Saturday, 12 July 2014

7 Books About Writing That Will Change Your Life*

*Well okay - that may be a slight exaggeration. Or it may not - they may indeed actually change your life - well, at the very least your writing life. Either way, they are totally awesome books and, for this post, I feel it's only right and proper that someone should shout it loud and proud just how utterly awesome they are. And, for that purpose, I have elected me (mainly since I'm here and the only candidate who came forward at the time of asking.)

I've been reading a lot of writing 'how-to' books recently, mainly because I've found reading a chapter prior to sitting down to write a great way to get Into The Zone - like a warm-up exercise, I suppose. I haven't put my current favourites in any particular order, and they cover a wide variety of different aspects of  'The Craft,' so hopefully it's a buffet everyone can dig into.


1 - Write Your Novel From The Middle (James Scott Bell)
 It took a while before I was persuaded to buy this book, because I read its title and thought "that's a completely terrible idea and it would never work for someone like me!" So I completely understand if that's what you're thinking as well. But don't worry; the approach James is advocating is far more insightful and revolutionary than just literally starting your novel at Page Halfway and then working away from there to each opposite end. In fact, the methods and mindsets he covers are simple yet sheer bloomin' genius. This book will change the way you look at the novel-writing process, and make you see your own works-in-progress in a completely new light. If you aspire to writing stories with depth, where the characters are memorable, this is a strong step in the right direction.

2 - On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
Well, apart from a suspicion that not including this book in a list of awesome writing books is probably considered a crime in the fiction-writing world, I'd be a fool to leave out something written by one of its biggest and heaviest hitters, wouldn't I? So for any writers out there who haven't read it yet, I can assure you it's well worth the hype. Part-autobiography and part writing masterclass, Stephen King tells it how it is, offering good, solid advice interspersed with personal anecdotes in a down-to-earth manner that's well laced with his quirky, self-deprecating humour. Even if you don't like his novels, his personal journey to becoming the writer he is makes a great read in itself; he slogged long and hard to get the success he's achieved in his career and this book is an honest and inspiring account of that.

3 - The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer's Block (Hillary Rettig)
If you're one of those writers who looks at published authors and thinks "I wish I could be like them... I wish I had whatever they had that makes them write all those books and finish all those books and get them published... dammit, I wish I knew the secret to being like them!" you need this book in your life. Most of the other books out there on this subject approach it in a 'here's a magic box full of solutions' way; writing exercises designed to 'kickstart the imagination,' suggestions for tweaking schedules, setting yourself targets, etc... This book largely ignores all of that and instead goes much, much deeper. It's an uncomfortable read at times; Hillary will tell you things you don't like and much less want to admit are... probably true. But at the same time it will switch lightbulbs on in your head, and change your attitudes to both your writing and yourself. Calling it 'therapy in book form for writers' feels almost like cheapening it, because it's so much more than that. If the title of this book made you think "that's me," if you worry that you'll never be 'good enough' to make it as a published writer - if you've spent large amounts of your life beating on yourself for not being where you want to be as a writer, you need this book.

4 - The '500 Ways..' Series (Chuck Wendig)
There are four books in this series - which I realise is cheating a bit with the title being 7 books and all - but I couldn't bring myself to leave any of them out because I devoured them all with equal enthusiasm. Chuck's delivery is sharp, smart and of a laugh-out-loud variety that's definitely NTSW (that's 'Not Safe For Work' - I'm explaining that acronym because I have this theory that, if you're someone who needs it explained, the chances of you finding that kind of material offensive might be slightly higher. Just a theory, yet to be conclusively proved, but, y'know... ) Like Stephen King but with extra chilli sauce, Chuck tells it like it is; these are not books you turn to if you want cuddles and tree-huggy platitudes about the Reality of Writing. If you're looking for a good old motivational kick up the writerly pants, however, these books do it in the funniest way - and the advice is solid gold., covering everything from all aspects of writing, to marketing and publishing and even advice on conducting yourself as an author on social media.

5 - Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
I first read this book in my early twenties, and it played a huge part in making me the writer I am today. It was the book that showed me being a writer and a dreamer at heart, and wanting to express that, was okay - and didn't automatically make me some kind of wishy-washy loser who was never going to do anything 'useful' with her life. It's more about digging into your soul and finding the courage to write without inhibition, rather than giving you a bunch of How To Write Commandments to live by. Yes, looking back on it now (I still have that dog-eared paperback on my bookshelf) it has a very 'New Age' vibe that was all the rage back then, but it's one of those books that's great to just pick up and read a couple of chapters when your Writer's Self-Esteem needs a little pick-me-up. Natalie Goldberg has a writing style that feels like a best friend (albeit your Hippie Best Friend) talking to you, empathising with your troubles, boosting your confidence and probably baking you some brownies as well.

6 - How to Write a Novel (Nathan Bransford)
This book slots comfortably into the category of 'does what it says on the tin' - but it does it in a friendly and witty style. Practically and intuitively laid out, this book really does cover everything you need to know about writing a novel - from birthing the original idea to publishing and marketing your squealing book-baby. Nathan strikes the perfect balance between being encouraging while telling it like it is - and as both an author and an ex-literary editor, he clearly knows his stuff. A great, practical manual to have sitting on your writing desk while you craft your work-in-progress.

7 - Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Jeff Vandemeer)
Oh my word. What to say about this book? You will have never seen a book about the craft of writing quite like this before. This is the Willy Wonka version of writing how-to books - and I mean that in the best possible way. A hefty doorstop of a tome, it's packed with writing tips, tools and advice, and contains wise and pithy quotes from many, many successful writers and artists. But what really sets it apart from all other books in this genre are the incredible illustrations. Page after page of beautifully-rendered diagrams that are as informative as they are gorgeous, they bring their accompanying text to life with their own, unique touch of Dali-esque weirdness. Even if you don't read any of the text (but why would you not do that? It's a book, after all...) just looking at the pictures is a joy (and enough to spark the imagination in whole new ways.) It's like opening a chocolate box. Even when I think I've explored this book from beginning to end, every time I come back to it I still see something new that I didn't notice before.

What about you? What books have you read that you'd put on your 'books that changed my life' list? I'd love to know (still looking for more to read, after all...)


  1. I always find it funny that Stephen King's "On Writing" is considered a writing advice book, since there's no actual practical writing advice in it, other than "go write, I did it and it worked well for me, see?". :)

    Anyway, some of the best writing advice books out there are:
    - Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham
    - Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques by Karl Iglesias
    - Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and
    - Hooked by Les Edgerton.

    Have fun reading!

  2. Thanks for the recommendations, Veronica! *sneakily adds them to Wish List, before checking bank account*

    'On Writing' came at the right time for me. I read it at a time in my life when I was beginning to fear I'd have to completely give up on the idea of writing something publishable, ever. I was in a bad place, where I felt like I'd wasted every chance in the past, and now the timer had finally run out for me - so just the fact that he DID say things like 'go write' and 'it's SUPPOSED to be hard' and 'if you really want to do it, you'll do it no matter what,' put the kick back into my ass, I suppose. Alongside the story of how not even almost dying in a serious road accident could stop HIM writing, it was the wake-up call I needed at the time.

    When you've spent most of your life regularly being told by 'well-meaning' people close to you that if your writing hasn't made you fabulously rich and famous 'by now' you really ought to stop wasting your time with it, it can be hard to fight the fear they might be right. Sometimes all it takes is just one person you've never met but is well-respected in his field to be the one to say "Y'know what? Screw 'em. You do what you wanna do, kiddo - and screw 'em all!" Stephen King was the first person to do that for me, and Chuck Wendig was the second. :)