Friday, 1 January 2016

My Top 10 Writing Books in 2015

Since the New Year is upon us, I decided to take a look back at some of the books I've read over 2015 and loved -  specifically the ones about writing.

I thought it was going to be an easy choice. In fact, I thought maybe I might have to cut the list to seven, or even just five, because I don't read that many of those books... do I? Well, a quick look at my Amazon 'Your Orders' page for 2015 soon put that notion to bed. As it turned out, picking just ten from the stack I've read this year was the hard part. I've read loads of 'em - usually a chapter or two over breakfast, as a motivational bum-kick before starting a day's writing session. It's surprising how many you can get through in a year when you do it like that.

They haven't all been hits with me, of course. Some just left me feeling depressed and useless - not because they were inherently 'bad,' but because they just weren't suited to me or the way I naturally roll when it comes to writing. Which is why I wanted to give a massive shout-out to the ones that did rock my world, since I'm reasonably sure I'm not the only writer out there who loves to make characters that build plots for you, falls at the more organised end of the Pantser Scale and prefers to encourage other writers whatever their level of experience or skill. So let's dispense with the ado-ing and get started - in no particular order...

1 - Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott.)

This is one of those books that regularly appears on the lists of other authors' must-read books for authors, and I having finally read it myself I can see why. Her philosophy that life is writing and writing is life is similar to Nathalie Goldberg's, but without the heavy overtones of Zen Buddhism that permeate the latter's books (I'm a huge fan of Nathalie myself and don't find it hard to mentally distance her advice from her religious enthusiasm, but I know many others who are turned off by it.) Smart, funny and with a more earthy tone to the self-deprecating honesty, this book is full of practical advice and encouraging without sugar-coating. Yes, writing is bloody hard work and often for very little reward, but that's okay - and it needs to be okay if it's what you truly want to do.

2 - 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing (C.s Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, Rachel Starr Thompson.)

If you have dreams of being published, no matter how good a writer you think you are you need this book. I challenge any writer of any level to read this and not find at least one of the chapters highlighting one of their own guilty weaknesses. The good news is, the examples of each flaw, the reasons why they are flaws and the fixes for them are all clearly explained, in depth and in a way that's easy to understand. I learned a lot from this book, and would recommend it as a go-to for when you hit the Draft-Two-and-beyond stage of any fiction project.

3 - The Story Book (The Story Series 1) (David Baboulene)

This is one of those books where, the further you read, the stronger you get the feeling of a light bulb switching on in your mind. To mangle a well-known LOTR quote: 'One does not simply walk into reading The Story Book.' David Baboulene is an author and scriptwriter, and he goes deep into the history, psychology and mechanics of storytelling, incorporating strategies used by the most successful screen and stage writers and showing how they are useful for the novelists' toobox too. And it's all written in an easy, conversational way that entertains rather than lectures - I had an absolute blast reading this book. This is much more than just a book of writing advice; it will change the way you look at stories when writing and reading them.

4 - Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (John Yorke)

Another book that delves into the history and psychology of storytelling, but this time from the angle of the unifying themes that define the best stories. Many of us writers have heard about that thing called 'The Hero's Journey' and the variations on the premise that there are only [insert random number here] stories in existence and every story ever written is just a variation of one of them. John Yorke may start from those ideas, but his exploration of them is more compelling and offers much deeper insights - like The Story Book above, this will change the way you look at the magical process of storytelling. And the fact that he explores the theories of telling stories by telling it like a story makes it all the more fun to read.

5 - How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism (Stephen Guise)

I know I know - that title just screams 'happy-clappy self-help let's all go hug a tree,' doesn't it? Don't let it put you off though - it's about as far from crystal-clutching and mantra-chanting as you can possibly get. Stephen Guise is a writer himself and the advice he gives, while applicable to any area of life, is particularly useful to other writers. If you're a procrastinator, a harsh self-editor, or you've ever beaten yourself up about your puny daily word count/lack of motivation/inability to focus, this book might just hold the cure. If you've read other books about letting go of perfectionism and found they did zero to help you I especially recommend this book, because his tips and suggestions really are different from anything offered before, showing ways to work with and 'trick' your inbuilt perfectionism into playing ball rather than striving to eliminate it from your psyche altogether. And best of all, he sounds like a friend who's been there and done it, rather than some therapist with psychology degrees and wind chimes hanging in his window.

