Today at the Olympics, Great Britain has won a gold medal in show jumping and later on has a good chance of another track cycling gold, too. It sounds like that old Australian joke about Team GB only winning medals in the sitting-down sports, but of course this year that has not been the case at all, with plenty of deliciously exciting track and field successes already.
I’m still enjoying Haruki Murakami’s excellent book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and in the light of that excellent book I have another sitting-down sport to propose: novel writing. I have blogged before on the importance of physical exercise to writers, but have never fully appreciated that novel writing in itself is like a form of manual labour! Over to Murakami:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process – sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track – requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s gruelling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.
(What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Vintage Books, 2009, p.81-82)
I can see it now. Individual novel writing. Team novel writing. Synchronized novel writing. Welterweight novel writing. Can we get the IAAF on board in time for Rio?
Writing comes easily to some, less so to others. I have heard the two species of writers described as ‘gushers’ or ‘bleeders’. I am definitely among the bleeders – a daily target of 1000 words is like a daily Everest to climb. But I have been encouraged this week by reading Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s an odd and wonderful little book, a very personal collection of musings about running and novel writing, two daily disciplines which Murakami has woven into his life. Here is Murakami’s take on gushers and bleeders. If you’re a bleeder, take heart!
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do – or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin another novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I noticed one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.
These events bring to my mind one of the strongest scenes in the Bourne Identity film (indeed, in the whole Bourne franchise to date) – the scene at the American Embassy in Paris. Bourne cluelessly seeks refuge there, but finds out that it is not the safe haven he had imagined. His arrival is memorable – Parisian cops outside baying for blood and being restrained by American security officials as Bourne slinks inside. His exit even more so – he is relying purely on his instincts and his training as he procures an agent’s headset, consults the Evacuation Plan from the wall of the corridor and makes his way cool-ly to the roof. Fantastic stuff.
Interestingly, the whole embassy scene is an addition to the original Robert Ludlum novel. In the novel, Bourne does not go to the American embassy in Paris – he goes straight from the bank to the hotel, where he meets Marie, or rather takes her hostage. Well done to the writers of the screenplay for conceiving the embassy scene and setting up one of the best action sequences in film history ever (yes EVER, I went there!)
When I am writing a thriller I start by writing character profiles and then go on to put together the plot as a series of set pieces. When I was outlining the novel OUTLAW, I had the idea for the embassy scene before any of the others. I won’t go into detail because the scenes in question come near the end of the book and would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that embassies (and the Treaty of Vienna which protects them from any ‘violation of dignity’) carry vast potential for tension, drama and conflicts of interest. In the stories of Jason Bourne, Julian Assange and Yakuuba Sor, the drama is heightened because we are seeing our protagonist at his most vulnerable – one man taking refuge in a fragile shell of a building, protected only by a few sentences of diplomatic legalese, whilst the fiercest of tempests is gathering outside. ‘Chase your character up a tree, and then throw stones at him,’ goes the thriller-writing adage. Refuge is temporary – our man is about to be battered by the full force of the Receiving State.
Here’s hoping that Julian is intimately familiar with the layout of the Ecuador embassy – or at least knows where the Evacuation Plan is pinned.
Updates (29 July 2012)
1. It was the Zurich embassy, not the Paris embassy. Bourne told Marie to drive to Paris from there. (Incidentally, there is no US embassy in Zurich – only a consulate!)
2. Broadly speaking, I am not pro-Assange. Some of the Wikileaks material was probably in the public interest, much was not. He also stands accused of rape under Swedish law.
So I’m reading Matt Haig’s wonderful novel The Radleys. I usually don’t like vampire stories but this is about a very English family of vampire ‘abstainers’ living in suburbia – it’s warm, sympathetic and very funny.
Anyway, The Radleys has got me thinking about present tense narration, and even considering it as an option for the thriller I’m writing at the moment. So I have been reading various opinions this morning about present tense novels – do they work, do they irritate their readers, and so on.
