by Deborah Bailey
Books on writing are their own type of dangerous seduction. Reading them feels so productive, it’s easy to convince yourself that you are, in fact, working. Not that writing books are rubbish or wastes of time. On the contrary, there is much to be learned from books discussing writing craft. But as writers love to write about their favourite topic—and what’s more favoured than writing?—the sheer volume of how-to books out there threatens to make choosing the right ones a cat-waxing exercise all on its own. How do I know this? Uh, have you seen how shiny my cat is?
So let my procrastination be to your benefit. This (short!) list contains books that I’ve found particularly useful in writing narrative fiction. I’ve divided the list into three types: craft, conception, and the writer’s life.
Craft: Dealing with the Words on the Page
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King
This is a classic. Once you have your story down in draft form, the advice in this book will show you how to hone that rough draft into a polished piece. It covers everything from mechanics such as show versus tell, characterisation, dialogue, and exposition to the more ephemeral aspects of story beats, knowing when to cut, and voice.
However, despite such a nitty-gritty focus, this book is not a how-to for someone first picking up a pen. It requires a certain level of functional technical knowledge and, as the name indicates, is intended to guide the editing stage rather than the draft stage. But as “writing is re-writing”, advice focussed on this crucial stage detailing how to fix story problems makes this an invaluable volume.
Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain
This book breaks down the components of story in a manner that both is intuitive and logical—no easy feat! The transformation from idea into story is fraught: so many decisions, so many directions a story can go. At the same time, you need to consider pacing, tone, voice, and the ever-dreaded ‘what happens next’. Swain, a long-time writing teacher, deconstructs storytelling into its smallest component part—its atom, if you will—which he calls ‘the motivation-reaction unit’. Thinking of your story in terms of actions and reactions helps ensure that pace, character consistency, tension, and atmosphere are part of the story’s bedrock.
Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End, by Karl Iglesias
As a screenwriter, Iglesias brings the big-screen perspective of hooking the audience with emotion. He sees creating an emotional connection between characters and reader as a crucial element that makes a book “un-put-down-able,” and dissects this quality in amazing, incisive detail. He doesn’t focus on engineering blockbuster plot or larger-than-life characters but on presentation: how the order of scenes, the tone, the prose and descriptions, and the pace, all serve to hook the reader and drag him or her into the story world. It is an element that is often overlooked, so I believe this is well worth the bookshelf space.
Conception: Behind the Scenes
This also deserves its reputation as a classic. Kress, a long time writing teacher and writing advice columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, has decades of experience—and her expertise leaps off the page. She starts with external character traits, moves on to internals, then covers how to bring them together in a plot that allows characters to take on lives of their own. The book is easy to use, with helpful checklists and other exercises as well as myriad examples that demonstrate how small changes in personality can lead to big divergences on the page. The format also allows you to dip in and out as you need; you don’t have to read it cover to cover but can use it as a handbook as you work on a draft.
Writing the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling Client, by Donald Maass
Maass is a long-time New York powerhouse agent who wrote this book to help writers address what he identified as the most common story flaw, a perception honed from his slush pile: boring stories. Mechanics and voice, lovely characters and setting—these can lay dead on the page unless the story itself crackles. As noted editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden often says, “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” This book tells you how to whip up hurricanes, tornados or earthquakes of your own devising by starting right where it counts: the premise.
Maass uses examples and exercises (all the while urging you to write it now!) to help you transform a generic idea into a breakout premise that is original, captivating, and dynamic. But don’t think that this means you have to write pacey thrillers or twisty crime dramas. These techniques, based on creating well-rounded characters facing internal struggles mirrored and complicated by external challenges, work in all genres and styles of writing.
This lesser-known suggestion packs a wallop. When Kiteley, another long-time writing teacher, says uncommon, he means it. Unlike other exercises, the ones in this book are small, focusing on intricate, bite-size applications of techniques. At first they can seem strange, such as “write a 500 word scene told only in images, no dialogue or exposition,” or “write a 1000 word short story in which an alarm clock going off in the middle plays a crucial role.” But once you do a few and read his rationales, you realise that they are designed to get you thinking about and practicing specific crucial techniques. You will come out of this book able to understand story at a deeper level and feel much more in control of the words on the page by understanding how they operate on many levels. One of my first sales was of a story based on an exercise from this book.
The Writer’s Life, or Writers are Meat-bags Too
The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
Supposedly, there are two types of writers: those that can’t stop writing, and those that hate writing. This book is aimed mostly at the latter though is invaluable for anyone who sometimes faces a struggle settling down to the page, and can be called a classic for all the right reasons. Pressfield kicks ass and takes names and gets you back on the page, even if kicking and screaming, where you fall in love with writing all over again. Read it every morning if you have to—though he’d call this Resistance—and get back where you belong, spilling your soul, one word at a time.
A dancer’s instrument is her body, a singer’s, her voice. But what is the writer’s instrument—besides the pen, of course? The brain. Julia Cameron offers an inspiring volume that helps you keep your instrument in top shape. She covers issues from getting into the writing habit, discovering what you really want to say, and developing confidence in your right to write, to getting over blocks and avoiding burnout by taking time to “re-fill the well”. Whether you are looking for practical tips on the writer’s lifestyle or just want to settle down with what reads like a conversation with a much-smarter friend who can offer advice from the trenches, this book can jump-start or re-invigorate your creative muse.
So there you go. Some wonderful books to help you break through whatever writing obstacles are currently bedevilling you. And if your cat ends up as nicely waxed as mine, at least you’ll have plenty of new skills to write about it in an engaging way!
[Editor’s note: why not add your favourite writing books in the comments…]
Deborah Bailey is a freelance writer and editor who works on both fiction and non-fiction. You can read her most recent work in the upcoming Cosmic Vegetable: An Anthology of Humorous Science Fiction. She blogs at fourgreensquares.wordpress.com.