Gary Gibson is the author of six science fiction novels for Pan Macmillan, the latest of which, Final Days, was published in August. The sequel, The Thousand Emperors, will be published in 2012. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
Every time I put together an assessment of a manuscript for Writer’s Workshop, I always include a list of recommended reading. I make the point to each client that the report they’re reading is really the start of a long journey, and that if they want to improve as writers they need to study a variety of writing techniques.
One of the things you learn when you become a professional writer is that you never stop learning, and while I still learn much from reading novels with a writerly mind, I do still, even several books into a career, buy and read books about writing. It helps me actively think about the process of writing, and it’s often a good way to psyche myself up for a day’s work. And it’s not just books I read; there are vast online resources related to writing that simply didn’t exist when I first started sending out short stories and joining writer’s groups back in the early Nineties. Sometimes reading about how other people approach writing gives me just the kick I need to get into a working frame of mind – and as displacement activities go, it’s at least a useful and pertinent one.
Without further ado, here’s the list of further reading I most often recommend to my clients – with a slight bias towards sf and fantasy, since that’s the field I work in.
Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
Ten rules of writing, by one of the most vigorous and productive crime writers of the past several decades. The advice is blunt, straightforward and incredibly useful. Print it out. Pin it to your wall. Staple it to your forehead.
Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (inspired by Leonard’s essay):
This follow-up to Elmore Leonard’s essay first appeared in The Guardian newspaper, and provides a take from several different authors on their own top ten rules of writing. There’s a lot of crossover.
Donald Maass on beginning writers
Donald Maass runs the Maass Literary agency, one of the leading agencies in New York. He handles dozens of authors writing all types of fiction. Even better, he’s a successful fiction author himself – so when he talks about the mistakes beginning writers make, you can rest assured he knows exactly what he’s taking about.
Jerry Gross on Common Mistakes
Jerry Gross is is the Editor of the standard work on editing in as it’s done in the US, ‘Editors on Editing: What Writers Need To Know About What Editors Do’. Again, the advice is straightforward, blunt, and absolutely correct. Ignore such advice at your peril.
Robert Sawyer (sf writer) on how to write
Robert Sawyer is a Canadian sf author whose novels regularly hit the bestseller lists. As is often the case, his advice is universal, regardless of what type of fiction you choose to write. Through the links provided here, you can find his thoughts on a variety of approaches to authoring short stories and novels, ranging from ‘great beginnings’ to ‘points of view’ and ‘Heinlein’s Rules’.
Io9.com‘s advice on writing
Io9 is part of the Gawker family of blogs, and focuses on news related to science fiction and fantasy books, movies and related events and products. But it also has a strand of often excellent advice on writing, much of it provided by Charlie Jane Anders; the above link will take you to a number of these articles. There are dozens available, stretching back over the last couple of years, including How Not To Be a Clever Writer, Avoid These 20 Common Grammar Mistakes and Tips For Writing Your NaNoWriMo novel. It can take some scrolling to find the most useful essays, but nonetheless there’s a bucketload of good advice hidden away in here.
BOOKS ON WRITING
Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, by Dianne Wynne Jones
This is the only book on this list I haven’t actually read, but it’s spoken of in such hushed tones in sf and fantasy circles I couldn’t possibly leave it out. It’s framed as an A-Z tour-guide to every trope and cliché to be found in fantasy novels, including: the importance of cloaks in your quest, why beer is always foaming, and how to deal with barbarian hordes.
On Writing, by Stephen King
What do you mean, you haven’t read this book? One of the biggest-selling authors of the 20th Century offers an incredibly readable, semi-autobiographical take on the art of writing that should probably be your first stop when it comes to authorial advice.
Getting The Words Right, by Theodore Cheney
A must-buy that guides the reader through the mechanics of constructing sentences, paragraphs and chapters to create writing that is lucid, clear, logical, precise and, ultimately, publishable. A lot of beginning writers aren’t really clear on how to properly construct a sentence, and this book should be high on their list of acquisitions.
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
I first heard of Donald Maass’s books on writing after discovering a few of my own favourite authors held them in very high regard – which struck me as a huge recommendation, since many of those authors were themselves at the top of their game and frequently on the New York Times bestseller lists, an achievement they credit at least in part to Maass’s advice. Even though these books are aimed not so much at beginning writers as at authors who have already scored a publishing deal but want to achieve greater commercial success, I would be hard pushed to find better and more cogent advice for writers at any level. Each chapter looks at various famous or bestselling novels, analysing them in order to see what made each such a breakout success.
Science Fiction 101, edited by Robert Silverberg
More than just another anthology of classic short sf stories, what makes this really stand out is that each story is followed by an essay written by Silverberg, where he discusses in detail not only what effect the story had on him when he first read it as a young man, but how he subsequently picked it apart in order to learn how to improve his own writing. Given that he’s one of the sf field’s leading lights and was crowned a GrandMaster of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America (sfwa.org), his analysis is not to be ignored.
The book opens with a lengthy opening essay perhaps thirty thousand words in length, essentially autobiographical, detailing his systematic attempts to become first a published writer, then a hugely successful one. Silverberg went to extraordinary lengths in order to really understand on a very, very deep level just what it was the writers he admired had done in order to succeed as well as they did. Even if you only read the opening essay, you will learn a huge amount.
Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyons
This book is aimed at the writer who’s just completed their first draft, and details the best approach to redrafting and rewriting your novel. I refer to it frequently.
Dynamic Characters, by Nancy Kress
Nancy is an award-winning sf writer who’s written a number of general how-to books for Writer’s Digest Books in the States. I particularly like this one.
Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, by Alexandra Sokoloff
Sokoloff was a script reader and script ‘doctor’ for a number of years, and also produced a handful of successful screenplays, after which she turned to writing novels that regularly hit the bestseller lists. She attributes that success to things she learned while working in Hollywood. It’s good, thought-provoking stuff, especially in regards to story construction.
There’s also a free ebook available on writing that’s worth checking out:
Write Good or Die
My parting advice is: buy all of these. Read them all. Then read them again. Then spend the next three years reading a novel a week. Then read all of the above again. If it doesn’t make you a much better writer than you were before you started out, I’ll hand in my plastic Spock ears.