There are very few books about writing that offer real, useful, functional writing advice. The vast majority contain an esoteric blend of psycho-babble and intangible rules that leave the reader full of self-doubt. And there is nothing that will put the brakes on your writing faster than questioning what you’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for satiating one’s thirst for knowledge. But if you were trying to build a chair and all you could find were books that said things like: clear time for building every day – but if you can’t build think about building, or use whatever type of joining substance feels right for you, you’d give up on the chair thing pretty quickly. While I believe it’s impossible to teach anyone to be a great writer (greatness is an independent endeavour), you can at least teach them the function of writing. So on that note, I have a few favourite books that can help you lay the foundation for a solid writing practice.
1. Story Structure Architect – Victoria Lynn Schmidt
This book is a true user manual for writing. In addition to being full of useful information, it is accessible. The author, Victoria Lynn Schmidt has a Ph.D, but don’t let that put you off, it’s not crammed full of big words and bigger ideas, it is written to be used. And if you get it, use it you will. It outlines the consistently recurring story structures in every classic story and great work ever written, with Schmidt acting as a bit of a myth-buster removing the shroud of mystery around dramatic structure. She provides practical models for motifs, plots, and characters and guidelines for combining them to make them your own. She gives a methodology for building compelling stories with character journeys that contain stakes and conflicts, and explains how to create subplots, plan dramatic situations, and develop realistic supporting characters that advance the story.
2. On Writing – Stephen King
If you have ever taken a writing class, or been to a workshop, or stumbled blindly through the reference section of the bookstore looking for something to teach you how to get your story out of your head and onto the page, you’ve heard of On Writing. It’s kind of the I Ching of the craft. Part memoir, part instructional manual, Stephen King uses his own experiences to impart practical wisdom to aspiring writers. I have recommended this book to just about every writer I know. Some have turned their noses up at the mention of Stephen King, but they have all come back saying they were wrong. Not only is King a master storyteller and prolific writer, his first career was as a high school English teacher. Come on! He is an expert in his field who was literally trained to explain things…to teenagers. I can’t say anything else. Just go get this book.
3. Steering The Craft – Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is a Sci-fi writer. Like most sci-fi writers I know, she is logical, sensible, frighteningly intelligent. As such his book is not for the faint-of-heart. From the first page Le Guin makes it very clear that this book is not for beginners. She says flat out in the introduction: “it is not for beginners.” She’s right. This book is for veterans. People who have been to workshops, and classes, and seminars, people who have read other writing books and manuals, people who have been fed nonsense principles and arbitrary rules. This book essentially un-teaches you how to write. Her entire premise revolves around Le Guin’s belief that “The important thing for a writer is to know what you’re doing with your language and why.” That it is a writers “moral duty to use language thoughtfully and well.” The chapter titles are a great insight into the book’s intent: The Sound of Your Writing, Punctuation, Sentence Length and Complex Syntax, Repetition, Adjective and Adverb, Subject Pronoun and Verb, Point of View and Voice, Changing Point of View, Indirect Narration, or What Tells, Crowding and Leaping. Don’t be put off, Steering The Craft explains the why’s of writing in plain language and offers well thought out exercises to drive home the learning.
4. The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
John Gardner’s tone in this book is, well, arrogant. In fact I hesitate to recommend The Art of Fiction because that can be hard for people to get over. But I like it for a very specific reason. His arrogance comes in handy when he runs through the long list of writing mistakes he says distract from the “dream” that should be your story. He analyzes and explains the impact of clumsy prose, needless explanation, sentimentality, mannerism, and frigidity – something he says “occurs in fiction whenever the author reveals that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be.” His irritation at these infractions is palpable and makes you feel like you should not ever do those things or Gardner will find you and reprimand you personally (or would if he was still alive). He does deal with structure, tone, pace, poetic rhythm, and other building block topics, but it’s really the what not to do that makes this book worth the read.
5. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
There are more critics of this book than I care to mention. People have called it stuffy, dry, and pedantic, old fashioned. Those people can suck it. In my opinion, every writer should read this book. I will say that again. Every. Writer. Should. Read. This. Book. It covers the basics: usage, composition, and form, but it goes beyond that. The importance of writing in the active voice, being concise with words, and using appropriate grammar and punctuation are discussed. And while, yes, Strunk and White are rigid, even prescriptive, in their methodologies, they need to be. It is critical that as a group of people all doing the same thing, we recognize that there are rules. I’ll go back to my chair example. If we are all trying to build chairs but doing it in a vacuum, making up the process for ourselves, what would happen? Some people would end up on their butts, that’s what. That’s not to say you can’t change the rules or use them in a different way, I mean look at Eames for example, he made chairs art. But he was a master craftsman before he innovated. At the end of the day you in order to write well, you need to respect and understand the basic functions of writing, including The Elements of Style.