I was recently asked to recommend some books on how to write and on any related topics. I started to trot out the obvious suggestions, then realised there was a real trove of material out there. So, with some short comments, here are my top suggestions.
Let’s get the two most obvious ones out of the way to start!
How To Write gets excellent reader-feedback. It doesn’t pick out one single aspect of technique or pretend that you can learn how to write in a couple of months. It’s a big, meaty, book on every part of a writer’s toolkit.
Getting Published is a reliable guide to traditional publishing and finding an agent.
You needn’t be a fan of Stephen King’s to enjoy this honest, compelling tome – and I know it has legions of fans. For me, the most striking part was King’s list of the books he read in any given year. That list is intelligent and eclectic and goes to show that good writers simply can’t read too much or too well.
Both key texts for the new generation of self-published authors. David’s book should be read in conjunction with his Let’s Get Visible. The strategies in the Write. Publish. Repeat book won’t work for most writers. Those authors’ basic mantra is to write heaps and heaps of material and build a career as much from the volume of output as from its quality. I can’t, as something of a purist myself, really get excited about that approach, but you still need to read the book. It’s got a lot to say, and it’s usually right.
These aren’t quite how-to guides. The Chandler essay (and it’s an essay, not a book) is a vastly important milestone in the development of crime fiction: a manifesto for a new age, and a manifesto that has echoed well beyond the walls of that genre.
The Elmore Leonard piece is a brief (and somewhat tongue in cheek) list of suggestions. You could probably break all of Leonard’s rules and do just fine – and indeed, I do quite often break them.
But it’s important to read what writers have to say about writing – and a variety of writers at that. (Hence the Kundera, Nabokov and the EM Forster.) You won’t always agree, and you don’t have to. The important thing is that you run the arguments in your head.
Wood is arguably today’s most influential critic – and he writes beautifully. My comment above that you need to run the arguments in your head applies here too. Wood’s book offers a personal and partial view. (He loves sentences and doesn’t, astonishingly, even mention story.) But he’s so good that his partial is worth most people’s everything.
Both books are part of a new wave of popular neuroscience. I prefer the Lehrer book, which is not specifically about writing but which is, for my money, very illuminating indeed about the creative process. But if you like something with more how-to-ish ambition, you’ll certainly get more from Cron’s book.
Then, in a cluster, some other favourite books of mine. Sol Stein was a very respected editor (as well as being a novelist himself). Stein on Writing is his attempt to set down the rules by which he’s lived. It was the first how-to book of this sort that I read, and I still have a soft spot for it, although the tone can be a little self-important at times.
Julia Cameron’s is an approach to creativity more than, directly, a how-to-write-a-bestseller type book. But it’s great, heartfelt.
The same sort of comments go for Word Painting and Reading like a Writer. Both well-written, thoughtful, gently inspiring. Elmore Leonard would presumably want to kill Rebecca McClanahan, but I’d be on Rebecca’s side.
As for Strunk – well, you need it on a list like this.
And finally, some other books that have, at the very least, been thought-provoking and helpful ones for me: