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.