Never one to shy away from expressing a strong opinion, Philip Pullman has weighed in on the anti-present-tense-narration side of the discussion, calling it a ‘silly affectation’. Really? Always?
Opinion on the Writewords forums is divided when it comes to present tense narration:
Re: Writing in the present or past tense? EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005
Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.
More seriously, though I’ve read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it’s often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn’t really imagining out the scene completely. It’s also less flexible: I think it’s much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder.
Re: Writing in the present or past tense? Luisa at 19:27 on 01 December 2005
No disrespect at all intended, but I’m struggling to understand the point of view of people who dislike books written in the present tense, or who see its use as trendy, or liken reading it to being hit over the head.
I strongly disagree with the comment that it is not natural to tell a story in the present tense in English. It is perfectly natural. Have you ever told a joke? Or talked about what a bad day you’ve had? Sometimes you use present tense, sometimes past tense. In both cases, you’re telling a story. They are both natural in our language. Do I speak a different language from the rest of you? (Don’t answer that!)
We’re talking about writing fiction, not newspaper reports. There are very few strict conventions to be adhered to, as I see it. Writers tell stories how they see fit to tell them.
We have a straight choice. We write in the present tense, or we write in the past tense. It’s the same as deciding whether to use first person or third person. It’s an important decision, and has implications for the whole story, but I can’t see how choosing one tense over another would cause such extreme reactions in a reader.
Preach it, Luisa! Molly Spooner’s take on it is similarly nuanced.
I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy.
So what might be a good reason to write a novel in the present tense? Richard Lea of The Guardian has this to say:
It’s no accident that Christian Paul Casparis traces the recent upsurge in present-tense narration to the beginning of the 1960s – the moment that Harold Wilson proclaimed a new Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution. As the pace of modern life accelerates, the present that we’re all living in seems much more immediate, much more fragmentary. In a world of Watergate and Wikileaks we’re much less prepared to accept a final version, an official story. The internet, mobile phones, Twitter: all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?
I’ve got nothing against present tense narration per se – I’m devouring The Radleys, I loved J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and I even quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. But as a novelist, you need a reason to do it and you need to be aware of some of the technical problems it throws up. Like how to convey time-lapse without a sensation of ‘grating gears’. How to maintain immediacy and pace without stressing the reader to the point of exhaustion. And most importantly of all, how to avoid sounding like you’ve just done a Creative Writing MA and are wanting to show off your shiny new toolkit.
What do you think? What novels have you read which use present tense narration particularly well? Is it a portal to vivid, immediate, thrilling experience of story at its rawest and purest? Or is it like being hit over the head with a teaspoon?
Writing, like chess, is a famously sedentary activity. Authors spend their days sitting hunched over a keyboard, and the only exercise they get is wriggling the fingers, wrinkling the brow and reaching for Rich Tea biscuits. As the deadline nears, the hapless keyboard-basher begins to ignore her body’s needs for sleep, social interaction and physical activity, which is no good either for her health or for the quality of her resulting work.
In 1997 the best human chess player in the world Garry Kasparov prepared to play a six-game chess match against Deep Blue, the best machine chess player in the world. Kasparov had won their first encounter the previous year, but the supercomputer was back on the stage with a heftier processor and an indecent quantity of RAM. I was twenty-one at the time, and being an Artificial Intelligence fanboy I was cheering for the machine. After five games, man and machine stood equal at 2½ games all. The sixth game, the most extraordinary chess game of history, began with Deep Blue executing a daring and very un-machine-like knight sacrifice, after which – anyway, you’re not interested in this, are you – my real point is that Garry Kasparov did a lot of physical exercise to prepare himself for an entirely mental activity. Here is an extract from an interview which Kasparov gave IBM just before the Deep Blue match.
I do a lot of physical exercises, including swimming, running, weights and other athletic training. I think it is very important for a top chess player to be as physically fit as possible. At the very highest levels, games can often be decided by whether a player was in good physical shape or not.
