Friday, January 29, 2010

Do Writing Books Help?

There are plenty of writing books out there--books by authors, books by teachers, books by experts. Do they really help? The WinRs have varying opinions.


MK Johnston

Writing requires a balance between creativity, technique, and the realities of the marketplace. Whether books or magazine articles, the sources I find most helpful are the ones that strike a balance between the art, science, and business of writing. Once I defined my goals as a writer, I searched for source material to help me achieve them – to become a better writer, to produce works of quality, to get published, to connect with readers who would enjoy my work.

I generally prefer books over magazine articles because they go into greater depth, though I also favor articles on one specific topic or current issue. My sources range from how to write/write better books to novels with similar themes which I study for technique. Any well written book that is pleasurable to read can be inspirational, too.

There have been several authors whose books I’ve found extremely helpful; the works of Sol Stein and Noah Lukeman would top my list. I’ve learned a lot from them, but I’ve relearned even more. Sometimes I need to remind myself of what must be done and sometimes it takes hearing the same information restated, or stated in a different way, to get through to me.

Ultimately, learning is a partnership between the writer and reader. We have to be receptive to the information; it has to be presented in a way that gets us to recognize its importance and incorporate it into our writing. That’s why I often restated information in my recent tutorial “Learning the Basics ‘Chapter One’ at a Time”.

Once you establish your goal, seek out source material to help you reach it. Use all the tools available to help you, from blogs like this one to libraries.

Jacqueline Vick

A very good point, Miriam. I had a stack of magazines "this high" at home, and I kept putting off reading through them. Then I picked a subject I wanted to study, searched for articles related to this one topic, and got rid of the rest. I'm sure I'll soon have another stack to go through with a different topic in mind.

Out of the miriad of writing books that I've had, I found a few tips have stuck with me.

Robert McKee's "Story" has great information about beats.

Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" let me know that sh#tty first drafts were a good thing.

Walter Mosley reminds me to write every day in "This Year You Write Your Novel".

Michael Hauge's "Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds" is a book I refer to often when I'm not clear on what my story is about. Honing a pitch makes it clear where the story is lacking.

I look to Stephen King's "On Writing" for reminders about writing tight.

I noticed that the books I like fall into two catagories: books by authors and screenwriting books. Maybe authors have better insights on the writing process, or maybe their wordsmith skills make the information more interesting.  Also, novel writers should not dismiss screenwriting books as "not for me". A good script moves, and your novel should, too. Applying screenplay structure can tighten your story.

The books I've found least helpful fall under writing manuals--technical books put out by Writer's Digest etc. They usually contain dry information that puts me to sleep.

Another great source of information is other writers. Without Jackie Houchin's advice to "cut 20% in the editing process", my short stories would be novellas. After reading Bonnie's shorts, I rush back to my own and ask, "Are my characters  human enough?" Miriam reminds me it's all in the details, and then Gayle advises, "Does it serve the story?" With Rosemary in mind, I write characters that an actress might want to sink her teeth into.

It's all good.

Bonnie Schroeder brings us a list of her favorite books.

1. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. Far and away the most inspiring and motivating, and once I internalized her concept of the “really shitty first draft” I felt free to create dreck with the assurance it might, eventually, turn into something readable – but only if I got those dreadful words down on the page in the first place.

2. A Writer’s Time – Kenneth Atchity. The back-copy blurb says it all: “[Atchity] shows you how to activate the creative process, how to transform anxiety into ‘productive elation,’ how to separate the vision of a project from re-vision, and how to set up a writing agenda that won’t defeat you.”

3. The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler. A splendid look at how to incorporate classic mythic structure into your storyline. Based on the work of Joseph Campbell. I can’t tell you how many times Vogler has helped me figure out “what happens next” and why one version works and another doesn’t.

4. On Writing – Stephen King. Lessons from the master. I just wish he followed his own advice more closely.

5. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel – Jane Smiley. I confess that most of this 570-page manuscript was too academic, even pretentious, for my taste. But the two chapters on “A Novel of Your Own (I) and (II)” are spectacular and cover craft and inspiration. And it is infinitely reassuring to know that a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist like Smiley struggles with the same writing demons (well, some of them) we all do.

6. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Almost everything you need to know about English usage in less than 100 pages.


GB Pool

I have never read a writing book that taught me anything. I read other people's books, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to learn.

Jacqueline Vick

Gayle brings up an excellent point. Study what other writers are doing. Don't imitate them, but learn from them. Read the classics, read your contemporaries. Find out what they're doing right and apply it to your own writing.

Jackie Houchin

One of my favorite books on writing for children is "Creating Characters Kids Will Love" by Elaine Marie Alphin. My copy is well used, with penciled-in notes, underlines, asterisks and arrows.


This book is loaded with ideas, instruction and examples. Each section within the many chapters ends with "Read the Pros," a suggested reading list of specific chapters in specific books that illustrate what was taught, followed by a "Try it Yourself" section with thought-provoking, idea-stimulating writing exercises. A very accessible book that you will return to again and again.

The other fantastic book on writing for children is "Story Sparkers, A Creativity Guide for Children's Writers" by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones, who use many examples from their own "Adventures of the Bailey School Kids" series.

This book is packed full of good ideas, charts, check lists and illustrations. It gives the reader many opportunities to try out what they are learning with fun exercises in writing, observing, and interviewing. This is another book that you will want to refer to often.

The two very helpful books for writing adult mystery fiction are authored by two, what else, mystery writers.

Gillian Roberts' "You Can Write a Mystery" gives practical suggestions for dealing with problems that come up in the writing process, beginning with the "Fifteen Commandments for Mystery Writers Who Want to be Published." She then covers topics from, your sleuth, victim and villain to POVs to plotting (learning to think backwards) and hiding clues, with a final chapter on marketing.

Carolyn Wheat's "How To Write Killer Fiction" discusses the difference between mystery and a suspense fiction (yes, there are clear distinctions!). She lists and describes dozens of sub-genres and crossovers and offers book titles as examples. The book is divided into three parts, Part 1: The Funhouse of Mystery, Part 2: The Roller Coaster of Suspense, Part 3: The Writing Process.


What about you? Do you have a favorite book you'd like to share with us? We'd love to hear from you.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for these recommendations. I'm starting in my mid-60s with learning how to write fiction for kids, and want to learn FAST what works and what doesn't. I'll be checking out some of these resources soon. Gratitude!

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  2. I enjoyed Elizabeth George's book "Write Away." It offered up lots of examples from her books. I've also enjoyed Lawrence Block's writing books such as "Telling Lies for Fun & Profit" (he has several others on the market as well). And I just downloaded Alexandra Sokoloff's "Screenwriting Tricks for Authors" onto my Kindle (even though I've already copied most of her "tricks" from her blog).

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  3. Many of the writing books I love are on your lists. It occurs to me that sometimes we (er, I) keep reading this stuff when it's time to stop reading and just write. Having said that, two of my great favorites are Word Painting by Rebecca McLanahan and The Path of least Resistance by Robert Fritz, which are about creativity more than anything. My son borrowed both and then moved to Germany, so of course, now I'm wishing to be able to take them off the shelf. A trip to B&N may be called for...

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  4. I think like everything else in the writing world, writing books are subjective--some people love some books. I love Stephen King's, but also anything written by Donald Maass--I've become a better writer by reading those books.

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  5. There are a few books that've really helped me transition from screenwriting to fiction, and I recommend them HIGHLY:
    Picture Writing by Anastasia Suen
    The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
    Self-Editing for Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
    They really helped me make my prose better.

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