by Gary Smailes
Books about writing are common place. No matter what you feel about the age-old debate of ‘teaching creative writing’, one thing is true–a good grounding in the technical side of writing will make you a better writer. ‘Show, don’t tell’, has almost become a cliché, but if you are unable to ‘tell’ a story in the best way possible, your writing will suffer. And let’s face it, writers love to write books about writing!
After years of editing at BubbleCow, we have read and absorbed hundreds of books about writing. This article highlights those books about writing that actually work. The aim is to give you a collection of books which, when read as a whole, will make you a better writer. The criteria for inclusion on the list is that they support the three principles on which we teach and edit.
- A modern simplicity and clean writing style.
- The importance of using dialogue and action to tell the story (show, don’t tell).
- The essential nature of structure (3/5 act).
On Writing by Stephen King
The first and final sections of this three part book are autobiographical. They add meat to the bones of King’s ‘creation myth’ and provide an insight into his life as a writer and the process he went through to see his work in print.
It is the middle section where the real value lies. In this section, King talks about the technique of writing. In the process, he offers very practical advice that you will be able to apply to your own work. He talks in depth about the importance of restraint in your writing and focusing on ways to cut back to the essence of your story (less is more). He also delves into the idea that storytelling is a kind of telepathy where the writer must transfer the images in their mind to the mind of the reader.
Story by Robert McKee
Robert McKee is a very successful screenwriter, and this is a book about screenwriting, but PLEASE don’t let this put you off. Since high quality writing is all about dialogue and action, rather than narration, this book is highly relevant to all writers.
This book will teach you the nuts and bolts of writing. It will teach the importance of structure, explain characterization, and demonstrate how to use ‘beats’ to write dialogue. Even after years of writing and editing, I still refer back to this book on an almost daily basis. It will take you years to fully absorb the nuances of McKee’s teachings, but just one read will make you a better writer.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Structure is an essential part of writing a novel. The most common structure is a 3 or 5 Act format, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, this book takes the concept further and examines the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ This is a format that has always been used in storytelling, but one of the most well known modern examples of it is the original Star Wars movie.
This book is written from a writer’s point of view and takes you systematically through the process of using the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ The real value you will find in this book is the detailed and pragmatic approach that is taken. Just reading the opening chapter will leave you itching to write.
Chicago Manual of Style
A ‘style manual’ is a book that sets out the rules to be used in grammar and punctuation. More importantly, it also addresses certain grey areas and offers advice on the best approach to take when you are unsure of the best way to use punctuation or present a word/phrase. Following a style manual will not only get you out of tricky grammatical corners, but will also add a new level of consistency to your work.
One word of warning–this is a manual for American English. If you are writing for publication in a country that is not using American English, then you will need a different manual. Here’s a guide that will help.
I have chosen these books about writing with care and purpose. King’s On Writing will give you a pragmatic and accessible approach to the art of writing. Story is much more of a manual and requires time and effort to learn and apply. The Writer’s Journey will allow you to apply structure and direction to your novel. Finally, the Chicago Manual of Style will give you the support you need for any potential grammar issues. Taken as a whole, these four books will teach you everything you need to lift your writing to the next level.
The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer
If any writer has earned the right to write about the “spooky art” of writing, it would be the inimitable Norman Mailer. The man not only helped to found a new style of writing (New Journalism), but he also helped to start The Village Voice (and he won two Pulitzer Prizes – no big deal there though, right?)
The Spooky Art is, in a lot of ways, the complete opposite of King’s On Writing. It is far more esoteric and philosophical in nature, but in no way shape or form does that mean that what Mailer has to say is any less useful to aspiring writers. It’s not perfectly cohesive by any means, but Mailer was towards the end of his life when it was assembled, and the totality of the picture it paints of the author’s life should be useful to anyone who, on a spiritual level, wants to know more about “how to write.”
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s work is so influential that, over fifty years after its initial publication, Fahrenheit 451 is still required reading in a lot of high schools. He wrote for the Twilight Zone (and was a heavyweight on that show, even among other luminaries like Rod Serling and Richard Matheson) and inspired Elton John’s famous song “Rocket Man” (if any of you reading this play pub trivia, you’re welcome.)
Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of nine skillfully written essays, but it’s probably the title one that other writers will find most useful. It deals primarily with navigating the thin tightrope between commercialism and being truly literary, and the advice could only have come from someone with Bradbury’s pedigree. Though there is no real way to have your cake and eat it too, this book is as close as you can get to that notion in the literary world.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard is a well known figure in American literature (and another Pulitzer Prize winner), so it would be remiss of us to leave her off of this list. The Writing Life, like The Spooky Art, is more a collection of essays about the process of writing than a how-to about how to write. Its main reason for inclusion on here has to do with how Dillard claims to abhor the process throughout the book – if it’s tough for Annie Dillard, it’ll probably be tough for you, but those moments are signposts that you’re on the right track throughout the process.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Of all the books on the list, other than the Stephen King entry, this is the one you’ve most likely heard of, and for good reason. Though the book was originally published in 1992, it’s still frequently cited as a must have for people who want to be more creative in their everyday lives. Thought the book is not specifically geared towards just writers (as indicated by the title), it is a highly useful tool for those who are looking to not only expand their creative output but to change their mindset as well.
So there you have it–a list of books that will expand your mind, test your mettle, and get you to see the world a little, well, differently. While these are by no means the only books on this topic, this list is a great jumping off point to use no matter what skill level you’re currently writing at. Not all of the books would fall under the category of “how-to’s,” and we’ve taken care to highlight those ones on the list so that you don’t buy them unnecessarily.
Guest post contributed by Gary Smailes. Gary has a wide experience of the publishing industry and, over the years, has worked as a freelance writer, historian and researcher. He has more than twenty books in print by is represented by agent Andrew Lownie. He’s also the founder of BubbleCow.