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!