6 - Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing (James Scott Bell.)

I'll admit, if I see a book written by James Scott Bell I'm gonna be interested; I've read quite a few of his books in the past and he never lets me down. This is another cracker, tackling that elusive quality that's often lauded as the X-factor of great writing but rarely analysed and picked apart to find out what it actually is - until now. What I love about this book - and indeed all James' books - is that they fill you with a sense of "Yeah - I can do this!" as you're reading them, and this one delivers in spades. Thanks James, for making one of fiction writing's most mealy-mouthed must-have virtues into a set of goalposts we can actually see.

7 - Fire Up Your Fiction: An Editor's Guide To Writing Compelling Stories (Jodie Renner.)

Another great resource for when you hit the second-draft-and-beyond stage of a novel, laid out in a way that's easy to understand. Covers all the classic no-nos we all know and 'love' plus several that might not seem obvious until they're picked apart (which Jodie does in a clear and entertaining way.) I've read a couple of her other books too, and, like James Scott Bell, she's becoming another of those authors that I trust to deliver.

8 - Master Lists For Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More (Bryn Donovan)

A last-minute entry to this list, since I only bought it yesterday, but as soon as I looked through it I knew it had to appear here - even if it meant ousting one of my original Top 10. This book is an awesome idea, finally - finally! - executed properly, in a way that makes it fit for the purpose it's designed for. I already own a few of these 'data-list' type books, where the principle behind them is that you can use them as a kind of Rosetta Stone for emotions, body language, gestures etc. For the most part they've been... not that useful, full of lazy repetitions and cross-references and notoriously badly laid-out so that you have to hunt through half the book just to find what you're after. This book gets it right, with well-defined categories and a wide variety of suggestions for each of them. It even covers areas many of the other list books don't, like suggestions for settings and popular historical time period references.

9 - Nine Day Novel-Authorphobia: Laugh at Your Fear of Writing: Suck Less for Author Success (Writing Fiction Basics Book 0) (Steve Windsor)

Normally, if a book has any kind of numerical target in its title ('Write a bestseller in 30 days!' 'How to earn a million dollars writing Kindle books!') I avoid it like the Ebola virus it all-too-often is. But I did the 'Look inside!' thing on Amazon with this one and it was immediately obvious this one was different from the usual snake-oil out there. Put simply, it's bloody hilarious, and, in spite of its audacious title, offers practical and down-to-earth advice about getting in the right mindset for writing a novel instead of actually trying to complete and publish one in the titular nine days. Rather than using soothing words and empowering mantras to help you over your fear that you suck at writing, Steve uses straight-up humour and self-deprecation to get you laughing at your insecurities instead. Read this book for the sheer fun of it; if it doesn't get you giggling you are officially dead inside.

10 - The Audacity to be a Writer: 50 Inspiring Articles on Writing that Could Change Your Life (The Best of Positive Writer)

This book is actually a collection of the most popular posts to the Positive Writers website, from various regular contributors. It packs a lot in, and is nicely laid out so that you can dip in and out, reading small chunks at a time without losing the overall thread. If you already know the Positive Writers website (I didn't but I've certainly bookmarked it after reading this book) you'll know what sort of thing to expect, and it's great to have all the best golden nuggets all gathered together in this little treasure chest. This is the book to pick up and dive into whenever you're swirling in the cesspit of writer insecurities.

So, what books would you recommend? If there's any you think I should add to my must-read list, please let me know in the comments (my Breakfast Reads need their fuel, don'tcha know...) And I hope 2016 is a marvellous year for you.

Happy writing!

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