"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
Reading is crucial for authors and, as Stephen King argues, if you really want to write novels, you have to find the time to read regularly, however tricky that can be in our busy lives! I grab every spare reading moment I can (travelling to work on a train is a good time) and I try to read as widely as possible. For every book you read will in a positive way influence your own work: reading will show you what's possible in creative writing, and give you a sense of what you like and what you don't like.
And as well as reading novels, short stories and poems, there is no shortage of books giving advice to aspiring authors and their quality is highly variable. Some will offer a sure-fire route to becoming a bestselling author – my advice is to give these books a wide swerve (with one honourable exception I will discuss below).
In this post I discuss seven books I found genuinely useful and inspiring – all have helped me on my writing journey. Some will be familiar, some perhaps less so, but they are all worth a look. I won’t claim this list is exhaustive, and not every title will be to everyone’s taste – but at different levels these books all worked for me. I appreciate reading reference books takes valuable time, time you'd much rather spend writing your novel, but I believe these examples are worth the effort.
For ease of reference, I have added links to each book’s Amazon.co.uk pages (other booksellers are available!).
How to write a million – Ansell Dibell, Orson Scott Card and Lewis Turco
This was the very first book I bought on the subject of writing (purchased in Preston, Lancashire where I was a student, many years ago!). Yes, the title of the book is awful and in most circumstances should be enough for you to throw it into the nearest bin, but that would be a mistake. How to write a million is effectively a compilation of three books:
‘Plot’ - Ansell Dibell
‘Character and Viewpoint’ - Orson Scott Card
‘Dialogue’ – Lewis Turco
I first read this book as, in novel-writing terms, an absolute novice. I knew I wanted, needed, to write, but even then I could recognise my first clumsy efforts were awful so decided to seek out some professional advice! What this book gave me were clear examples of how stories and characters are structured and developed, and the examples were ones I was often familiar with, from books such as Watership Down and A Christmas Carol, and films like The Empire Strikes Back. The book was accessible, it explained concepts in a form that I, as a novice, could understand, and in doing so opened up a new seam of understanding for me.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone at the very start of their writing journey – it has been a good companion to me for over twenty years.
The way to write – John Fairfax and John Moat
A slim tome, first published in 1981, but this little book is an invaluable guide to honing your writing style. This book enhanced my understanding of the mechanics of creative writing: rhythm, conciseness, colour, imagery. With a host of examples drawn from poetry, and instructive, inspiring quotes from famous authors, I still find this book useful and dip into it from time to time.
The Writing Book – Kate Grenville
I had just started writing in earnest (mainly short stories) when I stumbled across this book by Australian author Kate Grenville, and it proved a wise purchase. This is very much a workbook, with detailed exercises forming a step-by-step guide to the process of writing fiction. Kate Grenville’s book leads you from the early stages of creating ideas / building characters right through to revision and publishing. This is a serious guide to creative writing, and one that benefits authors who either want to rework a story that have written or who are starting from a blank page.
Hero with a thousand faces – Joseph Campbell
This book certainly is well-known and is as influential in cinema as it is within literature – George Lucas, for example, always acknowledged his interest in and debt to Campbell’s work. Within Hero with a thousand faces, Campbell works mythology from across the work to reveal characteristics and features common to heroes from different cultures and periods, culminating in the hero’s journey concept, the stages that form an archetype of all human myth. Campbell draws on a wide spectrum of figures from folklore and religion (for example, Wotan, Jesus and Apollo) to demonstrate his theories.
It is heavy, dense content, but I find this book fascinating as a writer and as a lover of mythology. Many reject Campbell’s theories; without doubt there are sound arguments against the concept of the hero’s journey – too vague, too male-focused, weakens the depth / texture of the original stories – but I believe he has some compelling ideas and would urge anyone interested in the structure of stories to read his work and then make up their minds as to the worth and applicability of his theories.
The writer’s journey: mythic structure for writers – Christopher Vogler
Vogler’s book is based heavily upon the aforementioned Hero with a thousand faces, and is written mainly for screenwriters. However, there is much here to savour and learn for the novelist too. How much use you find this book will depend on what you think of Campbell’s theories (see above!) but I find The writer’s journey an invaluable tool when first shaping the structure of a story (see here for an earlier blog post on how I planned This Sacred Isle). The book is thoughtfully presented and illustrated, and an enjoyable read.
On Writing: A memoir of the craft – Stephen King
There’s probably not much else to say about this book, other than if you haven’t read it, then really you should! On Writing covers King’s writing experiences, and in doing so he passes on valuable advice to writers, especially about shaping plot and using dialogue. This is not a ‘writing guide’ per se, but it is full of interesting nuggets and hardboiled, hard-won guidance.
Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer
And now for something completely different! Wonderbook is an illustrated creative writing book, aimed mainly (though not exclusively) at writers of the fantastical (SF, Horror and Fantasy authors will find reams of good material to explore here). I first read this book as I was beginning to edit This Sacred Isle, and it helped me to see some different perspectives on my work, especially in terms of narrative design and testing my characters.
The heavily visual approach is innovative and, combined with thorough instruction on key areas such as plotting, structure, characterisation and world-building, forms an original (and entertaining) guide. And as a considerable bonus, Wonderbook also contains articles / interviews with writers such as George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin.
Wonderbook is most helpful for writers at the early / intermediate stages, but I believe any writer would find inspiring and compelling material within this book. And for writers of the fantastical, I would say it is a must-read!
I believe all these books can help authors develop their creative writing skills. Of course, such guides can only complement what you learn through reading other novels, professional feedback / critique and writing practice, but they can have a valuable place in your development and the best ones are an enjoyable read in their own right.
What creative writing books have you read? Got any suggests for other books to help authors? Leave a comment and join the conversation.