Ever thought about writing a book but didn’t know where to start?
It sometimes seems that every time a writer gets a novel published, they find a need to write a book about how to write books. A quick search on Amazon with the phrase “how to write” got me 163,130 results. But there is no need to read all of those to become a writer.
But which books should you read then, should you wish to become the next [insert name of your favorite writer]?
Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein
This is my absolute favorite (wait, did I forget to save the best for last?), and the copy I own is dog-eared and the spine is a little bit more than wrinkled (Perhaps it’s time I bought another one?). It is absolutely fantastic. Parts of it are dated, and he mentions quite a number of books that I had never heard of, but this doesn’t matter since the advice Stein gives is timeless, including the best chapter on writing dialogue I’ve ever read. He provides examples for everything he wants the would-be-writer to know, and peppers the book with anecdotes that make it a joy to read. All in all, it feels like spending a sunny afternoon with your favorite teacher, where he tells you all the stuff that’s going to be on the test.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
I received this as a gift from a well-meaning family member who told me that it was great. It has somewhere in the neighborhood of forty chapters, each quite short. I was expecting practical advice but got inspiration. Or, more accurately, “inspiration.” The book is all right, but falls a little short on practicality. It feels like a group of hippie friends around a fire all going “yeah, man” about each other’s writing. Things like “Don’t even worry about writing “well”; just writing is heaven.” While I appreciate the sentiment, the practical value is little-to-none.
The book does have merit, and quite a bit of it; in the hands of the right aspiring writer, this can be a very motivational book. I just don’t happen to be that particular aspiring writer.
Starve Better, by Nick Mamatas
An example of, apart from everything else, a book I bought despite the cover. This book came highly recommended, and I read it in a flash. It has great practical advice for the writer trying to make a living or perhaps just trying to make a start for themselves. And on that front, it shines. It is a fun read, and has a whole heap of practical advice. It does sag a bit in the ending and sadly, that was the impression I was left with once I finished it. Some of the chapters are reworked blog posts, and while those who know Nick from his blog writing maybe won’t mind, I found it bothered me a little.
However, looking over it again now, I am reminded of the good parts. The first half of the book is absolutely bang-on excellent for short-story writers, especially those writing science fiction or fantasy. The second half was more about writing non-fiction and is sensible and practical, but not as entertaining to read, somehow.
Verdict: Buy if you have any ambitions in the genre short-story field, bypass otherwise.
On Writing, by Stephen King
This is it. Currently the book on writing most writers will say is their go-to writing book (I base this on a hunch, I have no data to back this up). It is a split memoir/writing book and works surprisingly well as such. We get an insight into King’s career, written in his no-nonsense prose, and there are moments when this book just plain shines. He shows the readers what works and what doesn’t with plenty of examples from popular fiction. The advice feels like he is sitting next to you on the back porch, sharing a beer at the end of day. I’ve read it three times now and always find something new in it that I can use, a new angle to see my own writing from.
This is the one book on the list that even people with no writing aspirations will enjoy, especially if the are fans of Mr. King.
*This post originally appeared on Bookriot.