The Writing Books That Will Actually Help You
When it comes to self-help books, there’s no category trickier than the creative writing category.
There’s no quick fix for bad writing other than to keep on until it gets less bad. Similarly, idea-creation cannot be taught, so all those boxes of flashcards can be thrown out of the window. There’s no single system that can be learned, guaranteed to solve all writing dilemmas.
But there are two far bigger problems with ‘How To Write’ books.
The first is that for all their instruction about heroes’ journeys, three-act breakdowns and bell curves, no writer I’ve ever met thinks in this way, so rules are very hard to apply to one’s own work. They’re hard for an expert, let alone a novice.
Second, we all work in completely different ways. Partly this is shaped by technology; I’ve changed my working method with each digital advance, not because I especially wanted to but because it’s easier that way. We form habits good and bad over time. Why aren’t there books that take a different approach?
That’s the bad news. Now for the good. There are several volumes that bring you fresh insights into the creative process in new, ungimmicky ways. They do this by tackling the underlying issues behind storytelling, and are more useful than draconian courses that force you to follow a teacher’s proscribed layout. I’m not a fan of Robert McKee, whom I regard more as a marketeer, but if you want to learn a template that’s fine. There are some good books on playwriting too, but I intend to concentrate on novel writing here.
So – first you need Christopher Booker’s masterful story breakdown, ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, because it looks at the history of storytelling in great detail (we’re talking 700+ pages of close type). In the centre of the book he explains something I’ve long puzzled over; how and why storytelling was led into a dead end in the 20th century. Treat the book as a trilogy, break it up and you’ll get through this massive, important and essential volume that should be required reading for all writers.
John Yorke’s lighter, refreshingly astringent writing guide ‘Into The Woods’ is terrific on structure, subtext and the whole panoply of writing techniques, but he also dares to equate soap operas with Hamlet, and like Christopher Booker, he points out that it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts. A phrase can pack in an entire world of ideas.
Richard Skinner’s ‘Writing A Novel’ is adapted from the Faber Academy writing course, including the 31 basic functions of the story, which can’t exist without drama just as drama can’t exist without conflict. It’s packed with amazing advice; ‘speed up for the essential, slow down for the superfluous’ – wise words which will have you underlining whole paragraphs at a time.
Will Storr’s ‘The Science of Storytelling’ (these four books are united by all having appalling cover art) looks at why we write from a neurological point of view. If we understand what’s going on in our brains, and the tribal and experiential habits we’ve inherited, we may better understand how to write.
It works, too. I’ve found myself thinking about his ideas a lot. This could be described as the first post-Brexit writing guide because it explains how we find allies and make enemies, and why we root for the most unlikely fictional characters. My only quibble is that Storr covers as much film writing as novel writing, and I wish he’d stuck to books. His breakdown of what makes ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ so memorable is fascinating and you’ll never look at the film in the same way.
So, none of these books provide craft templates. Writing is not pokerwork, but learning what makes us need to tell stories. I suspect that between the four they cover all you need to know about storytelling – but let me know of any others you’ve found worthwhile.