Books for WritersJan 16, 2022
From the desk of Emylia Hall.
What exactly is a book for a writer? Any work that inspires, motivates and educates can be classed as such.
As a fiction writer, I learn a great deal about writing from reading novels; beloved works of fiction have been – and continue to be – as instructive as any ‘craft’ book for me. We take that tack at The Novelry with our brilliant collection of Hero Books. But I love a book that’s specifically about the writing process, whether focused on practical matters, or with a more spiritual vibe.
The kind of craft books we connect with are deeply personal – perhaps more so than with fiction. (Discuss.) Sometimes it’s a question of timing: the right book at the right moment, chiming with a particular problem we’re encountering in our writing, or an area where we’re feeling ripe for enlightenment. As any list of writing craft books will be hotly debated, I’ll be leaning into subjectivity and first offering up my own Top Ten (plus a few extra), before sharing the favourites of some of our team here at The Novelry.
I’ve included books on my list that cross over into memoir or essay collections, works by writers that instruct and inspire, even if they’re not strictly categorised as craft books. Having a solid grasp of technique is one thing; feeling motivated and resilient enough to show up and write through thick and thin is quite another. Therefore, books that feed my soul – and my appetite for being creative – are as useful to me as those of a more intellectual inclination. I think of such books as being something like treasure maps. I’ll pore over them in anticipation of the riches I might glean, hoping that around the next bend I’ll hit the jackpot and make that life-altering discovery. The hunt is always on. And that’s just the way I like it.
I think of such books as being something like treasure maps.
1. On Writing by Stephen King
The first book on writing craft I ever read. It was 2008 and I was working on what would eventually be my debut novel. We hadn’t been living in Bristol long and when I think of those early months in the city it was all about prioritising a more creative life. One afternoon I took a long bath in our tiny flat and started reading On Writing. I emerged hours later – water cold, skin pruned, head buzzing with inspiration.
I responded to King’s informality, his forthrightness, and the kind of rad image of him pounding out 2,000 words a day with hard-rock blaring.
This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.
The fact that the book is also part memoir made it even more immersive to me; in my quest to be a novelist, I was every bit as interested in how writers lived as I was in any toolbox they might keep stashed within their desks.
2. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
A screenwriter friend recommended Save the Cat! as being useful for novelists too – and he was right. Funny, perky, smart and simply expressed, it’s easily the most well-thumbed book on my ‘craft’ shelf. I love the directness and simplicity of the Beat Sheet (who else has started yelling out ‘page 12 catalyst!’ when they’re watching films? Just me?) As I started out writing my last two novels, I copied those 15 beats down in the front of my notebook and would repeatedly refer to them through the process; even if my plots don’t end up exactly matching, nevertheless I feel reassured just having them close.
I also suspect that there’s some sneaky psychology going on. I approach the book in a lighter frame of mind because it’s squarely aimed at screenwriters not novelists; I feel like I can take from it what I like, on my terms, and give myself a little pat on the back in the process – a bit like turning up to an optional class at college. More than a decade after the publication of Save the Cat! Jessica Brody published Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Any fans here? It’s on my TBR pile, but I haven’t got to it yet; while I’m interested to see how it expands and refocuses Snyder’s book, I suspect the original will always have my heart.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I have a proper crush on Bird by Bird. It’s the writing book that, with its witty, warm company, has tickled me more than any other. And it’s moved me more than any other too – from the story of the origin of its title (a touching piece of advice from Lamott’s father to her brother when faced with a daunting homework assignment) to the book’s final paragraph, which I can't read without crying:
[Through writing] we are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it again and again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
I mean! Lamott is brilliant at reassuring her readers as much as challenging them, acknowledging our frailties and vanities. Bird by Bird feels like the best kind of creative therapy: it makes me want to go and write.
4. Crash Course by Robin Black
This collection of essays by Robin Black, author of the brilliant novel Life Drawing, is sub-headed ‘Essays from where writing and life collide.’ It’s honest, wry and spirited. In particular, I’ve gone back to A Life of Profound Uncertainty and The Success Gap again and again, where Black articulates the many uncertainties of the writing life – whether a writer is published or unpublished – and the ‘chaotic fuckedupedness of the profession.’ She’s simultaneously philosophical and no-nonsense – and quick to muster a smile.
Aspects of craft are woven through more memoir-driven pieces, and it’s all fuel to the fire. Give it Up, another stand-out essay, is an encouragement to resist the temptation to withhold a secret until the story’s end. Black cautions:
Using an absence of information to generate the majority of a story’s narrative momentum can allow a writer to slack off on every other element.
And how much more immersive, and textured, it can be to come up with something else to ‘replace the taunting of secrecy’, essentially to engage on a more emotional level rather than structure a story so that a reader only wants to rush to the reveal. And that’s food for thought for every kind of writer – even the whodunnits!
