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Books on Writing

Which books should you buy?

When I first started writing, I just wrote. Thousands and thousands of words, some of them good and some of them downright cringeworthy. I poured out the story that’d lived in my head, without structure, pace, or any of the other considerations an author puts into their work. And it didn’t matter – the book was for me and one or two others who fell in love with it. That novel will never see the light of day, but I’ll always be glad I wrote it because it made me realise what I wanted to do with my life. Since then, I’ve invested a lot of time and money in my craft and, again, some of it has been worthwhile and some of it hasn’t. I did buy a lot of books; books on writing, books on editing, reference books, etc. Of course, I encourage any fiction writer to immerse themselves in the cornucopia of wonderful stories out there. Read as much as you can and be prepared to have it influence you. Use it is a learning experience, try out different styles, types of narration, perspectives, tenses, and see where it takes you. With that said, this blog is about books which specifically aid your writing. It’s not even close to an exhaustive list but an insight into some of those I found particularly helpful.

1. On Writing by Stephen King

We all know Mr King is a master storyteller, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how engaging and funny this book was but, not only is it both of those things, it’s a rich guide for any writer. Much of the first section is King talking about his childhood, how he began writing and where his influences came from. I get the impression he was always destined to be a writer, unlike me who found it later in life. He speaks about criticism, how to deal with it and, most importantly, not to ignore it. His experiences will be different from yours, and not everything that works for him will work for you. You may differ from his opinion on adverbs or dialogue tags – though, personally, I agree – but his advice comes from a wealth of experience and it’s worth taking heed. What he truly imparts is the dedication and perseverance it takes to be a writer, no matter the size of your audience.

2. How Fiction Works by James Woods

This book was recommended to me by someone who knows a lot about writing, and it’s well worth a read. I don’t agree with absolutely everything he says, but he always argues his point eloquently. It covers everything from the influence of Flaubert in the modern narrative to types of narration to character development. There’s a lovely section on habitual vs dynamic detail, with samples from some of the best writers literature has to offer. If you need to brush up on free indirect style, this book offers some detailed instruction and takes you through several examples. The book talks consistently about the importance of realism in writing, compares a variety of different writing styles, and highlights the little things which can turn a good writer into a great one. He ends the book by saying “The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.” I love this sentence.

3. How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark

200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published. This book documents the hazards of writing, from using clichés to falling into overused tropes and generally writing a load of unpublishable drivel. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll see plenty of books out there which have a few of these ‘deadly sins’ and the advice inside the pages isn’t gospel, but it’s a great place to start. It follows a logical progression, starting with plot and ending with ‘how not to sell a novel’. The humorous style is a welcome touch – it had me laughing out loud in a few places – and doesn’t detract from the key messages, which is how to dodge those rookie errors and write a book you can get out into the world. Be prepared to see some of your mistakes as you go through and try to remember it’s good news. You can fix them before you press that submit button. There’s one chance at a first impression, so make it count.

4. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

This is the first in a series of reference books, followed by ones on positive traits, negative traits, urban settings, rural settings and emotional wounds. How often do writers talk about showing and not telling? All the time. These books help you to think about how people act and move, those tell-tale characteristics which indicate how a person is feeling without having to spell it out. Sure, you could say Protagonist A was sad, but wouldn’t it be better to describe how she pulled her arms into herself and looked at the floor? The outcome is more or less the same, but the reader feels part of the scene. As a writer, your end goal should always be to immerse the reader in your world and keep them turning those pages. Believable, relatable characters are key to maintaining interest, and that’s where the positive and negative traits thesauruses come in and, to a greater extent, the emotional wound thesaurus. These books will help you develop your character arc and have personalities which jump out of the page.

5. The Writer’s Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann

Descriptions, overused words and taboos. It’s right there on the cover and it does exactly as it says. I find I use this book less now, but in my earlier days I used it a lot. It’s easy to fall into ‘that’ and ‘was’ and ‘very’ – we use it in speech all the time and probably don’t notice. When you’re reading it on the page, it stands out and gets repetitive, not to mention jarring. If you read this book, I’m sure you’ll find yourself guilty of such old tunes as ‘She started to …’ and ‘He began to …’ Steinemann shows you how to have your characters do, rather than start, strengthening your writing. Redundancies are my pet hate; knelt down, assemble together, earlier in time (you get the idea). The book has a list of these to read, remember and avoid. Other helpful sections include overused punctuation and sensory words to help your story reach out and touch the reader. Bottom line? There are over 170,000 words in the English language – you can find the perfect one.

6. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

Editing is a difficult task and a skill different from getting those words down on the page. As a writer, I know I can be precious about my prose – everything is important, or you’ve got that beautiful sentence you just can’t bear to cut – but paring down is essential. Both authors are professional editors and their book passes down advice based on years of experience. It starts with an explanation of ‘show and tell’, something almost all writers are guilty of in a first draft (that’s when we get down every little thing in our heads), and walks the reader through some examples. Later chapters include point of view, dialogue mechanics, interior monologue and voice, among others. Common pitfalls and rookie mistakes are highlighted and the advice on how to overcome them is straightforward and simple to follow. At the end of each section, there are exercises to complete; a little DIY activity to test your newly acquired editing skills. If you’re stuck or want confirmation, their answers are in the appendix.

7. New Hart’s Rules by The Oxford Style Guide

This book is an essential for the British writer. Grammar is complex, and at times, murky, and navigating syntax can be a challenge. When you send your manuscript off to an agent, a publisher, or even an editor, you want it to be as good as it can possibly be, and you want it to represent you in the best light. I don’t doubt there will be changes to make, but the closer you can get to an industry standard, the better. This book answers all those niggling questions. When to use an en dash, em dash or hyphen? Should there be a space between a word and ellipses? How are films, songs or references presented in the book? Italics? There are some writers out there who choose to buck the trend when it comes to grammar and punctuation; Irvine Welsh is famous for it. Personally, I like my grammar and I refer to this gem whenever I’m not quite sure.

I hope you enjoyed my list and, if you’re on the hunt for some books to help you write, found what you were looking for. There are thousands of books on writing out there, so if you have a favourite or would like to share a recommendation, please add it in the comments section.

5 Comments

  1. Em says:

    A few here have gone straight on my wishlist.
    I’m glad you enjoyed How Not To Write A Novel, it’s a great book.
    Awesome post x

  2. Viola Bleu says:

    This is absolutely awesome and I ordered a copy of ‘How Not To Write A Novel’ from eBay before I’d even finished reading your post 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

  3. Thanks, guys. It means so much to know I’m helping others find good books. Hope you enjoy. X

  4. Kate Kenzie says:

    Maybe I should give Stephen King another ago. I gave up early on when he was talking about his life. I am pleased to have some of your suggestions on my bookcase and others are on my wish list now. Thank you

  5. Jennifer says:

    A few here I haven’t got, a tbr list growing 🙂

    Thank you. x

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