The quality of a book can also be decided by whether the author was in good physical shape or not. Discuss.
In 2009 my wife and I were back in England awaiting the birth of our first child. I had a book contract and a deadline and the luxury of being able to write full-time. Was it really a luxury? I don’t know. Life was less challenging than our lives in Africa, and I missed the variety of doing something different every day. The lonely hours in my attic study got to me so much that I started commuting to the public library to write. I put on three stone (forty-two pounds) in the first six months and acquired an author’s tan so pale I was practically translucent. 30,000 words into the new novel, I realized I was on the wrong track, and started again. I was unfit and unproductive.
And to think that all I needed was an antique hourglass, or its equivalent. Here is an extract from Dan Brown’s High Court testimony during that famous plagiarism case a few years ago:
For me, writing is a discipline, much like playing a musical instrument. It requires constant practice and honing of skills…If I’m not at my desk by sunrise, I feel like I’m missing my most productive hours. In addition to starting early, I keep an antique hourglass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups and quick stretches. This helps keep the blood, and ideas, flowing.
Press-ups every hour on the hour – now there’s a practical tip for writers of all kinds. Here’s another zinger, the Couch to 5k running plan. Most people try jogging and then stop because it’s too hard. Chances are they’re doing too much too soon. Couch to 5k is a not so much a running plan as a walking-and-running plan, and it’s excellent, enabling a gradual build-up of fitness that will benefit your heart valves and your Work In Progress.
Jogging in Africa is considered almost as odd as reading on public transport. When I first started jogging in the afternoons, I was flagged down by an old Fulani herder. A walaa haaju, he said. You have no need to be doing that.
‘What do you mean?’ I panted.
‘There are only two reasons for a man to run,’ he replied. ‘Either there is someone behind him with a big stick or there is a grain distribution in front of him.’
The old herder had clearly forgotten the all-important third reason – the potentially bestselling novel – but I didn’t argue the point. Now I run in the grey calm of the early morning before the prayer call sounds from the minaret. There’s nobody around at that time, and I get to see some beautiful sunrises. I’m not at 5k yet, but I’m enjoying it – I think.
If you sit down for a living, do your body a favour. Get up and stretch. Go for a walk. Learn capoeira. Hang upside down. Your work will be better for it.
Authors are well aware of the benefits of blogging, and a serviceable blog is now a tool of almost every author’s trade, alongside the HB pencil and the moleskine notebook. As an author, and as a recent but enthusiastic WordPress adopter, I thought I’d put together a list of ten WordPress themes which are ideal for authors. I am aware that WordPress is not the only blogging platform, but in 2011 WordPress is by far the most popular of the various options, so with that in mind, allow me to present my personal selection of the 10 best WordPress themes for authors.
The following countdown reflects my preference for clean white themes. It is a matter of personal taste, but also seems to be a logical choice for authors, who want the focus to be on words and book covers rather than on snowflakes and dancing penguins. Branding is important, of course, but all of the themes below can be easily customized to reflect your unique author brand. Think of them as blank slates on which to write.
Demo – Download
I like themes which focus on beautiful typography, and this theme is definitely heading in the right direction. But in my opinion the header and the sumptuous swirls take up too much space and leave the content straggling behind. In fact, I only included this theme here because of the lovely typewriter graphic.
The right-justified sidebar in this theme is very unassuming and gives the blog a nice shape. At present the WP-Notes Theme seems popular with computer engineers like Jared and Jennifer and Max, but no doubt it would also make a good-looking quirky blog for a good-looking quirky author. Especially if used for frequent short posts. Just replace that letter b in the top-left corner with a greyscale close-up of your grinning face or your fingers dancing across the keyboard.