5. Into the Woods by John Yorke
This could have been the one that got away. One wet day in 2016 I took my toddler son to a play-café and settled into an armchair in a far-flung corner. I left him to play happily with the (actually pretty grimy) toys, while I pulled Into the Woods out of my bag and started reading. I felt, deliciously, like I was stealing time, and I really did want to learn more about story structure – not just the ‘what’ of it, but the ‘why’ too, which is where Yorke’s seminal book digs deeper than so many others. That day, my tired and distracted brain couldn’t cope with its depth. I stuffed it back in the nappy bag and I didn’t revisit it again until joining The Novelry in 2020. I’m so glad I got there eventually.
Ceaselessly erudite, illuminating and rousing, Into the Woods is now a firm favourite, exploring every aspect of storytelling, and drawing upon references from Elizabethan playwrights to Jaws and Only Fools and Horses. It’s often beautifully expressed, too:
Once upon a time God was the story we told to make sense of our terror in the light of existence. Storytelling has that same fundamentally religious function – it fuses the disparate, gives us shape, and in doing so instils in us quiet.
6. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith
It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.
While only one of the essays within this collection directly addresses the writing process, it’s a rich and inspiring read for anyone interested in what it means to write. Smith takes us inside her mind with essays arranged under the following categories: Reading; Being; Seeing; Feeling; Remembering. It is within Being that she directly addresses her process, in a version of a lecture first given to Colombia’s Writing Program students.
Smith covers Macro Planners and Micro Managers (her slightly classier form of ‘plotter and pantser’); as a Micro Manager herself, Smith says, ‘When I begin a novel, I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words.’ Since first reading this collection in 2010, every time I’ve finished a novel since I’ve thought of the following words and the image they conjure – and they’ve made me smile and smile:
I think sometimes the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.
Other essays, covering such subjects as Smith’s first reading experience of Zora Neale Hurston, her father, movies and a week spent in Liberia are no less inspiring for writers: they show us who this remarkable author and thinker is, what she loves and what matters.
7. Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
I first discovered this How-To (and How-Not-To) book through the website of the same name. Speculative fiction writers Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have been running courses called Writing the Other for twenty years, addressing writing about characters whose race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and so on differ significantly from an author's own.
They use examples from their own experience throughout, for instance how they each ‘depart from the dominant paradigm,’ the importance of acknowledging privileges, and the danger of generalisations – and how that’s applied to the writing process. Practical exercises challenge the reader to step outside their comfort zone and the limits of their own experience, while examples of character creations that get it wrong – ‘Patronizing Romanticizations’, ‘Sidekicks-R-Us’, ‘The Saintly Victim’ to name a few – are discussed.
Throughout, the authors emphasize the importance of openness and willing while doing the work:
Learning boils down to making mistakes, seeing what you’ve done wrong, and making corrections. If you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to improve, you mustn’t flinch from this process. Do your best. Eventually, you’ll figure out how to make your best better.
—Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
That’s a sentiment applicable to every aspect of the process. Accessibly written, smart, and challenging, Writing the Other continues to give me much to think about – and want to do better.
8. Howdunit, a Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club, edited by Martin Edwards
Published in 2020, in celebration of the Detection Club’s 90th birthday, Howdunit is a mighty tome featuring nearly 100 essays from classic and contemporary authors on the art and craft of crime writing. The result is a total treasure trove.
We have Ian Rankin on Why Crime Fiction is Good for You (‘If an author makes us curious, we will keep turning the pages. In a sense therefore all readers are detectives, and the crime novel merely codifies this essential aspect of the pleasure of reading.’) and Sophie Hannah with Optimal Subterfuge, where she dissects the anatomy of a twist (‘any kind of reversal of what we thought we knew’) and suggests how to skilfully manipulate readers into misleading themselves. There’s also P.D. James writing on place, and how settling on a particular landscape, imagining ‘all the lives that have been lived on this shore’, helps give a novel ‘a life’ while still only in idea form.
With insight and advice from so many greats, including Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, John Le Carré and more, I’d recommend this book to anyone writing crime. Or, in fact, anyone writing full stop.
9. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
A slim little volume that’s a delight to read. Described by the Boston Globe as ‘a kind of spiritual Strunk & White’, it’s as if Dillard has invited us into her cabin on Cape Cod, set the coffee going, then tells us how it is for her. The effect is captivating. The first chapter begins with a quote from Goethe: ‘Do not hurry; do not rest,’ which establishes the tone for a book that brilliantly articulates the life-long, but elected, struggle that is writing.
In vivid prose, and much enjoyment of imaginative analogies, metaphors, and anecdotes, Dillard talks about process. Consider this:
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.
At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk.
10. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
This was a recommendation by a member during one of our Story Clinic sessions here at The Novelry – and I’m so glad I was on hosting duties that day. What a book! I already knew I loved how Saunders writes about teaching writing (his long-form essay in The New Yorker in 2015, My Writing Education: A Timeline, is a favourite of mine) so admittedly I came to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain ready to be enchanted.
