January 14, 2011

Recommended Books on Writing

I'm working on a follow-up column to the one I posted Tuesday, looking at dialogue again but this time focusing on what the characters say. As I was making a list of all the common problems that result in not-so-great dialogue, it occurred to me that my first novel contained every one of these rookie mistakes. And I'm of the opinion that dialogue has always been my strongest writing skill.

It's nice to be reminded that I've made appreciable progress as a writer since I started that first novel almost ten years ago. I've improved because of all the time I've spent writing, receiving feedback from excellent critiquers, rewriting, and studying the fiction I read. I have also learned from explicit writing advice that I've received from books, presenters, and blog posts. I don't know how many times I've read an analysis of some element of fiction and gone, "Oh! Yes! That's exactly why I haven't been able to get that scene to work!" No matter how much I learn through my own writing experience, I never stop benefiting from the intelligent guidance of other people who've thought hard about writing.

In last night's #writersroad Twitter chat, we discussed books on writing, so I thought I'd recommend my favorites here:

SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King - Every chapter of this book was eye-opening for me. It's a great place to start if you don't know how to approach your manuscript critically so that you can start revising. It's a funny book, too.

SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder - Even though this book is about screenwriting, it's widely recommended among novelists. I didn't understand how to construct a plot until I read this book, and if you're in the same position I was, I recommend giving it a try.

THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass - Maass has fantastic ideas about how to take your story and ramp up everything: increase the tension, raise the stakes, make the reader care more about your characters. I've used so many of his techniques to make my manuscripts work better.

DEEPENING FICTION by Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren - This was the textbook for the class I took with the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writer's Studio. It's a pretty expensive book, but it contains a huge amount of writing discussion, a small anthology of short stories by noted writers, and analyses of these stories to illustrate the discussions. The book is aimed at intermediate and advanced writers, and I appreciated that focus and the amount of attention given to revision. Highly recommended if you want to do some self-study to strengthen your writing.

HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman - This book is hilarious. It's also embarrassing, because you will realize just how many of the mistakes you've made in your own writing. After you've laughed at the wonderfully painful examples of what not to do, you'll be sure not to make the same errors again.

STEERING THE CRAFT by Ursula K. Le Guin - My writing group worked through this book many years ago. Le Guin's presentation of the elements of fiction is smart and unconventional. I'm usually uninspired by the writing exercises in books, but I enjoyed doing these and liked many of the short pieces I produced.

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose - Novelist Prose examines passages by renowned authors and explores what makes them effective. This book reminded me how poorly read I am in the classics, and I once again resolved to do something about that and then didn't.

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW by Alicia Rasley - It was so exciting for me to read a book by someone who is more geeky about POV than I am, because most writing guides don't cover the topic in nearly enough depth. Rasley analyzes each possible narrative perspective and discusses when it might be appropriate for your story.

WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward - An exploration of the problems writers encounter when trying to write about people different than themselves and advice on doing it well and avoiding common mistakes. The focus is on race and culture, though other differences are discussed. The main problem with the book is that it's too short.

I guess I must read a lot of books on writing. I'm always eager to get recommendations for more writing guides worth reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne thinks about The Blogification of Writing Tips, offering excellent reasons why you might want to read one of these books for some more in-depth advice than you'll find online.

→ At the Office of Letters and Light blog, Sarah Mackey writes about Books on the big screen.


Andrea Blythe said...

Great list! Thanks for sharing it with us. I'm definitely looking for more books like this to read. I need the helpful motivation right now, just as much as I need to get words on the page.

Henri Picciotto said...

I liked this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/jan/19/manifesto-simple-scribe-commandments-journalists

I bet it applies to more than just journalism.

mamagotcha said...

I've put several of these on hold at my library, thanks for the recommendations!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Henri, thanks for passing on the article. Good stuff in there.

Andrea and Gotcha, hope you enjoy the books!

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