I just completed an inspiring 5 month course at the Victorian Writer’s Centre under the assured tutelage of veteran Melbourne crime writer PD Martin. During our sessions, she referred us to several excellent texts on the craft of writing. The following grew out of an email I sent to the rest of the class listing some of the writing craft books I’ve found most helpful in my journey.
The first book on writing I ever came across was The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. I was at university, and I had a comment come back from my supervisor: “However is not a coordinating conjunction.” A what? I realised then I needed to get a better grip on the nuts and bolts of writing. Over the years I’ve had four or five copies of Strunk & White, each of which I’ve given away to students of my own at some point or other. Its most recent incarnation on my shelf is a black hardback copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition. For brevity and clarity, this little book has yet to be beaten.
Another excellent book for writing technique is Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. I find him an insufferable literature snob, and his attitude towards what he calls transient fiction rubs me the wrong way, but his advice is generally superb. Chapter 32, on manuscript revision, is particularly excellent. It’s probably worth getting the book for that chapter alone. It made me realise why my first manuscript never really got any better even though I sweated over it for two years. I’ll certainly revise my current manuscripts differently in light of Stein’s advice. (He also has a previous book called How to Grow a Novel, which is on my shelf awaiting my attention. I’ll let you know if it is any good when I get to it.)
The book that had the biggest impact on how I think about plotting is called Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. He is a suspense writer, so his advice is aimed squarely at genre fiction. He covers the general principals of plot, the three act structure, the hero’s journey, and even how to balance the intensity of a scene. He also has a book on Revision and Self-Editing that has some good stuff, but he covers a lot of the same material without a lot of added value. I’d stick with Plot and Structure unless you are desperate for another editing and revision text. I’ve also just discovered a new book, published a couple of months ago, called Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth, which I bought for my Kindle on the strength of his previous two books. Stay tuned for a review.
I found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, to be tremendously valuable. I was half-way through reading this book when PD Martin came to talk about editing. I was chuffed to find she quoted frequently from Browne & King. I’m sure that my revisions will be better for my having read this as well as Stein’s book.
Another useful book is Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. I enjoy reading stories with well-developed characters, and I hope to write stories with well-developed characters. But this book helped me to understand that the level of characterisation you should go into depends on the importance of a character’s role in the story. (If you spend three pages describing the facial ticks and marital difficulties of a New York cabbie, the reader may feel ripped off when he fails to make another appearance in the story.)
I have read many others, but these are the ones I found most helpful. They presented information in a way that spoke to me, and they made me see what I was doing wrong (even if that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to know how to do it right). They have also helped me understand that publishing follows fads and fashions like any other industry. The fashions may last years or decades, rather than seasons, but they are there nonetheless, and writers have to adapt.
If anybody has any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.