Books For Writers

In my teens, otherwise known as ‘the first decade of producing manuscripts’ I read my way through piles and piles of writing magazines, hungry to absorb anything that anyone could tell me about technique, exercises to hone my craft, and the long road to publication.

In my twenties, post-publication, I rejected the stacks of magazines that I saw mostly as harbours for vanity press advertising, and began to learn from my peers instead. I joined and formed critique groups. A fortunate set of circumstances set me teaching creative writing, which I did for most of a decade.

In my thirties, with a few new and exciting book sales under my belt, I took the excuse of a shakeup at my workplace and my impending second child to walk away from teaching creative writing. I felt trapped in my old course format, and didn’t have the time to spare to create something new and dynamic. I was also starting to feel that it was not healthy for me to be spending so much time teaching Writing 101, surrounding myself by such a basic level of writing guidelines and advice, just at the point where I needed to be stretching my own writing craft. I needed to spread my wings and allow myself to smash the rules and expectations of writing, rather than being constrained by them.

I’m now more excited by books about writers, rather than about how to write – not because I think I know it all, but because I know now that the journey is half the fun. The same goes for blogs – I love reading about the practical side of writing, about writers bashing out 10,000 words in a day while sitting in their pyjamas and eating nothing but chocolate covered marshmallows. Looking back, I think I learned more from Piers Anthony’s author notes than I ever did from my stacks of Writer’s Digest.

Having said all that, there are several books about writing which are treasured parts of my library, and always will be:

The Writing Book, by Kate Grenville
The cleverness of this book is that it deals with a technique per chapter, and then illustrates that technique with samples from a variety of books which the writer loves, and then follows up with practical exercises that you can do. The aim of the book is for you to end up with a pile of exercises that you can then turn into a story or novel, and Kate takes you through that process. I adored this as a teenager and went through the book several times, despite the fact that the literary sensibilities of the author meant that the work she referred to was utterly alien to me. I never got a single usable story out of the process, but oh boy it was fun trying.

Sometimes the Magic Works, by Terry Brooks
This is my favourite book by Terry Brooks. I never read his Shannara books, and I read his Magic Kingdom books devotedly since not actually being that fond of them. This one, though, is a marvellous mixture of authorial life anecdotes and writerly advice. It’s a series of bitesize essays, which makes it very dip-in-able.

Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm
This one also has a lot of personality and personal history in it, and aims to give advice on writing based on lessons learned from 27 years of Clarion Writers’ Workshops. It’s one of the only two writing books I have ever bought a second copy of in order to gift to a friend. Storyteller is full of genre history and gentle humour, and is available from Small Beer Press.

These last two are reference books more than ‘how to’…

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones

The only writing book I ever loved by an author whose fiction I also knew well and loved! Also probably the funniest reference book ever. I’ve gifted this one too – more than once, actually – and it’s one of the very few books I would say every fantasy author MUST read. It highlights the worst and most amusing of fantasy cliches, so you know what to avoid – or at least interrogate seriously before using. The sad thing is, it’s 25 years old (there’s an anniversary edition!) and it’s still entirely useful and relevant.

Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward
This slender volume is a marvellous tool for writers. Based on a workshop these two authors have run together, it discusses the issues involved in writing diverse characters, and how to approach it with sensitivity and authenticity. It’s not entirely a ‘How to Avoid Racefail’ but it’s a great start in that direction, and would be a useful addition to the library of any writer.

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3 Responses to Books For Writers

  1. Oooh, sitting in PJs eating chocolate coated marshmallows! Sounds like fun, where can I sign up for this????

  2. Thoraiya says:

    Yeahhh I keep meaning to get A Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Soon!

    From your descriptions, I would probably also want the Terry Brooks one.

    These days I don’t so much want technical advice and writing exercises, I want…Motivation? Reassurance? I love Stephen King’s “On Writing” because I can read the first half about his writerly struggles on a doom-and-gloom day, or read the second half about technique on a revision day.

    If I’m writing Science Fiction I will force myself to do some of the exercises in Orson Scott Card’s writing book to make sure I’ve done the basic worldbuilding before I get stuck into the characters, and he also has an excellent chapter on training your first reader, not into a literary critic but into someone who can articulate their response to a work without analysing it or making suggestions.

    I can also recommend “The Joy of Writing Sex” for anyone who, like me, might have been a teeny bit scared of writing sex scenes.

    I’m waiting for someone to give me “Chicken Soup For the Writer’s Soul.” Christmas, maybe.


  3. My all time favourite book is Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. Revising was something I just didn’t get – what do you mean more work, my story is genius, I tells ya!

    Then I got over myself and read a few books, but this was the one that really resonated with me. Revising has now become a fairly organic process for me (I loves it, I tells ya!) but this book helped me develop a structure that taught me how to revise. It’s a technical book.

    I wouldn’t be where I am without it. Pure and simpl.e

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