I’ve always liked the typeface Lucida Sans, and this theme puts it to great use. Seven Five is not so much a blog theme as a ‘lifestream’ – a diary of your electronic life. The homepage has sections for ‘Latest Post’, ‘Latest Tweets’, ‘Latest Pics’ and so on. This would be a great theme for authors who tweet regularly.
Demo – Download
The demo site for the wordpress.org installation of Oulipo is so sparse it does not do the theme justice, but check out the Oulipo demo on wordpress.com, which is much better. I love the way the left sidebar is pinned in place, keeping your page links (or your book covers) in view. Great design.
6. Structure theme
Demo – Download
Structure theme is a great freemium theme – a free theme with the design quality of a premium theme. It boasts well thought out typography and well laid out elements. It is content-focussed, uncluttered and stylish – this is a great theme for authors with a significant amount of content to organize.
I dislike it when blog themes code their ‘blockquote’ with a single quotation mark graphic; talk about being left hanging. But opening quotes without closing them is Wu Wei’s only crime and it more than makes up for that with its clean, original design and tasteful hints of colour. I also like the big fat titles on the left of the posts (rather than above the posts) and the comment numbers in their little speech bubble icons. These space-saving gizmos mean that nothing will detract from that big full-colour jpeg of your new book cover. Let the colour and dynamism come from your content, not from the frame.
4. The Erudite
Demo – Download
Lots of good things going on in this carefully coded theme. It has a very literary appearance with its highlighted initials, its elegant typography and its sophisticated white-on-black widgetized footer. Hmm, sophisticated and widgetized aren’t words that usually sit comfortably together – that shows you just what a special theme The Erudite is. I love the way it gives prominence to recent posts and just includes excerpts of the rest.
This would make a good blog theme for Martin Amis or Ian McEwan or for a Martin Amis or Ian McEwan wannabe. Maybe not for a children’s author, though, and maybe not for an author who wants to post a lot of images (unless the images are greyscale, mmm).
Coded by the inimitable Curt Ziegler, this is one very smart theme indeed. All right, so it’s a whole content management system, not just a blog, but look at it – just perfect for the needs of an author. Have a play with the demo and you’ll see what I mean. All you need to do is to change the menu item ‘portfolio’ to ‘books’ and you’re away . Curt Ziegler’s tagline is ‘creating sites that breathe’. This theme breathes so deep it must have lungs the size of mulberry bushes. It has a good aesthetic, good line length, good icons, good footer, good contact form, good tagline area and good technical support. The demo looks a bit corporate, but once you have personalised the theme with your own pics and book content, it’ll look great. A $25 Premium Theme, Smart Portfolio is well worth the money. Think about it – how much would you pay a professional coder to make you an author site that looks this classy? Hundreds of dollars, that’s how much.
Demo – Download
I used to dislike Times New Roman so much that in the early days of Facebook I joined a Facebook group campaigning to ban Times New Roman from the web! Then I saw Jim Barraud’s Manifest theme and everything changed. It’s a natty one-column typography-based theme and I use it as the basis for all three of my blogs.
NB. The wordpress.com version has been tweaked by the folks at Automattic and is even better than the self-hosted version – it has a classier header and ‘post formats’ enabled. But I’m sure Jim will get around to updating the self-hosted version soon. Won’t you, Jim?
I’m not being paid by Curt Ziegler for putting his themes at numbers 3 and 1 on this list. It’s just that he has produced two of the nicest looking wordpress themes I’ve ever seen. Minimal is a seamless portfolio / blog theme with great attention to detail. I love the alternating shading on the recent posts area, the greyscale social media links, the muted red-brown links and those fantastic shouty taglines. Again, if it’s still a bit corporate for your liking, just slap a big cartoony header in place of the ‘minimal’ graphic. Or a moody black and white photo of you hunched scowling over your Macbook. This theme costs $25 and would be a bargain at twice the price.
So there you have it: the ten best WordPress themes for authors, IMHO.
I’d love to hear your own suggestions so please do comment.
