OK, so you love to read. You’ve got a sneaking suspicion that you might have a novel inside, and you want to find the best keys to unlock that work. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, however. You’re smart, and you want to hear what the best writers in the world have to say about writing before you dip your toe in the water. So where do you begin?
One perennial classic that never fades with age (and has grown in mystical power due to that age) is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This 80 page mini wonder was first published in 1920, and has been selling real strong since then. Time named it in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books in English. It’s chapters include ‘Elementary rules of Usage’, ‘Elementary Principles of Composition’, ‘A Few Matters of Form’, ‘Words and Expression Commonly Misused’, and ‘An Approach to Style’. Have you ever got that creeping feeling that you’re a little out of your depth when it comes to things like syntax, and grammar. Jump into this short guide and you will emerge with a sense of confidence and style.
Continuing in a somewhat academic vein, How Fiction Works is a much lauded fiction manual by the noted literary critic James Wood. Let Wood explain to you concepts such as ‘Free Indirect Discourse’. This is where, in third person, the narrator’s voice / perspective blends with the protagonist’s. It’s a bedrock technique that is perhaps not intuitive to the fledgling fiction writer and one you want to master right out of the gate. If you’re trying to decide if this one’s for you, it’s full of sentences like this: “In Contre Sainte-beuve, Proust rightly saw that this use of the imperfect tense was Flaubert’s greatest invention.” Enjoy!
Now hold on. I know you’re not a dummy. Dummies don’t write fiction, right? But sometimes having someone who knows what they’re talking about (or thinks they do) trying to explain to you what they believe is going on in the simplest terms possible can be very amusing. There are loads of titles in this series, which are authored by many different people. One reason not to pass over titles like is that they often cover a wide variety of topics, trying to make things like ‘getting published’, and ‘creating compelling characters’ easy and accessible. Even though they position themselves as entry level texts for dummies, they will often dive quite deep into literary theory, from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell. At the very least they are usually fun and easy to navigate.
The final two entries have to go to authors of fiction themselves. The jackpot is when you discover that your favourite author has written a ‘how to’ guide. Hemingway is a hero for so many writers, from his seemingly simple and declarative prose, to his love of freedom and human dignity, his tough-yet-sensitive baffled-but-well-meaning protagonists go toe to toe with fascists and big fish alike. Hemingway never sat down to write a book on writing, but he was a man of letters (you can find his complete letters here) and this book is full of handy aphoristic writing tips that have been lifted from his vast body of writing. Fun fact: when Obama went up against McCain for the US presidency they were asked what their favourite novel was, and both responded For Whom the Bell Tolls: which is my favourite novel too! Check out Hemingway’s collected short stories here.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Which author you turn to from here is a matter of preference. Check out Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book here. Steven King’s On Writing here. And Henry Miller’s On Writing. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is well regarded. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a short and sweet guide that generously provides a candid peek into a writer’s life. It’s hard to know how to summarize this collection of essays: it’s intimate and somehow softly spoken, yet sentence by sentence throws up explosive titbits that require a few moments’ digestion. Example: “The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen.” That was just one sentence … Yum.