‘How to write’ books

First I was young and now I am old and there was a time when I could not under any circumstances countenance the idea of reading a ‘How to write’ book.

My logic, such as it was, ran that this type of book merely distracted me from my already ordained path as a writer, my development was to be natural and organic, unsullied by protocol and not restrained by the bonds of convention.

Hmm yeah, well we all have those types of notions when we are young I suppose.

Now I’ve grown up a bit I tend to think it’s best to take good advice when you are offered it. I also think that good writers are made, not born, and that there are technical tricks which can help you improve what you already have.

But I still don’t read a great many of these types of books, though there are a great many available. Here’s why: If ever I’m asked by a writer for advice what to read – much in the same way as one race-day punter might ask another for a tip on the best horse in the third, I always suggest a novel.  Or a whole bunch of novels. They tend to suggest some to me too. What I don’t suggest is a how to write book.

Because it seems to me the best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing – particularly if it’s of the same genre in which you are hoping to excel. If you are a crime writer, read lots of good crime writing. It’s common sense isn’t it?

Having said that, I have read a few of these types of books and I can say that it’s rare you flick through one without finding at least a few nuggets of information, or useful practices, or tips or which can help you with your writing. Some of them are very good indeed I would say – at least I have found them to be so.

Here then are the three ‘how to write’ style books which have been most useful to me in my development as a writer so far. I say again though, these are no substitute for reading broadly and deeply from the wonderful and diverse library of fiction we have at our disposal.

51dvcZiLj5LHow Not to Write a Novel

by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

Funny this one – and also smart. The idea behind it is that explaining good writing is like herding cats, but it’s easier to spot bad writing. So this book goes through a whole host of howlers and draws your attention to them so you can not do them! I certainly spotted a number in here that I have been prone to as I‘ve developed – and it is a useful book to have around while you are rewriting as it makes you self-conscious about bad habits.

It covers flat characters, clichés, unconvincing plots and all the rest in it’s rundown of 200 mistakes.

517zPPD-z7LThe Master Class in Fiction Writing

by Adam Sexton

Tips from the top – a look at how some great writers write and what we could learn from them – so it’s my favoured principle of learning from what we read then, but  in a more ordered and considered form.

Authors covered in the book include Updike, Nabokov, Hemingway, Austin etc and their writing is used to support the argument throughout. Structurally, the book is split into chapters on areas like character, description, the world of the story and so on.

51Pti8zif-LA Novel in a Year

by Louise Doughty

I won this one as a prize. Not at a fair or anything. It was sent to me by the author when Song of the Sea God made her shortlist in the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition. (My book was called The Longing in those days).

What I like about it is that it explains the writing process as it really is from the author’s point of view. So, rather than a rarefied classroom look at what you should do and in what order, it feels real and organic. I also found it matches very closely the way I do actually write a book – with plenty of freeform humming and hawing and writing of scraps at the front end and then planning and development and rewriting. So it feels very truthful – it’s not how you should do it, it’s how you will do it – it’s what works.

So those are my three. I’m sure you have your own favourites. If you know of any we really should be reading please add them in the comments section below so this becomes a resource for other people looking for tips on the best how to books to read!

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

41 thoughts on “‘How to write’ books”

  1. You have a point: there are now hundreds of these, and if you subscribe to a Writing Magazine, there are even more – and articles,advice etc. The funny thing is, you can read the lot, do exactly what they advise, and you’ll still see rubbishly plotted, thinly characterised and frankly crass novels selling like hot cakes. Life, hey.

    1. Ha – very true – but I think in the end we can only worry about our own craft rather than other people’s and strive to make our own work the best it can be. There is an industry surrounding the teaching of writing now and I am a little suspicious of it – but I still think one can learn from some of these books.

  2. I think I might go for the How Not to Write one, Chris! But, having just finished the first draft of a book, I am following Stephen King’s advice in his book ‘On Writing’, and I’m printing off a few copies and sending them to trusted readers who I know will give me honest feedback. That being said, I agree with you about reading a lot. The only problem is it makes me depressed about my own writing when I read those I consider to be the masters :-p I guess we’ve just got to keep at it and keep learning, haven’t we?

    1. It’s funny but reading great stuff never makes me feel bad about my own efforts – it just makes me try harder, and, of course, it reminds me of why I do it in the first place!

      1. PS: Although I am not a Stephen King fan, and I found his book a little over dogmatic, I learnt a lot from reading it, so I think it’s one worth having.

  3. HOW FICTION WORKS by James Woods, is a good one. He takes the greats and analyses how they create certain effects and also engages with other approaches to literary analysis. Woods is unapologetically intellectual but happily he divides the book into easily digestible sections.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth – top tip. I’m hoping a few people will post their favourites on here over time to give people a list of books they feel have worked for them.

    1. Ah – I remember it well from my years as a news reporter. I used to have a copy, not sure where it is now. Along those lines there is also Newsman’s English by the great Harold Evans, part of a series of Editing and Design books which were all worth their weight in gold.

  4. I’d like to mention The Writer’s’ Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s useful for anyone interested in the structure of story and archetypal patterns. Its examples are all films that follow the structure, which is itself based on the ‘journey’ model outlined by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. . Vogler’s book is much more readable and was inspired by his work as a screenplay analyst for the Hollywood studios.

  5. Mark Tredinnick’s The Little Red Book is wonderful — clever and helpful and beautifully written.

  6. I would definitely agree with Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Also “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. Helen.