This is part one of a series called ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. Over the course of one week (five posts) I will attempt to break the creative process down into its constituent parts – plot, characters, language, illustration, and a magic ingredient which I’m going to call synergy. Today we shall have a look at plot.
Have you ever seen Black Books, the quirky British sitcom set in a bookshop? In my favourite episode, ELEPHANTS AND HENS, the foul-tempered bookshop owner Bernard Black and his assistant Manny set themselves to write a bestselling children’s book in a weekend. Their first draft is a weighty tome set in Stalinist Russia. Manny feels the manuscript is not quite right, and he offers a couple of suggestions:
MANNY: Instead of the, um, academic and the journalist’s daughter, um, perhaps it could be about an elephant.
BERNARD: An elephant?
MANNY: That’s right.
BERNARD: I see. What’s your other suggestion?
MANNY: Well, um, instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um, it could be about losing a balloon.
BERNARD: An elephant who loses his balloon?
MANNY: That’s it.
BERNARD: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
MANNY: Oh, yeah.
BERNARD: My vision?
BERNARD: Yes, all right! Let’s do that, then!
And they do. Several hours of hard work later, they have in their hands the following gem of a book:
There’s the elephant.
He’s happy with his balloon.
OH NO! It’s gone!
Where is it? It’s not behind the rhino.
Look in the alligator’s mouth.
It’s not there either!
OH! The monkey’s got in the tree!
He brings it back. They all drink lemonade.
The fantastic Youtube clip of Manny and Bernard proudly reading their finished oeuvre is followed by dozens of comments hailing THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON as the best picture book ever!
Some children’s authors will tell you that writing a picture book is just as hard as writing a novel. I wonder to what extent this is a knee jerk response to people like Bernard and Manny who are convinced (until they try it) that writing a picture book is the easiest thing in the world.
In refuting Bernard and Manny, let’s not overstate our case. The truth, in my experience, is that writing a picture book is much easier than writing a novel. It’s true that finding a Good Idea for a PB can take time, and that you will need to do several drafts and that all the words need to be just right. But all those things are true of novel-writing as well, even if you’re not Flaubert. So let’s face it, the main difference between writing a novel and writing a picture book is that the picture book is a hundred times shorter, which in turn means that you can do your first draft in a day rather than in three months.
It’s easier to write a picture book than a novel. I’m sorry, but it just is. Okay, rant over.
My favourite picture book as a child was THE SLIMTAILS’ NEW HOUSE by Mary Chell. It was about a family of mice moving home. If I remember correctly, the mice had a pet weevil called Edwin who appeared on almost every page. There were great pictures, simple text and a dash of surrealist humour courtesy of Edwin. I loved it.
I remember liking THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle as well. My favourite bit was the surprise of Saturday’s menu after those five fruitarian weekdays.
On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a stomach ache!
Josh Lacey, in his excellent article The Perfect Picture Book, selects THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA as his all-time favourite PB, and has this to say:
What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course, and an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.
How do you come up with a memorable narrative? I know I have raved before about Christopher Booker’s masterpiece THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS. And since this post is supposed to be about plot, I think the time has come to rave again.
There are a limited number of plot ‘types’ in human storytelling, and this applies to picture books as much as any other genre. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR is a classic ‘Rebirth’ story. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT are both ‘Voyage and Return’. WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT and THE GRUFFALO are ‘Quest’.
In Booker’s terms, my first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS would be classed as ‘Comedy’ because it is fundamentally about loss and reunion. This puts it in the same category as ARE YOU MY MUMMY? and a thousand books with titles like THE LOST TEDDY (And also, come to think of it, as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON. In a sense, Bernard was absolutely right: insofar as THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON follows the same loss/reunion arc as his epic novel about the academic and the journalist’s daughter and the Stalinist purges, it can indeed be the same story, the same vision!)
