.
17.Reading like a Writer, by Francine Prose
18.Word Painting, by Rebecca McClanahan
19.The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
20.Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein
Then, in a cluster, some other favourite books of mine. Sol Stein was a very respected editor (as well as being a novelist himself). The Stein on Writing is his attempt to set down the rules by which he’s lived. It was the first how-to book of this sort that I read, and I still have a soft spot for it, although the tone can be a little self-important at times.
The Julia Cameron is an approach to creativity more than, directly, a how-to-write-a-bestseller type book. But it’s lovely and has a good heart.
The same sort of comments go for the Word Painting and Reading like a Writer books. Both well-written, thoughtful and gently inspiring. Elmore Leonard would presumably want to kill Rebecca McClanahan, but I’d be on Rebecca’s side, so it would be two against one.
As for the Strunk – well, ya gotta have it on a list like this.
And finally, some other books that have, at the very least, been thought-provoking and helpful onces for me:
- Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell
- Steal Like An Artist, by Austin Kleon
- The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
- Outlining your Novel, by KM Weiland
- Where Do You Get Your Ideas?, by Fred White
- From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler
- A Dash of Style, by Noah Lukeman
- The 4 a.m. Breakthrough, by Brian Kitely
- Nail Your Novel, by Roz Morris
- The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp