Let me start by saying that I won’t take sides. Take sides on what? On whether or not writing fiction can be taught. I’ve always wondered why us writers need to make everything so much more complex. If a pianist wants to achieve a certain level, he will first learn the theory. And practice like crazy. Same goes for a painter, a chef or a dolphin trying to perfect his triple back somersaults. I’m already hearing some of you shouting: “But you can learn all these things by just doing them.”
I guess my point is, the books listed below helped me become a better writer. But they will lead you nowhere if you don’t write and if you ignore what your subconscious is trying to tell you. Here is the last complaint that I will dispose of today: “Yeah, but what about James Joyce? He didn’t have these books!” My answer: Who can understand Joyce anyway!?
The Art of Fiction — Ayn Rand
Take away: Rand does an amazing job at explaining how to use the subconscious to get unstuck. Writers need to think their scenes through, uncover the abstractions (values, emotions) they wish to convey and make a list of concrete actions depicting such abstract ideas. Once you do so, the words fly. It works: I tried.
Techniques of the Selling Writer — Dwight V. Swain
Take away: I know it may sound obvious to some, but reading about the composition of scenes and sequels did the trick for me (concise summary by Randy Ingermanson). Also useful: Start with an emotion!
Stein on Writing — Sol Stein
Take away: Stein covers the whole shabang : dialogue, plot, flashbacks, show don’t tell, characterization etc. If I had to mention only one thing, it would be how he explains the distinction between tension and suspense and how writers can create an adrenaline rush in the reader.
Characters and Viewpoint — Orson Scott Card
Take away: I recommend reading Card’s book if only for his famous 1,000 Ideas in One Hour (thanks to Jamie Raintree for this great post). Oh, and he talks a lot about characters too!
The Hero with a Thousand Faces — Joseph Campbell
Take away: Where would I be without the Hero’s Journey story structure? The book is an all-time classic if you want to understand the deep meaning of stories, legends and myths.
Story — Robert McKee
Take away: If you read the book, you will enjoy the movie Adaptation a lot more! Oh, and it does hold an absurd quantity of relevant information: subtext, show don’t tell, premise, scene structure, plot structure, pacing, character arcs, how to build climax. Just to name a few. Sure McKee designed it for screenwriters, but anyone dealing with stories can pick up a lot of new tools.
The Anatomy of Story — John Truby
Take away: For those who grumble about how the Three-Act Structure oversimplifies fiction, John is your man. His book offers 22 guiding steps that help extract the best out of our inspired minds. The structure he proposes is loose enough for those who abhor rigidity. Despite its sub-header — 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller — , it can hardly be seen as a formulae.
The Writer’s Journey — Christopher Vogler
Take away: Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey (again!) revisited and simplified. Even though I recommend reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler adds to it by describing in detail each of the structure points. He also defines the main archetypes found in myths and how to use them in our stories.
The Muse is Alive
If You Want to Write — Brenda Ueland
Take away: Brenda Ueland brought to my consciousness how important is our the state-of-mind when writing. As she says: “For when you write, if it has to be any good at all, you must feel free, free and not anxious”. The main goal of her book is simple, but crucial: to help us understand “the great intrinsic reward to writing”.
The War of Art — Steven Pressfield
Take away: This book is about one thing: Resistance, resistance, resistance. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, procrastination or the annoying inside voice, The War of Art is for you. Pressfield does a fantastic job at giving us tips on how to recognize resistance and all its avatars and overcome them to become professional writers (or any other creative endeavour).
The First Five Pages — Noah Lukeman
Take away: Your book is done. Finished. Or so you think. Before sending it to an agent, I recommend reading this book. Editing is a craft on its own, and The First Five Pages hands out useful tricks to master it (even though some sound a bit too restrictive). Lukeman gives us the point of view of the insider — the literary agent — and how they decide which manuscripts are ready to be sent to a publisher, and which ones aren’t.