The book is structured around seven classic Russian short stories which Saunders has been teaching for twenty years. The reader is guided through each story, page by page, with Saunders examining how narrative works, authorial choice, and the line by line effect on the reader. It’s seductively done, and Saunders’ ceaseless humour, and his immense but easy intelligence, make for the best company. This book has made me think about an author’s decisions – and control – in a deeper way than ever before. And Saunders’ summary of his own book’s impact is illustrative of his manner throughout:
If something in this book lit you up, that wasn’t me ‘teaching you something’, that was you remembering or recognizing something that I was, let’s say, ‘validating.’ If something, uh, anti-lit you up? That feeling of disagreeing with me was your artistic will asserting itself (…). That resistance is something to note and be glad of and honour.
Generous in every way, it’s a book to love.
So that’s my top ten. I’m revved up now, having been happily lost in my ‘craft shelf’, and I‘d like to also mention Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, which does so much for my creative soul; the chapter in which Gilbert gives an account of meeting Ann Patchett – and something magical happening – is deliciously wacky and, well, why not true?
Speaking of Ann Patchett, I highly recommend This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a memoir that has many nuggets of writing process gold within it. And, since we’re on the subject of marriage, it would be remiss of me not to mention my husband Robin Etherington’s How to Think When You Write books, graphically-designed compendiums of tips based on his love of comics, video games, movies and novels, which I’ve had the pleasure of copyediting, as well as reading, ahead of his Kickstarter campaigns. I could go on and on (E.M. Forster? Eudora Welty? Ursula K. Le Guin? And publishing this spring, Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters) but now it’s time to hand over to the team at The Novelry, and hear some of their favourites too...
- Tasha Suri: Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses is a very new book, published in 2021, but it’s already become a firm favourite of mine. I dip into it whenever I need a little courage. Salesses challenges our preconceived notions of what makes good craft, and asks us to question all the writing rules we’re internalised and built around ourselves and our stories like walls. I always find writing advice that makes me think and challenges me really sparks my creativity, and Craft in the Real World does that beautifully. It’s smart and brave and difficult, which makes me want to be a braver writer in turn.
- Jack Jordan: Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is a book I find myself continuously revisiting, usually when I'm in the throes of writing a first draft. It is the sort of book that you don't necessarily need to re-read again, but flick through in times of need (or crisis!) and the answer will be there on the page waiting for you. When finishing a novel seems like an unattainable task, Save the Cat! lays out the rules so clearly, gifting all writers the behind-the-scenes formula to writing. It always helps me get back on track.
- Mahsuda Snaith: John Yorke's Into the Woods is great for plot structure; Wired for Story by Lisa Cron is great for knowing how story works, and Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic and Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing are both joyous and fun reads about writing. How to be a Writer by Sally O'Reilly is the only book I've read that solely focuses on the practicalities of being a writer i.e. networking, contracts, day jobs.
- Kate Riordan: Applying cutting-edge neuroscience and psychological research to our human need to tell stories, Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling is fascinating and mind-bending. Arguing that our whole lives are one huge act of storytelling – making us naturals at it – I loved the scientific approach to a craft that often feels so chaotic and ungraspable.
- Katie Khan: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby contains 22 steps I find a good way to ensure your novel is developed with key elements from the inside, rather than imposing an external plot structure upon it from the outside. I also find Truby's character explanations really helpful, including characters who are ally-opponents and opponent-allies, which is so neatly explained. I often use Truby’s 22 steps in tandem with Blake Snyder’s 15 beats from Save the Cat! to make sure I have all the ingredients a story might need. My Post-It note wall ends up looking like a board from a crime scene!
- Polly Ho-Yen: The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better by Will Storr does exactly what its title promises. Its in-depth scientific approach gives clear guidance on how to become a better storyteller. It's a fascinating read!
- Lily Lindon: I found Stephen King's On Writing and John Yorke's Into the Woods very interesting and helpful: King's for no-bullshit tips and easy readability, Yorke's for deep-dive nerding into analysis of storytelling structure. Also, some rogue recommendations: the diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf, for insight into a working writer's mindset with all the highs and lows of creation, and finding time to be alone in a room of one's own. The other is a very short book called Ongoingness: the End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso, which is an unconventional memoir about her obsessive diary-keeping. As many writers keep journals as well as their fiction, I think it's interesting to think about what is worth recording, and why we feel this need to write, how we accept the balance of living and memorialising that living.
- Craig Leyenaar: I recommend Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer in my SFF workshop – it’s fantastic. Seemingly focused on the speculative, it’s a great guide to storytelling for everyone.
- Louise Dean: Most writers are familiar with The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but the female journey has been often overlooked. In The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock kicks us off on a scintillating ride, beginning with why so often in books by women, the mother gets killed to get the story started! Insights into the magic of womanhood. A must-read. (Gail Carriger's book of the same title, published 2020 is also brilliant.)
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