How many writing books are there?
Some of them are great, some of them…just aren’t.
It’s easy to overindulge. It’s the most tempting thing in the world to march into a bookstore, scoop an armload of writing how-to books off the shelf, go home, and
spend a year waste a year thumbing through all of them before you decide you know enough to write a book.
Don’t make that mistake. Read a little bit, and then get writing.
But which books should you read?
I’m glad you asked. I’ve compiled a brief list of the five books which I believe are the (only) fiction writing books you’ll ever need.
[DISCLAIMER] This is a subjective list. Everybody’s gotta read a few writing books before they figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. What helped me may not help you, and vice versa. These are the five books that, at a minimum, I’m gonna have on the shelf above my writing desk when I get to be a successful novelist. [/DISCLAIMER]
#5. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
I know, I know. You’ve seen this on every single freakin’ list of must-have writing books that ever existed anywhere. There’s a reason for that.
The original version of this book was first written by William Strunk, a professor of English at Cornell University, way back in 1918 (when my great-grandmother Ruth was just 10 years old, FYI). It contained, according to Wikipedia, “eight ‘elementary rules of usage,’ ten ‘elementary principles of composition,’ ‘a few matters of form,’ a list of 49 ‘words and expressions commonly misused,’ and a list of 57 ‘words often misspelled.'” Then, in 1959, along came E.B. White—yes, that E.B. White (the one who wrote a funny little book about a pig and his best friend and emotional crutch: a highly artistic and maternal spider). The result was what Time called one of the 100 most influential English-language books written since 1923, proving once and for all that Time reporters have absolutely no freakin’ clue what they’re talking about. (Did I mention that the book was written in 1918?)
At first glance, The Elements of Style is nothing more than a succinct primer on collegiate writing: Rule 17 famously admonishes us to “Omit needless words.” (Strunk reportedly followed this rule with such zeal that he found his university lectures too short to fill up an entire class period, forcing him to repeat himself: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”) But Elements is so much more than the acerbic rantings of a grammar wonk. Through a series of memorable and nigh-mnemonic axioms, Strunk and White lay the foundations of superb fiction writing.
Don’t believe me? Consider Rule 11: use the active voice. We’ve all edited one of our fellow writers’ story manuscripts and nearly hurled the damn thing across the room after reading the 19th straight sentence written in passive voice.
Or consider this well-known snippet:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
See what I mean? This book is a goldmine for fiction writers. Make every word tell. You should be striving for that in your fiction. Use your resources wisely. Every word needs to sing, to serve its purpose in the great machine. Your writing can be beautiful, descriptive, poetic even, but every word needs to be there for a reason. If your writing isn’t tight, you’ve failed before you’ve even begun to tell a story. Narrative is one thing, but if your style is lacking, it’s your book your readers will be chucking across the room. So pick this book up and commit to memory.
#4. Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry W. Phillips (ed.)
I said this was a subjective list, didn’t I? This is one of those writing books that came into my life at exactly the right time. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Hemingway, and on a trip to the Florida Keys, a dear high school friend of mine bought me this book at the gift shop at Hemingway’s old house.
Writing books don’t have to be dry and dull, composed of nothing but paragraph after monotonous paragraph of admonishments and generalized advice and meaningless, shallow exhortations organized neatly into chapters and subsections. Sometimes they can be just a collection of quotes. And that’s what this book is. It’s Ernest Hemingway’s honest, unvarnished opinions about writing, gleaned from his fiction stories, his memoirs, and his letters to friends and family. If you’re feeling proud of yourself after completing a hard day’s 1,000 words, or sad and depressed that you haven’t sold a story, or are stuck for an idea and don’t know where to turn for inspiration, or (worst of all) you feel like a complete phony and a fraud and can’t bear the thought of putting your poser’s fingers on a keyboard (or if you just want a humorous glimpse into Hemingway’s private life), open this book and enjoy:
Remember to get the weather in your god damned book. Weather is very important.
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time…
The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life—and one is as good as the other.
Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.
#3. The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing books don’t have to be a collection of bland, hortatory essays organized into chapters. Sometimes they can be quite simply organized into a collection of writing prompts, quite inventive and unusual ones at that. So it is with Kiteley’s book. Kiteley is an author and the director of the University of Denver’s creative writing program. He cleverly organized the The 3 A.M. Epiphany into tantalizingly specific chapters, allowing you to zero in on any areas you think you’re weak on: Point of View, Images, Characters and Ways of Seeing, Women and Men, Children and Childhood, Conversation, Thought and Emotion, Biography and Autobiography, Time, History, Description, and so on. The book is designed to get you creating ideas, writing stories, and revising them without waiting for inspiration to strike, and to get you thinking about writing and creating fiction in all sorts of ways…many of them outside your comfort zone as a writer, most likely. Consider Exercise 55, from Chapter 5 (Children and Childhood):
Shy. Pit two children against one another in a friendly battle. One child literally cannot speak nor interact with adults. The other child can only speak with adults, but clams up completely with other children. Both children, in other words, are selectively shy. An adult should be the third wheel in this simple dance, although the adult will not play a major role. Sprinkle throughout this piece words that sound like shy, but don’t use the word itself. Choose one POV—one of these two children. Use the first-person pronoun. 600 words
I don’t know about you, but just reading this got my writer juices flowing and my creative wheels turning. It made me want to sit down with a notepad and pen, sketch out two children with traumatic backstories, and have them play marbles against each other, or hopscotch, or some other silent game of skill. And this was just one exercise from one chapter: the whole book is full of evocative prompts like this. You don’t even have to be a fiction writer to benefit from some of them. Take Exercise 172, in Chapter 18 (Travel):
Arrivals. Write about a series of arrivals at different places—with no other explanation of how you got there. The key is to try to understand one of the more mystifying experiences of travel—how we adjust to the unknown, the misunderstood, and the mundane otherness of exotica. We travel to lose the I, to abandon temporarily our neuroses and everyday worries, so our first encounters with new places are often richer and more acute. Give five or six approaches to this phenomenon—the moments of complete novelty, when everything is exciting and strange. Even if you don’t have enough experience with multiple arrivals, pretend to have it. 600 words
Doesn’t matter whether you write high fantasy, hard-boiled crime fiction, or travel nonfiction—you could benefit from an exercise like that.
