Last week I dosed you up with ways to kick your imaginary writer’s block to the curb. One of my tips was to read a book on writing to inspire yourself when you feel stuck. And then cruel, cruel me left it at that. No recommendations, no advice for picking a writing book, nothing. To make up for leaving you in the dark, I’m dedicating this post to a few of my favorite books on writing and giving you a handful of things to keep in mind when selecting a writing book to add to your own collection.
Now, before you go off on me saying it’s a waste of writing time to read books on writing, well, shut up. I’m not suggesting pushing aside your notebook or laptop and lounging in a sun chair all afternoon while you sip a daiquiri (although that does sound pretty nice). When I say “read a book on writing” I simply mean for you to spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading a chapter or a handful of pages to boost your brain cells. And you should always read with a notepad nearby to jot down the ideas that come spewing out of those newly inspired brain cells. Unless you’re a very gifted writer (or are self-centered enough to think you are), everyone can benefit from other people’s advice. Okay?
Okay, so, onto the books…
1. Wired for Story by Liz Cron – I read this and then immediately read it again taking copious notes on one piece of paper while filling another piece of paper with ideas for one of the stories I’m currently working on. Liz covers many of the same notions other writing books cover such as building emotional connections with the characters, writing only what matters to the story, etc., but relates it to what our brains expect when reading a story. Even though it’s based on neuroscience, it is in no way overly scientific or hard to read.
2. On Writing by Stephen King – Okay, I admit I’m a grande Stephen King fan and so may be a bit biased about this recommendation. The first part of the book is a mini-autobiography that tells about the influences and experiences that made him into a writer, plus a history of his writing career (plan to be envious). The second part is a concise tutorial of what makes for good writing, steps in the process of writing and even some tips on revision. It’s very short and something you can read over and over again.
3. Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected by Jessica Morrell – All of Jessica’s books are great, but if I were forced to pick, I’d say this one is tops for overall writing advice. She delivers great advice with plenty of sarcastic humor….just my style!
Other great books on writing and the craft of writing include anything by Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl). How anyone can make grammar seem like fun deserves huge kudos! Writing the Breakout Novel (and the accompanying workbook) by Donald Maass are both great for improving your story and strengthening your characters. And, of course, Elements of Style for bare bones advice on writing.
How do you decide if a writing book is a good book?
Well, it will be a personal choice. Not everyone likes the same style, tone or needs the same kind of guidance.You can evaluate a book pretty easily though…
1. Read the author bio – My first task when looking at any writing book is to read the author’s bio. If the author has never written a novel and is offering advice on novel writing, um, put it down and move on! Seriously, would you take golf lessons from someone who’s only golfing experience is watching the Masters on TV or going to a putt-putt course? The exception to this is if the author, as in the case of Maass, is an experienced agent or book editor. They know their stuff.
2. Look at the table of contents – Does the list of topics sound like the same old, same old you’ve seen over and over. I find most of the books from Writer’s Digest have this problem – the same rote advice delivered in the same rote manner. Not very inspiring, which is odd because the magazine isn’t half bad. Weird.
3. Check out the beginning of the book – Not the intro, but the first couple chapters. Does the book have you doing a bunch of exercises you don’t want to do or going over information you don’t need? So many writing books start out telling you to write a memory from your childhood or have you brainstorming for ideas. Bloody hell, I don’t need any more ideas, I don’t have time for all the ones I have now! For me these types of books are a waste of time, for others out there the need to generate ideas may be necessary. The point is, examine the approach the book is taking and see if that suits what you’re looking for.
4. Read for free first – Check out books from your local library rather than shelling out your hard-earned writing dollars on books that may not suit your needs or tastes. Look over the book for free. If the book is good, buy it and add it to your collection. If it sucks, you’re only out a little bit of time rather than a handful of cash.
Above all, read books in your genre and in other genres as well. (This reading should be done outside of your writing time when you do have time to lounge and sip that daiquiri.) As you read, evaluate the book for how the author made things work. Why are you drawn to the protagonist? Why does the villain seem believable? How much time did the author spend on setting? How do the plot points mesh together? If you find you don’t like the book, ask yourself why, what didn’t work? This type of critical reading will help your writing as you employ what works and keep in mind what doesn’t.
What are your favorite books on writing? Which books were full of horrible advice? Send a comment and let everyone know!