By Susan Mary Malone
People ask me all the time to recommend books on writing. I mean, all the time. As they struggle to slog through the ambiguous mud of writing well—and it most certainly feels that way up to a point—they search for ways to make the process easier, or at least help to make some sense of it. The real truth is, you’re pushing water uphill if you want this to fall into some sort of one, two, three scenario. As with all art, the path is winding and circular and includes hills and valleys and the deep recesses of the ocean floor. In other words, the one, two, three of book development doesn’t exist, so go ahead and lay that aside.
I’m not big on how-to books for writers. As a developmental editor, I’ve perused about a zillion of them, and most give you very little real help. They’re pedantic or mundane or sometimes downright scary in their recommendations. Or, they focus on something such as voice, and say everything else isn’t important, which leads to lots of writers using wonderful language with no story to tell. Most of the time, though, they’re just so basic that you’d have already gleaned the information by writing enough in the first place.
Often, these books do teach the basics. The result being that they teach you to write-by-numbers, which is what I see from many writers who have studied them.
All that said, however, good how-to books do exist. I’m a proponent of a very few good books, so what follows is the short and long list.
First off, for understanding language and style, grammar and syntax and sentence structure, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can’t be beat. It’s the old standby, which still eclipses all of the subsequent books on the topic, and applies equally well for all forms of writing—fiction, nonfiction, essays, etc.
On the marketing side, if you’re writing nonfiction, you have to have a bang-up proposal (which is quite different from your fiction synopsis). These proposals are their own beasts, and many a wonderful writer has pulled her hair out trying to get it right. Mike Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal is the best guide I know, and truly takes away the headache from all of this.
Next, we bring to life novels especially, but narrative nonfiction as well, through the use of scenes. When you break down a chapter, you do so by studying the scenes involved—where they hit, where they missed, what’s flat, what’s beside the point, etc. Jack Bickam’s Scene and Structure does a great job of clearing the page about this. What constitutes a scene? What are the elements involved? How do you get from point A to Point Z, and set up the next point A? Bickam’s book will help you make sense of that.
Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens is more than the title conveys. Yes, it’s a how-to about plot. But it goes much deeper (which is where 99.9% of books concerning plot fail). What Lukeman explains from the get-go is true character development, and how that affects and defines plot. He gives great tips and exercises for asking questions of your characters that make them come alive—which is the point of all good fiction. This book is about story building, from the most basic level to depth instruction, by creating plot through characters. It’s the antithesis of write-by-numbers.
A book that covers the most important aspects of fiction (although it was written for screenplays) is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. It breaks down stories into plot points—why they’re important, how they further the story, where and why pacing lags—by illustrating characters’ journeys through plot. Its mythological structure likens the characters to archetypes, and why the trials and tribulations involved make for great storytelling. I must issue a disclaimer here, however. This is a very sophisticated writing book, and you have to have written a good deal to be able to relate to the discussion. I’ve had lots of writers come back confused from reading it, so I only recommend it once you’ve reached a certain point. Write first. Get critiqued or edited by top-notch book editing services. Study some of the other books. Write some more. Then read this one.
Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for deciding if you really must undertake this endeavor. Because it is an ordeal. Finding your sea legs is hard, hard work. Unforgiving work. I cannot convey how many writers get back edited books and say, “Man, this looks like work!” It is. Rilke’s book will help you decide whether you’re in this for the long haul, or would be better off learning to fly jet airplanes.
My very favorite writing book ever is Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. It is about finding your voice (although not at the exclusion of everything else!), which of course cannot be taught. Your voice is your voice—unique to you. It has to be uncovered, but it can be understood on this most basic of levels, which’ll help in the beginning to know what you’re looking for. And later, it’ll remind you why you do what you do. The book is so beautifully done. It’s a kid’s book, actually. Ms. Creech is a Newberry Medal winner. But DO NOT let that stop you. If you are to read one book on writing, let this be it.
Okay, there’s my list. Short. So use these books and they will help. But what will then help the most is for you to do two things: First and foremost, read. Read good books. I’m still amazed at how many writers tell me they don’t read (and it shows in their work). Forget today’s bestsellers. They won’t teach you much. Read instead the best books in your market. Read the classics. Read them all the time. The second thing is to write. Write, read, read, read. Write, read, read, read. That formula’ll work every time.
Now, take up your proverbial pen and write.