#2. Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon
What set of writing books would be complete without one that isn’t even about writing at all, but revision? Just like style, this vital skill is often overlooked by first-time writers. Too many writers try to get things perfect the first time, and write a beautiful, immaculate first draft that requires little to no editing. News flash, buster: that never happens. First drafts are uniformly crappy. The first draft, as Terry Pratchett so sagaciously said, is just you telling yourself the story. When you revise, you have to clean it up, dust it off, wipe the residue of yourself off the page (eww…that sounded less gross in my head) and polish the writing up so it’s presentable to a wider audience. Lyon’s excellent book will show you multiple easy-to-adopt techniques for tidying up your sentence structure and punctuation, deepening your characterizations, clarifying the structure of your book, and enhancing your style (reinforcing, basically, everything you’ve already learned from Strunk, White, and Kiteley). Speaking for myself, when I’m writing, I envision an ocean and wind up with a kiddie pool. Shallow characters, inconsistent style, structure that’s all over the place, tons of unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, and words. Lyon’s book is the janitorial service that comes along and helps me enrich my characters and their backstories so that they develop over the course of the novel and make sense in the context of the story; tighten the prose and make it stylistically consistent; and chop out all the unnecessary dreck that so frequently populates a first draft.
And now, the golden horn, the Holy Grail, the crème de la crème of writing books (okay, more like Maine lobster)…
#1. On Writing by Stephen King
The other books on this list can give you the tools to write well. Some, like the Hemingway book, may even give you the inspiration. But there’s only one writing book I’ve ever read that, in addition to giving me the practical knowledge to write a decent book (from the beginning of the process to the end, from ideation to revision), also gave me the courage to do so.
And it was written by the master of fright himself, Stephen King.
On Writing is, without a doubt, the best book on writing I’ve ever read. Why? I’ll give you four reasons:
1. It’s funny. It was written by Stephen King, for Pete’s sake. The guy could have been a stand-up comedian if he wasn’t so good at scaring the pants off people. He’ll give us an example of bad prose and then say something like “Oh, man. Who farted, right?” This book, rather than being a bland, formal collection of paragraphs better suited to a college textbook than an honest treatise on the craft of creative writing, is easy to read, interesting, fun, and approachable.
2. It’s personal. King doesn’t just tell us how to write. He also gives us his personal take, talking about how he came to be a writer (his mother, apparently, once graphically described a suicide she witnessed to little Steve, and he had a babysitter who held him down and farted in his face), and about how writing saved his life after he was struck and nearly killed by a car. The personal vignettes and opinions King injects into the prose make a didactic book even more didactic (and hilarious).
3. It works. I’ve put King’s rules to the test, following almost every slice of advice he’s given in On Writing…and you know what? It works. He said write every day, and I’ve done my damnedest to write every day since 2015. And I have found, just as King said I would, that on a daily basis, my mind clicks into gear and the words start flowing more easily. I completed a manuscript in 2017 and then set out, as King exhorted me, to “kill my darlings.” That is, to edit mercilessly, removing even parts of the book I thought were damn good if they served no purpose and cluttered up the story. And you know what? I wound up with a tight, readable little manuscript that was punchy and had flow. King knows what he’s talking about. He’s written at least 104 books (I’m not exaggerating: that’s exactly what Google told me when I punched in “How many books has Stephen King written?”). If he’s not the richest person in Maine, I’m a Rhode Island rooster. There’s a picture of King next to the entry for “successful writer” in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Okay, I may have made that last part up. But obviously King knows something about the writing craft after doing it for half a freakin’ century.
I knew I shouldn’t have had that fourth glass of Riesling. [cough]
4. It’s encouraging. I didn’t believe I was a writer before I began reading On Writing. Writing was something only experts could do, like Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Cather and Woolf and all the other gods in the literary pantheon. That list didn’t include me. I was just a nobody with a word processor and a high opinion of himself.
After I put down On Writing, I was a writer. I believed in myself. This novel-writing thing seemed…doable. Dang it, I was determined to give it a try. And I started, and I haven’t stopped since.
Writing books can tell you what to do, but they can’t give you the courage to try. Stephen King’s book does. It makes it all seem possible. Rather than impersonally lecturing you or firing a random “You can do it!” into a crowd of wannabes, King writes as if you were his personal apprentice and the two of you were sitting in his writing office, co-authoring a book together. Yeah—it’s that intimate and that kind. Writers can be a selfish lot, and believe they’re God’s gift to letters, and jealously guard the secrets of success from others. Not so King. He writes like he imagines that everybody in the entire world can write a novel as long as they do this or that and watch out for the other. I can’t tell you what an empowering feeling it was to read On Writing and then sit down in front of my laptop and apply King’s rules.
Dude, I love that book. So much.
Crap, I KNEW I shouldn’t have had that sixth glass of Riesling.
Anyway, these are the (only) five writing books I think a novelist could ever need. But don’t take my word for it. What inspirational writing books have you read? What’s on your writing bookshelf? Leave a comment below and tell me. And then close the dang web browser and get writing.