Books about books: Required reading for writers

In Writing on April 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Every serious writer — even if they plan on breaking every rule it contains — should have a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but what else should be sitting on your shelf next to the dictionary, thesaurus, rhyming dictionary and … rhyming thesaurus?

Well, I have a few suggestions, though this list is by no means complete:

Reading Like a Writer — Francine Prose

Reading like a writerIt’s self-evident that the more you read stories, the better you’ll understand how they’re constructed — the same way eating, say, every type of cake at the Cheesecake Factory gives you a pretty good idea of what makes a decent slice. Now imagine you could eat your way through the menu with a world-renown chef sitting at your side, showing you how the ingredients have been mixed here, what spices were used there, and what could have made such-and-such a cake this much better.

That’s what you’ll get with Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It’s a great primer in how to read slowly, deliberately, and make sure you don’t miss what your favorite writers are up to. Using clear examples from the works of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Kafka and Twain (and many more), Prose explains how master writers choose their words, build their sentences and plot their stories — and then gives you the tools to figure it out on your own with any book you read.

So before you even start thinking about your own plot or characters or themes, give this book a go. That way,  when you’re on the beach this summer re-reading the entire Harry Potter series cover to cover, you can tell people it’s just ‘research.’

Writing Fiction — Gotham Writer’s Workshop

(AND) A Writer’s Guide to Fiction — Elizabeth Lyons

writing fiction

So many books about writing, written (of course) by writers, contain a lot of extraneous — well — writing, that really does nothing to help you on your way to writing your own stuff. The authors seem so concerned about proving that they can write, that they forget to tell you how you can write better.

writers guide to fictionBut the Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction and Elizabeth Lyons’ Writer’s Guide to Fiction, are two no-nonsense, just-the-facts books that are chock-full of helpful, practical tips for improving your writing. Best of all, both are broken up into easy chunks, so whether you need help fleshing out a character, developing a scene or cleaning up your dialogue, you can jump right to it without having to fill the books with pretty pink Post It notes (although, naturally, you still can if you really want to).

The Anatomy of Story — John Truby

Anatomy of story

Technically, this one isn’t a book about books; it’s a book about screenplays and, more specifically, screenplay structure. But it also serves as a great guide to story structure in general. So, once you’ve picked up the practical guides above (and after you’ve made it through The Deathly Hallows) you can finally start to plot your own best-selling novel, and John Truby will tell you how.

With Truby, it’s not about three-act structure or pinch one, pinch two — he understands that every story has different needs. Instead of telling you exactly how to plot your story and what to put where, he shows you all the different parts you can use and how you might, maybe, if you happen to be so inclined, put them together. Truby doesn’t give you the blueprint, he shows you how to use the nails and the screws and what hammers and drills will help you get the job done.

All cake and blueprint-related analogies aside, I’ve found this book to be extremely helpful at all stages of my writing process, and I recommend it for anyone who’s serious about building a solid plot and crafting a story that really works.

The Artful EditSusan Bell

artful editIt’s a truth universally acknowledge that editing, well, sucks. But it’s also generally understood that writers end up spending about 90% of their time doing just that. Luckily, thanks to Susan Bell, it can suck a little less!

Not only does The Artful Edit suggests a great many strategies for reading your own stuff, polishing what needs polishing and cutting the stuff that doesn’t belong, but it also contains a number of anecdotes and insights into how other really good writers, get the job done. (Apparently, Flaubert thought prose was “a bitch of a thing.”)

Bell gives readers a guide to fixing the little mistakes, the really big mistakes, and everything in between — and each chapter comes with a list of exercises and checks you can apply to your own writing.

The First Five PagesNoah Lukeman

first five pages

Alright, you’ve got a great plot, you’ve edited the Dickens (um, dickens) out of your stuff — time to send it off to the publisher and collect your riches, right? Right?! Well, maybe, but it may also be a good idea to give Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages a look first.

Half guide to writing, half brutal truth about how tired, angry, and fed up with manuscript submissions editors are, The First Five Pages is all about keeping your manuscript out of the rejection pile. Because the fact is this: Editors and agents are busy. Really busy. They read literally thousands of pages a week, and they want nothing more than to find something — anything — in your work that will give them an excuse to stop reading. Whether its how the thing is formatted, what kind of paper you’ve used, or the amount of dialogue filling up the page, there are a lot of small but significant pitfalls you’ll want to avoid to give yourself the best shot possible.

If you can get that editor, agent or (most likely) poorly-paid entry-level reader to finish just the first five pages of your book, you’re practically in. Lukeman shows you how.

I know, I know: that’s a lot, but it’s also just the beginning. So what books are on your shelf?

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  1. I adore The First Five Pages. I used it to editing the first serious short story that I did (which admittedly wasn’t published but did get me into a workshop). The other two that I really like are Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

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