… Clever wordsmithing, eh?
Because I want to start a series not about writing books, but about books on writing – books aimed at people who are trying to write, learning the trade, coming to grips with the long hours and the self-imposed angst, the hurried meals and the indigestion …
Anyway, I have a shelf-full of books on writing and there’s no doubt that some have been more useful than others.
On the whole, they fall into two categories – books by people you’ve heard of, and books by people that generally speaking, and being kind … you haven’t. This latter group might include ‘academics’ – folk who teach creative writing – or they might be established writers who you just haven’t come across.
So in my first category I have:
Writing the Novel, by well known crime writer Lawrence Block
Write Away, by English crime novelist Elizabeth George
Writing the Popular Novel, by American crime writer Loren Estleman
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by the doyenne of crime writing, Patricia Highsmith
… I think you can see a pattern emerging. Yup, I read a lot about how to write crime fiction. The writers I mention here tend to provide what I would call a more ‘generalised’ approach. That is, they will talk in general terms about how they put together their plots, and write almost exclusively from their own experience, rather than referring to other writers. They’re talking about what works for them. That was obviously the commission from the publishers and they’re going to stick to it. These books are useful if you want to know more about a particular writer’s style or how they achieve their effects.
The books in my second category – by writers you may not have heard of – tend to be more specific, and will refer to a broader base of writing, using examples from work other than their own. Many of these books happen to be published by Writers Digest Books, which I think is a great imprint and provides works that are very specific and helpful. For example, on the bookshelf we have:
How Fiction Works, by Oakley Hall
Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
Dynamic Characters, by Diane Kress
As you see, these books will often focus on a particular element of writing – plot, character – and offer some straightforward guidelines or advice to help you make these elements work for you. If you feel you need to focus on a particular aspect of writing, then these are the kind of books to get hold of.
I’ll conclude with who I think has been the most helpful writer to me. There are two books by Sol Stein, who has been a writer, an agent and a publisher, and so knows the writing world from the inside out.
In the UK, he had two books on writing published:
Solutions for Writers
Solutions for Novelists
I’m pretty sure they’ve been published under different titles in the USA. What I like about his books is that he’s very specific. He talks at length about the process of writing word by word, about line editing, about what he calls ‘triage’ – part of the process of re-writing. He helps you see how the order in which words appear in a sentence can help or hinder the reader’s understanding. All of this is very comforting to a writer who likes words and language and fears for literacy in the age of the Net … (says he, writing his blog!)
I have more books that I’ll talk about in the future, but I’d be interested to hear of any others that folk have found particularly useful. After all, in the age of the Net I can order them to be delivered right to my doorstep!