First I was young and now I am old and there was a time when I could not under any circumstances countenance the idea of reading a ‘How to write’ book.
My logic, such as it was, ran that this type of book merely distracted me from my already ordained path as a writer, my development was to be natural and organic, unsullied by protocol and not restrained by the bonds of convention.
Hmm yeah, well we all have those types of notions when we are young I suppose.
Now I’ve grown up a bit I tend to think it’s best to take good advice when you are offered it. I also think that good writers are made, not born, and that there are technical tricks which can help you improve what you already have.
But I still don’t read a great many of these types of books, though there are a great many available. Here’s why: If ever I’m asked by a writer for advice what to read – much in the same way as one race-day punter might ask another for a tip on the best horse in the third, I always suggest a novel. Or a whole bunch of novels. They tend to suggest some to me too. What I don’t suggest is a how to write book.
Because it seems to me the best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing – particularly if it’s of the same genre in which you are hoping to excel. If you are a crime writer, read lots of good crime writing. It’s common sense isn’t it?
Having said that, I have read a few of these types of books and I can say that it’s rare you flick through one without finding at least a few nuggets of information, or useful practices, or tips or which can help you with your writing. Some of them are very good indeed I would say – at least I have found them to be so.
Here then are the three ‘how to write’ style books which have been most useful to me in my development as a writer so far. I say again though, these are no substitute for reading broadly and deeply from the wonderful and diverse library of fiction we have at our disposal.
by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark
Funny this one – and also smart. The idea behind it is that explaining good writing is like herding cats, but it’s easier to spot bad writing. So this book goes through a whole host of howlers and draws your attention to them so you can not do them! I certainly spotted a number in here that I have been prone to as I‘ve developed – and it is a useful book to have around while you are rewriting as it makes you self-conscious about bad habits.
It covers flat characters, clichés, unconvincing plots and all the rest in it’s rundown of 200 mistakes.
by Adam Sexton
Tips from the top – a look at how some great writers write and what we could learn from them – so it’s my favoured principle of learning from what we read then, but in a more ordered and considered form.
Authors covered in the book include Updike, Nabokov, Hemingway, Austin etc and their writing is used to support the argument throughout. Structurally, the book is split into chapters on areas like character, description, the world of the story and so on.
by Louise Doughty
I won this one as a prize. Not at a fair or anything. It was sent to me by the author when Song of the Sea God made her shortlist in the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition. (My book was called The Longing in those days).
What I like about it is that it explains the writing process as it really is from the author’s point of view. So, rather than a rarefied classroom look at what you should do and in what order, it feels real and organic. I also found it matches very closely the way I do actually write a book – with plenty of freeform humming and hawing and writing of scraps at the front end and then planning and development and rewriting. So it feels very truthful – it’s not how you should do it, it’s how you will do it – it’s what works.
So those are my three. I’m sure you have your own favourites. If you know of any we really should be reading please add them in the comments section below so this becomes a resource for other people looking for tips on the best how to books to read!
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.