Books for Writers.

21 01 2008

Writers have to read a lot. You know that, don’t you? They have to read works in the same genre as theirs, in the same form as theirs, that targets the same audience as theirs, to get a feel for what’s publishable. They also have to read books that they like, and pick them apart word by word to come to understand why they like them.

Writers also have to learn to write. It’s a craft, a skill, just like carpentry or surgery. You wouldn’t want an electrician to do your bypass operation after watching Casualty, you wouldn’t want an office administrator sorting out joinery. So why would anyone want to read fiction or non-fiction written by someone who hasn’t learned the craft?

Luckily, like just about any skill, you can learn writing. You can’t learn creativity and imagination, but I’ve read stories with mind-blowing ideas that have been let down by poor execution, so you might as well take care of what you can and leave the rest to fate. And naturally the first step on the path to learning to write books is to read books.

I have a list that I reccommend every single time that I’m asked. Naturally there are about fifty billion books on writing that are available for you to throw your cash at, most of which have been written by people with absolutely no experience or knowledge of the subject that just regurgitate the information imparted by the books that you do need to read.

So here it is. If you’re serious, buy every last one. Read them cover to cover. Read them again. Keep them on a nearby shelf where you can reference them in a heartbeart. Then every couple of years, re-read them.

Story – Robert McKee.
I can’t harp on about the importance of this book enough. It’s quite pricey, and worth every penny. Although this book focusses on the art of storytelling mainly for Screenwriters, what it teaches is invaluable to all storytellers, no matter the media.

Solutions for Writers – Sol Stein.
Sol knows everything.
In this book, he tells you what he knows.
The End.

Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Off-Beat Lessons Every Writer Should Know – Robert Masello.
Masello’s “rules” are more “strong suggestions” that you’d be wise to listen to. He’s pithy, sarcastic, humorous, and spot on.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy – Orson Scott Card.
Widely recognised as the best book on the subject.

The Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published – Rachael Stock.
Only useful to UK residents. For US residents there a thousand and one books on this subject.
Rachael has been a publisher in the UK for many years, and her insights into the process and business are fantastic. Any writer who wants to be published here should read it.

If your intended output is Screenplays, then you need Syd Field. That should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Start with Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, a revised version of which was published in 2005, and move on from there.

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9 responses

21 01 2008
Cliff Burns

McKee has always struck me as a self-important blowhard. This is, after all, a “screenwriting guru” who, to my knowledge, has never had one of his own efforts make it to the screen. His approach seems to be more about how to keep a script in development so dollars can keep flowing in.

My favorite books on writing are by the great Annie Dillard as well as Annie Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD and Betsy Lerner’s FOREST FOR THE TREES. Highly recommended…

21 01 2008
James Rundle

I’d also recommend ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories’ by Christopher Booker. Nice post, Troo 🙂

21 01 2008
Trudi Topham

Ah yes, Forest for the Trees is a good one. I shall give Bird by Bird a read.

To be fair to McKee, one doesn’t have to be a writer to understand where writing succeeds or fails (although he clearly is a writer to have written a book). A great many of McKee’s students have gone on to successful screenwriting careers, and at no point does he advertise himself as a screenwriter, only as a teacher.

He may or may not be a twat, but the book itself is extremely useful.

21 01 2008
Trudi Topham

And cheers, James 🙂

21 01 2008
Cliff Burns

Count me as one of those people who consider McKee a “twat”. Anyone who teaches about something when they themselves are unsuccessful at it reminds me of the two people who taught our childbirth class, neither of which had ever had children. As soon as I learned that, I tuned them out completely. The worst book on writing I’ve come across is Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. Warmed over Joseph Campbell, thoroughly derivative and vapid. Wouldn’t recommend it even to beginners…

21 01 2008
Guy Hogan

There is no doubt that writing is a craft. It’s just like laying brick. After talent, attention to detail and the willingness to do constant revision are the two things a writer needs most. That’s on top of the theory of writing. I keep copies of the work of my favorite theorists nearby: Hemingway, Carver and John O’Hara. Your advice is sound.

21 01 2008
Trudi Topham

I steered well clear of The Writer’s Journey. I’m glad my instinct was sound, Cliff.

Thanks for the kind words, Guy. I don’t doubt that I’ll be talking about the other qualities writers need at some point in the future.

21 01 2008
Gareth

Gosh – this is my first time commenting on one of these blog things… and I’m meant to know a bit about ICT (as I teach it)

Anyway – I’ll keep it short – one of my favourites on writing is “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman. It takes the point of view of commissioning (how many “m”s in that?) editors and goes through what they look for to reject a book in the order they look for it… bit like what hurdles to get over first.

Anyway, might help find the real gems in your slush pile even quicker, Trudi.

cheers for now.

21 01 2008
Trudi Topham

Thanks Gareth, I’ll give it a look 🙂

I got out of IT as quickly as possible. Which is why it took 13 years…

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