In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the bones of the story are as follows. The beloved (but chronically naughty) goats are taken to market to be sold (loss) and some children mount a rescue effort to get them back (reunion). If you are writing a picture book, make sure that you can sum up the plot in one sentence like that. If you understand the guts of your story, you are more likely to tell it well.
Christopher Booker demonstrates how each of the seven basic plots consists of a ‘Dream’ stage followed by a ‘Frustration’ stage, followed by a resolution. (Usually the resolution is good, but in the case of one of the basic plots – ‘Tragedy’ – the resolution is unpleasant. I have been racking my brains for an example of a tragic picture book, but with no success! I suppose HUMPTY-DUMPTY would count if it were a standalone picture book. Wait, here you go: ORANGE PEAR APPLE BEAR by Emily Gravett is a Tragedy. It follows an unswervingly tragic story arc, with three of the characters ending up being eaten by the fourth. Anyway, this is all tangential. My main point is that tragedy is an unpopular plot type for the under-fives!)
In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR the ‘dream stage’ is a wonderful week of constant eating. The ‘frustration stage’ is stomach ache. The resolution is the caterpillar’s exquisite rebirth. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, the dream stage is the pastoral idyll in the first spread, but the dream is short-lived. The Frustration stage encompasses the outrageous naughtiness of the goats, the fateful decision ‘The goats have got to go’, and the children’s epic journey to Mopti market to make their plea on behalf of the naughty goats. The resolution? Dad doesn’t sell the goats after all. (But that’s not all – there is a twist in the tale).
Once you have the germ of a picture book idea (Balloon lost, balloon found; or Goats lost, goats found), you need some good characters. And that means names, character tags and catchphrases. Good characters are the subject of Part Two.
Some questions for you to ponder and to comment on:
1. What are some of your favourite picture books, past and present?
2. Do you agree with the Black Books Youtube Crowd that THE ELEPHANT AND THE BALLOON is the greatest children’s book of all time?
3. Can you think of any tragic picture books?
Whether you are an aspiring writer or a serial Newbery medal winner, the chances are that you are no stranger to the ‘How to Write’ manuals at your local library. ‘How to Write Fantastic Fiction’, ‘The Writer’s Life’, ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’, ‘How to Write a Thriller’, ‘How to Write for Children’, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’, ‘This is the Year you Write your Novel’, ‘A Dummies Guide to Writing Dialogue’, these and other titles whisper seductively at you from the Writing shelf. And when you pick them up, you find their back cover blurbs simply bursting with promises. Follow the advice within and you will be churning out bestsellers before you know it.
Hardly any of the ‘How to write’ books on the library shelves are downright bad, although they often give me the impression that I’ve read them before – that is to say, they are useful precisely because they are recycling or rephrasing age-old advice.
A few, however, are both original and brilliant, and when people ask me for writing advice, I always end up scribbling the same five recommendations on the back of an envelope. They are all excellent books on the subject of writing, they are all uniquely helpful in some way and they are all widely quoted by teachers of creative writing.
Don’t waste time borrowing these five books from the library. Take it from me, once you’ve read them you’re going to want to buy them, so why not save yourself the time and bother? Borrow other writing books by all means. Borrow ‘This is the Year You Write Your Novel’ if you feel in need of a pep talk. Borrow ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’ if you like IKEA assembly guides. Borrow ‘How to Write a Thriller’ if you must (although reading five good thrillers will be just as helpful). But the five recommendations below are books you’re going to want to own.
Here they are, in no particular order
1. BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande
This was written in 1934 and is as relevant now as it was then. It is about the psychology of writing and it has changed the way I write forever. When it came to writing, I used to be my own worst enemy. I would write a sentence and immediately narrow my eyes and analyse it for flaws. I would write a chapter and then obsess over making it perfect. I dithered and procrastinated and head-butted doors. Thanks to Dorothea Brande, I do things differently now. I give my blithe bouncing creative self free rein to gibber out a first draft at the speed of knots, then pull the paper from the typewriter and fling it high into the air in imitation of Stephen J Cannell’s famous vanity plate. Only then do I take the padlock off the iron cage and release my slavering, red-fanged, red-pen-wielding pernickety editorial self.
