Currently reading: The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (I was in the mood for an old-fashioned detective story, and this one is quite chilling.)
Currently writing: Last week I finished a short story for The Bristol Short Story Competition, so it's back to the novel now!
Happy Star Wars Day! I hope you're all waving your lightsabers and telling people named Luke that you're their dad.
Today, I thought I'd share the three books that I've found to be most useful in improving the quality of my writing.
There's always a debate over whether creative writing can be taught or whether it's just something that people either can or can't do. Personally, I think that it is absolutely possible to learn how to write well, although, as with any subject, some people will find it easier to learn than others. The two fiction writing courses I've undertaken (a Master's degree in Creative Writing and the Faber Academy WIP course) have both been incredibly helpful and made me a much better writer. I also enjoy learning from books about the craft, but these can vary in their usefulness and often have conflicting advice, so it's difficult to know which ones to trust. Therefore, although this list is of course subjective, here are the three books I'd recommend reading if you're looking to improve your writing.
Sorry for the slightly grubby covers ... That's what happens when you read books in the bath / put mugs of tea on them / fold down the corners of pages.
1) How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark
This is my number 1 book on writing. As you can probably guess from the title, it's presented as a guide on how to write a terrible novel – or, in other words, on common mistakes to avoid if you want to write a good one! (There were times when I flinched while reading it, as I've definitely been guilty of one or two of the clichés!) As well as being super-funny, it offers very practical techniques on everything from plot and character to dialogue and description to setting and research.
How Not To Write A Novel might not be everyone's cup of tea: I can imagine that some people probably won't appreciate being given explicit dos and don'ts when it comes to writing. While I concede that there are bound to be great novels out there that go against Newman and Mittelmark's advice, I'm a firm believer in "You need to learn the rules before you can break the rules", and think that this book is an excellent starting point for those interested in writing fiction.
2) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
This is another funny book, although very different in style to the one above, being partly a memoir of Lamott's own experiences of writing. Like How Not To Write A Novel, it offers a broad range of helpful insights into the technicalities of writing, but what makes Bird By Bird unique (and what I like most about it) is the personal element. Lamott reflects with humour on the emotional highs and lows of novel-writing, and provides guidance on how to deal with things like perfectionism, writerly jealousy and false starts. A lot of people praise her chapter on "Shi*ty First Drafts" as being liberating. I'd recommend this to anyone who is feeling dispirited about their writing or who needs a boost of motivation.
3) Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose*
I was required to read this book for my MA, and am so glad that I did, as it really changed the way I read novels. Prose provides close-readings of many successful works of fiction, analysing their sentence/paragraph structure, word choice, use of detail in description, characters' gestures and unique ways of speaking ... and much more. This book really helps you think about the "nitty-gritty" aspects of writing, and is (in my opinion) invaluable if you want to become a better writer. I ought to re-read it, as I'm sure I've forgotten bits. Ultimately, it's a reminder that the best way to learn how to write fiction is to read fiction – but, importantly, to read it in a mindful way in order to develop an ear for the rhythms and complexities of good prose.
* I love that someone whose surname is Prose has written a book about writing fiction!
So, that's the end of my list.
However, it's worth noting that these three books tend to focus (in general) on the technicalities of writing itself, rather than on the broader topic of plot structure. This definitely reflects my own writing tendencies ... I pay a lot of attention to detail and sentences, but I struggle when it comes to plot (in fact, in most things I do I'm overly concerned about the little things and fail to see the big picture).
Therefore, I've recently bought two books specifically on plot structure: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.
I haven't read either of these yet, but I've heard good things. If you're reading this and you're familiar with either of these, please let me know what you thought. In the past, I've tried writing with a very tightly mapped-out structure, and I've tried writing in a "making it up as I go along" sort of way, and each of these has had its own disadvantages (though I think the latter approach produced a better novel in the end), so I'm hoping to find a method that works for me.
Are there any books on writing that you would recommend? Do you agree/disagree with any of my suggestions? I'm keen to hear!
It’s a strange and frightening old time at the moment, with coronavirus sweeping the globe, and here in the UK we’re being told to stay at home as much as possible. While it’s challenging having to isolate from friends and family, I find that disappearing into fiction definitely helps pass the days and ease the anxiety. Here, in no particular order, are ten books I’d recommend retreating into.
1. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
I love a debut novel (I think some of the author’s excitement rubs off on me), and am also a sucker for plots in which tricksy protagonists manipulate their way to the top (Vanity Fair, House of Cards, etc.). In Alys, Always, resourceful newspaper sub-editor Frances Thorpe schemes her way out of her downtrodden existence towards the glamorous life she’s always coveted. I’d have liked Frances to encounter a few more obstacles on her way, but otherwise was super-impressed by the writing and plot. Part thriller, part social satire, this is a quick read and one that has stuck with me.
2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
A classic. This is my favourite Agatha Christie novel – the first time I read it, I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it, and then was too scared to sleep. It’s the claustrophobic atmosphere that makes it so gripping: ten strangers stranded on a tiny island start getting killed off one by one, each desperately trying to work out who the killer is before their turn comes. If you need a distraction from everyday life, this is one to go for – but, perhaps don’t read it alone at night.
3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)
This novel has some of the most remarkable prose I’ve ever read – I’m in awe of both Ferrante’s beautiful writing and Goldstein’s brilliant translating. Set in Naples in the 1950s, My Brilliant Friend is the first of the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ series, and its portrayal of the complexities of female friendship – the insecurities, the jealousies, the love and ugliness and loyalty – is subtle and astonishing. It’s not a book you’ll zip through in a day, but it’s certainly one to get lost in.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ – surely one of the most iconic opening lines to a novel. Rebecca was the first ‘grown-up’ book I read, aged 11, and I devoured it – I remember lying reading in bed (hours after I should have been asleep) and being shocked by the many revelations that come towards the end. That first time, I was wholly on the side of the narrator, and took things at face value. Re-reading it as an adult, in a post-#MeToo world, I realised how problematic the narrative is, which I think was intentional on du Maurier’s part: we only get one side of the story, the eponymous character having been silenced before the novel begins. The night before my wedding, unable to sleep, I picked up Rebecca; I finished it on my honeymoon. It’s a book I associate with extraordinary times.
5. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I’ve always been mad about historical ghost stories set in big Gothic houses, and The Little Stranger is probably my favourite of these. I read it over Christmas 2017, curled up in the little guest bedroom of my parents’ house, late into the nights. Who or what is haunting Hundreds Hall? I didn’t figure it out until near the end of the novel (the book’s final sentence is a key clue, if you haven’t got it by then), but when I did it made me view everything that had happened so far in a completely different light. I kept thinking about it obsessively for months afterwards. It might be one to avoid if you’re easily upset by sad things happening to animals, however (I cried for at least half an hour).
6. Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
Another debut, but this time a volume of magic-realist short stories set in Cornwall. I love Lucy Wood’s writing, the way she blends Cornish myths and the supernatural (think pixies, witches, people turning to stone) with the mundanities of everyday modern life (arguments with exes, visits to nursing homes), and, as I went to school in Cornwall and spent much of my childhood exploring its coast, these stories have a special resonance for me. I can’t recommend this book enough – you should read it!
7. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
I have three friends who adore Georgette Heyer, and they’ve lent/given me a lot of her Regency romance novels over the years. I completely get the appeal: her stories are frothy, fun, and offer total escape from the real world (which is what we all need at the moment). The Grand Sophy is one of my favourite Heyer novels – the protagonist is a confident woman who upturns social norms and has a pet monkey. What more could you want?
8. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
In my late teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman’s writing. His imagination seems to know no bounds: his stories are fantastical and weird and intricate and full of vivid characters, and can leave your heart racing. I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably the darkest of his novels – there are scenes in it that are really frightening – so don’t read it if you’re not a fan of horror. If that sounds like your thing, however, you should definitely get hold of a copy: it’s a book that will suck you in and keep you up at night.
9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows
I’ve only recently read this novel, after a colleague lent it to me, but I really enjoyed it and it definitely made me feel better about the current lockdown situation. An epistolary novel set in 1946, it follows writer Juliet Ashton as she befriends the members of a Guernsey book group and learns of their experiences during World War Two. I can see how some readers might deem it a bit twee or predictable, but at the novel’s heart is a story about community and friendship, and I found that a real tonic.
10. Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark is one of my heroes (did you know she only ever wrote one draft of anything? Amazing!), and this is possibly my favourite of her works. It’s a short novel, narrated by writer and secretary Fleur Talbot as she sets about exposing the nefarious dealings of her employer, and, as well as having Spark’s usual touches of metafiction and autobiography, is extremely funny. It’s one of the few novels that I’ve read multiple times, and I may well return to it yet again during the lockdown period, when I need a laugh.