  7. A contribution here from very experienced author Maria Malone who you can find on twitter at @mariasmalone there was a technical problem which stopped her commenting in the usual way but she emailed me instead and here are her comments – thanks Maria!

    “I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s On Writing too, not least because it shows that even a phenomenally successful writer also battles those familiar feelings we all have of our writing not being good enough. On Carrie, he says, ‘I did three single-spaced pages of a first draft, then crumpled them up in disgust and threw them away.’ Luckily, his wife rescued them. Lots of great tips in the Toolbox section of the book.

    Also recommend Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – very short, beautifully illustrated little hardback. Some real gems here.

    And, first published in 1934, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. A bit dated in style, and the writer is always a ‘he’, but worth reading. ‘Every author is a very fortunate sort of dual personality,’ she says.”

  8. Thanks, Chris. Looking forward to checking these out. I have come to the same conclusion that you have. Far from being an authority myself, I can become the better writer I want to be by culling the thoughts of others for helpful tips. My goal, after all, is to be known for being a good writer by those who read my work, whether they are limited or legion.

    1. Yes, perhaps not surprisingly, I think we are right! Really I think the problem with these kinds of books arises if they are seen as some kind of panacea – they are not a magic pill they are someone’s opinion. Or if people think they are a substitute for reading fiction (if that’s what you are writing). Otherwise it’s just taking on board advice from someone who’s been there and done that – which seems eminently sensible.

  9. Fantastic blog Chris! I too am writing a novel, although I have changed my genre at the moment to try something new! My mind is playing tricks on me and the seeds of doubt are growing faster than ever. All I want to do is jump back into my safe world of children’s writing, all fluffy and warm but no. I will be strong and carry on with the crime novel that is whittering away in my mind.

    To answer your question, I only read the genre I’m writing but I will be looking at the suggestions you have given. You have to have an original voice. I don’t want to known as a wannabe Lol.

    1. Good luck with your book! I know what you mean about preserving your voice – but on the other hand that voice isn’t set in aspic – they develop over time – so personally I don’t worry about influence from outside I think good advice is likely to make you stronger in the end.

  10. I was going to mention ‘OnWriting’ by Stephen King, but so many others have beaten me there. the other real writer that often commented on his own process was Kurt Vonnegut, but I will have to look up which books he did this in. I liked his advice as university cannot teach you to trust your instincts…

    1. I’m not aware of a writing book by Vonnegut but there was a collection of his essays and speeches called Wampaters, Foma and Granfalloons where he wrote about pretty much everything under the sun and was as always incredibly engaging.

    1. Is that a true story? He had no shortage other books to leave in his rooms after all. I’ve read that one too and found it worthwhile, though eccentric – a bit like the man himself. I picked up a few bits and pieces in there and enjoyed the ride. I found it interesting as a memoir of a life spent writing and a manifesto of his way of doing things.

  11. VP, I repeat the best advice I’ve ever been given. “Don’t compare yourself to others. If you do, you’ll always be disappointed, because there are always going to be people who are greater or lesser than yourself.” Comparing your old work to your new work is a far better measure of your progress

    The thing I like about Stephen King’s “On Writing” is that he shows how much sweat goes into writing and how many rejections he got before he published “Carrie”. Just think of all those hours he spent hunched over that child’s desk in the laundry room, and persevere.

    One of my favourites–which I was stupid enough to lend, and so no longer own–is Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”. One of the things that I underlined in that book was “I will take care of the quantity. God will take care of the quality.” I used to tie myself up in knots because sentences didn’t come out nicely the first time ’round. I had to remind myself that as long as I got the words down on paper, I could eventually beat them into shape.

    1. Thanks Nanette, a new book to try and lots of good advice! I think another reason not to spend time comparing your writing to other people’s is that the only really worth while literary voice is a unique one.

  12. Hi Chris, great idea for a blogpost. I recently finished 102 Ways to Write a Novel by Alex Quick and found it useful and entertaining. It’s basically a list of writing tips, each no more than two pages long so very easy to read. Like you I started writing fiction before exploring the craft of writing in depth. As a result I made a lot of classic mistakes in my first novel which I am striving to fix in draft three. Can’t wait to write the next novel which will be perfect in every way 😉

    1. Thanks Clare! I think what you say about quick tips is a good point – rather that than a prescriptive ‘method’ for writing which doesn’t allow for the different ways writers have of going about things.

  13. Although ‘How to write’ books vary in quality and helpfulness, I do enjoy them and find the act of reading them usually stimulates ideas and/or solutions to writing problems. The ones I go back to regularly are: Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke (gave me an excellent system for creating rounded, credible characters) and Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias (which is actually a screen-writing book but nearly all of its advice can be applied to genre novel writing).

    1. I think that’s very true Janet – it’s useful to have something which makes you think about what you write and why, encourages you to question the process.

  14. Hi Chris
    The thing with, How to Write books, is the same with anything in our lives, everyone has their own personal opinion and way to do things, but what works for one doesn’t always work for the other. There comes a time when we need to just put the how to books aside and just write. Good post.

    1. Thank you Karen. I couldn’t agree more that writing comes first – and reading fiction too in my opinion. Books like these come a distant third, but perhaps they still have their place 🙂

  15. I’d add ‘Character and Viewpoint’ by Orson Scott Card – well worth taking a look at. It may be out of print at the moment but there are plenty of copies of the omnibus ‘How to write a Mi££ion’ available on ebay which includes the OSC title.

    1. Not heard of that one. The pleasure of this thread is that it does keep on turning up new titles which have been of value to people 🙂

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