There’s an evergreen question that pops up almost daily on social media. It goes something like this:
Do I need to be a reader, if I want to be a writer?
If one could actually have an adult conversation on Twitter without it turning feral, I’d answer this question with another question, and maybe three more after that:
Is your purpose for writing solely self-expression, for example personal journalling? If “yes”, just write and to hell with it.
If the answer to this is “no”, then my supplementary questions are:
How can you understand the genre you’re writing in, if you don’t read it?
Why would you not want to be the best writer you can be?
And, to me most importantly…
If you don’t enjoy reading, why should you expect someone else to read your words?
Maybe humility comes with age, I don’t know, or maybe it’s my family’s blue-collar work ethic. But I will do anything I can, read anything, do the exercises, go to classes, work, work, work to get better. I’ve been writing for years, trying for years to improve my craft, and the thing is, I know how much better I am than I was… and how much further I have to go before I’m anything like satisfied with what I put down on the page. Here are some of the best books I’ve read on my writing voyage, the ones that sit on my desk like supportive friends, watching me like my own personal little cheerleading squad, telling me that “I can do it!”
1. Best books on genre.
I’m starting with a two-for-one here. I’m a romance author, dyed in the wool, and one of the best books I’ve read for understanding the structure of romance that I have recommended time after time to people, is Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (Amazon Kindle, paperback, Audible). Hayes takes you lightly and clearly through the “beats” or plot points a recognised genre story needs to hit. Recently I have moved into romantic comedy, and a great book on this is Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy(Amazon Kindle, paperback). Mernit’s book is intended for screenwriters, but it’s easy to transfer the structure to novels and short stories.
2. Best book on plotting.
GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon (Amazon Kindle, paperback) is a fantastic character-driven plotting resource. Dixon clearly shows how every scene can be driven by the main characters’ inner and outer goals, motivations and conflicts, leading to a storyline that moves forward, and doesn’t stall. It’s an excellent tool for understanding how every scene needs to earn its place.
3. Best book on show-don’t-tell.
Janice Hardy’s Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: And Really Getting It (Amazon Kindle, paperback) really cracked this perennial problem for me. Packed with examples and practice opportunities. A fast, accessible game changer.
4. Best book on editing.
This is my stand-out book on this list that was recommended to me by a successful writer contact, but it’s expensive and not available as an e-book. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (Amazon, paperback) is worth its weight in gold, and there are less expensive, second hand copies available online—I’d happily pay full price again.
5. Best book on characterisation.
The Psychology Workbook for Writers: Tools for Creating Realistic Characters and Conflicts in Fiction by Darian Smith (Amazon Kindle, paperback) is an extremely useful book for building your characters from the ground up. So, so, so much better than these checklists that get you to list your characters’ eye colour and hobbies, Smith presents a range of models for the writer to establish in their mind who their character is, psychologically.
6. Best book on getting (even) better.
Fantasy author Ursula le Guin has written a short book of essays on writing which I revisit regularly. Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (Amazon, paperback) is another masterly little work that I couldn’t find as an e-book. Le Guin states from the opening that “…this is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.” But I mention it here because there will come a stage where you need someone to talk to you about the sound of your writing and “being gorgeous”… and Le Guin writes some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever read. You are learning from a master with this one.
7. And two for the road…
Finally I want to recommend two more books that you will have immediately to hand, without spending any more money. The first is whatever you are reading right now. Whether you are reading in the genre you’re also writing, or consciously avoiding it (I do this while I’m writing, then read in my genre while I’m not) there is always something to learn from reading other writers… a way of thinking, an idea or fact that might bear fruit later, or even something to avoid.
The final, and most important book, if you want to improve your writing, is the one you are working on right now. There’s a scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the monster learns to play the piano, by watching someone else play it, through a window. Well, honestly. No wonder it all ended badly. Don’t be like Boris Karloff. Get writing!
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