“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer-the craftsman and the critic in him- are actually hostile to the good of the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”
2. HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL by James Frey
This is not the James Frey who got into trouble over his fake ‘misery memoir’ A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. This is a much nobler James Frey, and his book is exactly what it says in the subtitle: a step-by-step no-nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling. It has great tips on how to define the premise of your novel, how to create three-dimensional characters and how to write sparkling dialogue. I read it in one sitting (or in one bath, if I remember correctly) and have gone back to it many times since. Frey’s writing voice is bolshy and funny but also sage.
Best advice: (This phrase might not be original to Frey, but it’s a good’un)
Chase your main character up a tree and then throw stones at him
By the way, James Frey wrote a sequel to this book (same title, volume 2), but it’s not as good.
3. THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: WHY WE TELL STORIES by Christopher Booker
This book has a permanent place on the bedside table and I love it. It took Christopher Booker 35 years to do the research, but in my opinion the result is a masterpiece. From Job to ET, from Romeo and Juliet to Neighbours, from Peter Rabbit to Peer Gynt, Booker makes the most unusual and delightful connections between seemingly disparate stories. Who would have thought that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is fundamentally the same story as Beowolf, or that Doctor No is basically a James Bond retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh? What does the Rime of the Ancient Mariner have in common with the parable of the Prodigal Son? What does Pilgrim’s Progress have in common with Watership Down? Antony and Cleopatra with Star Wars?
This is an ambitious work, not just in its scope (essentially every story in the history of the world), but also in its depth. Booker gleefully pulls apart one story after another to reveal the nuts and bolts, and to trace the plot arcs through five well-defined stages. This book is for readers and movie-goers and anyone who likes a good yarn. It helps us understand what kinds of stories we tell ourselves and why. But its particular interest to writers is probably obvious by now. After all, the mechanics of good stories is what keeps writers awake at night.
Best bit: It seems unfair to pull one soundbite out of a work that was 35 years in the writing. So I’ll just say that the whole of part one (The Seven Gateways to the Underworld) is amazing.
4. ON WRITING by Stephen King
Half memoir, half how-to book, this is a great insight into a writer’s life. I admit I have never read a Stephen King novel – horror is not my thing – but I was deeply impressed by the clarity, cleverness and sheer good advice in this book. I’m not the only one, it seems. ON WRITING has for a long time been number one on Amazon in the ‘Authorship’ section.
Best bit: the muse in the basement – dispelling the romantic myth of the writer’s muse:
There is a muse but he is not going to come fluttering into writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He is a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretend to ignore you… He may not be much to look at that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he is on duty), but he’s got the inspiration.
5. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White
This book was given to me by some missionaries in Sebba in the north of Burkina Faso (Thanks, George and Kathy!) and is without doubt the best book on writing style I have ever met. Thirty-eight pages of terse, opinionated, brilliant advice – pure gold.
Best advice: EB White recounts in his introduction how Gordon Strunk used to pace up and down the classroom repeating the following timeless advice:
“Omit needless words!”
That mantra is the single best piece of writing advice I have ever heard or read, as well as the most concise.
So there you have them – the five best writing books of all time. Brackets in my opinion Close-brackets. And here’s a bonus, for when your manuscript is finished:
Bonus book: THE WRITERS AND ARTISTS YEARBOOK (A & C Black)
JK Rowling famously used the 1998 version of this book when she was trying to take Harry Potter to market. And authors great and small before and since have relied on it for the priceless insights it gives into the world of publishing, and for answers to questions like “Do I need a literary agent?” and “Should I approach publishers one at a time or all together?” Most importantly, this tome contains the addresses, telephone numbers and websites of every publisher, agent, book packager, magazine and newspaper you are ever likely to need.