The Writing Books That Will Actually Help You

The Arts

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.

10 comments on “The Writing Books That Will Actually Help You”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    I know these have been mentioned before but Stephen king on Writing, part auto-biography, part writer advice is splendid read and gives a good point of view. he hammers home the point the only way to learn to write is to write and read. The other is not on novels but still a lovely insight into a type of writing, Keith Waterhouse’s The Mirror Style. One of the things I he points out is don’t say something is funny or dramatic as the telling will give this information.

    Wayne.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    David Hewson’s “Writing: A User Manual” has a lot to suggest about the practicalities of producing a novel. He also shows a long form example of how to develop a story, how to structure, how voice works etc. Chapter heading – “In order to write books you have to read books”.

  3. Brooke says:

    story-telling–takes many forms. Many informative cognitive science, anthropology and ethnographic articles on why story-telling works, in theory and practice, i.e. in the telling/dramatization. Here’s the punch line: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180913113822.htm

    writing: a different matter. I find good writing primarily in science, economics and travel works. Draft #4, by John McPhee (New Yorker staff writer, author of 40+ books, Pulitzer winner, teacher) and Working by Robert Caro (Pulitzer, National Book award, etc.) are on my summer reading list. Accumulated wisdom of two who live the writing life, who are recognized for depth of research, accuracy and facility with language.

    Interesting about book covers: I quite like spare, lean covers–Draft #4 is an example. Fussy covers put me off–cozy kitch stuff.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Is the Richatd Skinner mentioned above, the same Richard Skinner who was a BBC Radio DJ for many years? I ask, as leaps from BBC Radio DJ to something else seem to be getting commonplace. Mark Tonderai, former BBC Radio DJ, is now a TV and Film Director.

  5. Brooke says:

    Long comment

  6. snowy says:

    Book covers are a discipline in and of themselves, various explanations have been offered for what works.

    Even down to the opinion that images that are chosen for ‘boy’ type books hook into the parts of the Male brain, [I think I might have spotted a flaw in that reasoning already], that trigger the ‘Hunter’ instincts.

    And that images on ‘girly’ books, should be shiny and brightly coloured, [like berries/fruit], to engage the ‘Gatherer’ senses. [Nobody ever gets singled out for punishment if they stay within the herd all doing the same thing!]

    It’s a truism that a bad cover can kill a good book, but a good cover will never improve the reading experience of a bad book.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – Have you ever visited the forum site ‘Vault Of Evil: Brit Horror Pulp Plus!’? There’s an amusing section there about really dull, and badly thought out book covers. The whole site is worth a look.

  8. snowy says:

    I have now, [ *whispers* there is quite a lot of link rot – meaning some images have gone missing!] But I do feel slightly bad tittering at images that were made using very primative techniques on budgets that wouldn’t have bought you a sit down fish supper even at the time.

    There are all sorts of horrors out there:

    The Manly Art of Knitting, [Cowboy on horse – knitting, obv.]
    How to Raise Your I.Q. by Eating Gifted Children, [Actually humour, rather than a guidebook!]
    The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, [The clue is in the title.]
    Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, [Err… sorry not a clue, completely blank!]

  9. LAM says:

    Weird tangent related-ish to craft that does come back to Bryant & May: Some people love prompts. I usually feel crap at using them, but I do check out 3 Elements Literary Review (http://3elementsreview.com/) from time to time. The premise is that each issue has 3 words that must be incorporated–however tangentially–in every poem or story. When I looked at the current elements for their May 31 deadline–Dumbwaiter, Sigil, Shore–my first thought was, “That would clearly be a wonderful Bryant & May short story.” (Because of course I have the softest of soft spots for RUNE.)

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